Buzzy Gordon knows how to travel–throughout his 35-year career, he has visited more than 80 countries and written for the likes of USA Today, National Geographic, and The Washington Post, as well as blogs like Totally Jewish Travel and Hotel Scoop. Today, Buzzy shares some of his insights on making it in the freelance writing profession and what he has learned along the way.
Buzzy, you’ve been in the travel industry for 35 years. How did you get your start as a freelance writer?
I took off to “see the world” for a year after graduate school — and it ended up turning into five years, with stints of working then setting off again. At first, I wanted mainly to share some of my interesting encounters with some pretty remote Jewish communities, and I had virtually a guaranteed audience, as Jewish media outlets did not often get news or portraits from far-flung places.
Keep in mind that this was the 1970s — practically the stone age not only for global communications, but for writing technology in general. I typed my work on a small manual typewriter, using carbon paper (some of you may have to ask your grandparents what that even is!), had to go to the post office to mail it (with a self-addressed stamped envelope, if I wanted to get rejected pieces back), and wait for weeks for a reply. It would take at least a month, and usually longer, for an article to be published after being submitted. The fax machine was not even invented when I started out! Writers living in the 21st century have no idea how much easier they have it nowadays.
By the way, I still recommend taking off for a year or two at a time, with periods of staying put and working in between travels. There are lot of opportunities for teaching English out there, and organizations like WWOOF (www.wwoof.net). Immersing yourself in a language and culture is a great way to establish a niche, and you’ll learn more in the “university of the world” than you ever did in school (but finish school first!).
What have been the keys to your success, in your opinion?
I think the key to success in most fields of endeavor, not just travel writing, is being professional. In journalism — and travel writers should be plying their craft as journalists — this means primarily getting your facts straight, covering the five W’s, meeting deadlines, and in general being reliable, as well as knowledgeable about your subject matter.
That said, there are a few rules that perhaps pertain more particularly to travel writing. One that I have learned is that is best not to turn down assignments, even if they might not seem appealing. I have forced myself to accept some pretty dreary jobs that I would prefer to have passed on, because I know that editors like to call on people they know will say yes. Once again, it has to do with that reliability factor.
And don’t forget your peers: make friends — and do favors for — fellow writers you meet. They’ll remember you and recommend you for assignments that are down your alley; and, of course, it’s good karma. :)
What do you wish you’d known when you started that you know now?
Frankly, most of the things I wish I’d known earlier have to do more with the zen of traveling, so to speak, than with the specifics of travel writing per se. Learning how to “go with the flow” in the face of misadventures or bad luck, and trying to turn adversity into opportunity, is good advice for anybody who spends a lot of time on the road. This pays extra dividends for the travel writer.
Similarly, meditating is a life skill that is especially helpful to the traveler and travel writer alike. It organizes thoughts and brings flashes of inspiration, in addition to recharging batteries and being a great balancing mechanism. I encourage everyone to practice it at least once daily. Fortunately, it can be done just about anywhere, on buses, planes, airports, etc.
Finally, a life lesson from the legendary basketball coach John Wooden, which I certainly wish I had heard when I was much younger: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” It rarely pays to cut corners in some sort of misguided attempt to save time or effort. For example, learn everything you can about getting to your destination, and then some. It goes without saying that this extends to having back-ups for everything that might need power or get lost or stolen.
How do you see your income mix changing in the next 5 years? 10 years?
You’re presuming I’ll have income to mix! :)
Seriously, though, I’m afraid I am at the twilight of my career, as opposed to the dawn of it. I’m not complaining: at least I am doing something I should be able to continue to do for as long as I am physically able, as opposed to retiring. But I do not know how anyone can predict how the market will shift over the next 1-2 years, let alone 5 or 10. It was not that long ago when it was unheard of for an editor to have the nerve to tell a professional writer: “I can’t pay you, but you’ll get exposure.” And some of the pay scales I’ve been quoted recently verge on working for free.
To try to give you some sort of answer to your question, I suppose I personally will be trying to get more guest speaker gigs. Other than that, I’ll just have to plug away at doing what has worked to a greater or lesser extent all along: networking, and writing pitches as compelling as I can make them.
By the way, here is where I have to tip my hat to Mr. Travel Writing 2.0 himself, Tim Leffel. He is an editor and publisher who has always understood that a writer deserves to be paid, even if the amount may appear to seem symbolic at times. That is one reason I would continue to write for him; I know he would be fair and pay what he can afford.
You’re the author of Frommer’s Jerusalem Day-by-Day Guide (among plenty of other publications). What’s it like being a guidebook author and what advice do you have for aspiring guidebook writers?
Once again, even the guidebook landscape is shifting as we speak, moving from print to online, and from websites to apps. It is still a demanding discipline, requiring rigorous attention to detail; it is the least glamorous genre in the travel writing business, which to begin with was never as glamorous as most people think it is. There is a great deal of satisfaction in steering people right, but I wonder how much demand there will be when everyone seems to heading to TripAdvisor first. I can tell you with certainty — and a tinge of sadness — that we are witnessing the end of an era, as Frommer’s will no longer be publishing more than a handful of updated guides. Regrettably, mine will not be among those few.
You specialize in Jewish communities, gastronomy, culture, luxury travel, and health and wellness. Of these niches, which would you say has been the most important for you? And what is the hardest part about establishing a niche as a freelance writer?
Jewish heritage travel, which gave me my start, will always be important for me. I also believe it — as well as faith-oriented travel in general — is experiencing an upswing, although I can now detect a distinctly ugly side to it: some European countries with the most horrific records of anti-Semitic atrocities are trying to resurrect aspects of Jewish heritage in an unseemly effort to profit from Jewish tourism.
Luxury travel has proven that it is always going to prosper; ironically, even when economic times are bad and leisure travel slumps, the rich always seem to have money to spend. Gastronomy and health and wellness are popular with baby boomers, so I think those are trends that are worth pursuing.
In my opinion, the hardest part about establishing oneself in a niche — or even in general — is the amount of time, energy and savvy one has to invest these days in what I call “marketing after the fact.” It used to be that you submitted your work, and your outlet took care of publicizing it. Now, authors are expected to be partners — or even initiators — in an ever-increasing frenzy of social media follow-up. It’s becoming more of a grind, without necessarily more dollars being generated for the effort. The race may not always go to the most talented writer, but possibly to the one who is willing to jump through more hoops.
You can either look for a niche that you think still needs to be filled, or relax and let your niche find you; it just might, if you stay out there and keep your eyes and ears open. Finally, it’s OK to have more than one niche: it’s unlikely you’ll ever be the sole authoritative source on any one niche, so don’t be afraid to try your hand in a few areas that interest you.
Over the course of a 35-year career that has spanned more than 80 countries, award-winning journalist Buzzy Gordon has been a reporter, editor, and travel writer on five continents. His work has appeared in USA Today (where he was a regular travel columnist), National Geographic Traveler, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, and other leading publications. Buzzy is the author of Frommer’s Jerusalem Day by Day Guide, a contributing editor at Jax Fax Magazine, and a regular contributor to LuxuryLatinAmerica.com and TotallyJewishTravel.com.
Interview conducted in Feb. 2014 by Kristin Mock.
I’m a freelance writer and blogger, but I’m also an editor. The kind of editor that pays people for quality travel stories they write, for a publication that wins awards year after year. So I see things from both sides of the desk more than most. That includes seeing common writing mistakes that are not in the idea, but in the execution.
I just spent the morning editing some music reviews, a couple travel narratives, and a hotel review for a different pub. Here are some problems I ran across that I almost always run across. Before you send something off to an editor who cares enough about quality to pay for it, check your article against this list for matches. Then get rid of them.
Magazine readers like short sentences. Web readers like them even more. I just edited something where three sentences were more than 40 words, one coming in at 62. (It was a whole 5-line paragraph on its own.) In some cases long sentences are fine, necessary even. If you’re writing a book, go to it when that makes sense. Book readers have a different type of attention span. The occasional one in a narrative travel article that’s a “long read” is fine. In most cases, however, find a place to stick in a period. Or two.
Gut check hint: If you have trouble reading it out loud without taking a breath, it’s twice as long as it should be.
I edited something this morning where in around 1,100 words, there were 33 parenthetical phrases. Half were actually in parentheses, the other half set off by dashes (see #5 below). This is hard to read and sounds both schizo and wishy-washy. Expressions like this are fine in moderation, but using them too much just makes you sound spastic. Focus your thoughts and make a point without all the side notes.
Gut check hint: If you’re doing this more than once every two or three paragraphs (and can’t resist sticking in a side note to half your points), then you’re doing it too much.
Fiction writers and script writers talk a lot about tempo in their writing, but travel writers almost never do. Except the great ones. You need to vary the length of your sentences, speed up sometimes, slow down sometimes. Alternate between exposition and dialogue, scene-setting by you and scenes that play out without commentary. The best way to get good at this? Read good books regularly. Then emulate what makes them good.
Gut check hint: Read your article out loud and imagine someone sitting there listening to it. Does it sound flat, monotonous, or gray? Or is there enough variation to keep the listener from tuning out?
I have my wife read almost everything I write for magazines or Perceptive Travel because she was an English major in college and is good at catching the mechanical mistakes I miss. And I miss a lot. We all do. There’s a well-documented problem that writers have trouble seeing their own mistakes. Spell check and grammar check have rectified some of this, but Word won’t catch it when you use the same word four times in one paragraph. When you do catch the duplications, find synonyms or rewrite those sentences to avoid the redundancy.
Gut check hint: If you don’t have a human checker to call on, read what you wrote out loud. Also/and use an online text-to-speech program that will read the document through your computer speakers. It’ll sound like a robot, but a robot’s better than nothing for catching word duplication.
Some writers seem to love dashes as much as they love their pet or their smartphone. I once edited a 2,000 word story that has 42 of them in the original draft. I don’t know what the golden ratio is, but it’s a small fraction of that. Unless there’s extensive dialogue in your article where you’re really quoting speech patterns word for word, an overuse of dashes is clumsy and annoying. This relates somewhat to problem #2 above, but many other times it’s just bad writing.
Gut check hint: Print out your article and circle the dashes, or highlight them on your computer screen. If you’re seeing more than four dashes on a page, you probably need to dial it back. Find a way to say what you need to say with more clarity.
This one is especially rampant in narrative writing drafts I receive, about half of which need to be restructured. For the web especially, if you don’t grab people in the first two paragraphs and then lead them by the hand through your story, they’re gone. There’s something else shiny and fun to click on and your “time on page” has been five seconds. In magazines and newspapers too though, the lead matters more than anything. Start with the drama, then get to the back story. Do that in reverse and you’re dead.
Spud Hilton of the San Francisco Chronicle teaches writing classes that focus a lot on structure and he gave a talk a couple years ago at TBEX on good writing. I liked his analogy so I’m paraphrasing it here. “Think of how a James Bond movie works. First you’ve got some kind of exciting chase, a fight, explosions. You’re hooked. You can’t wait to see what happens next! Then you find about about the problem, what the evil villain is up to. Then James goes and saves the day, having some fun interludes and action sequences along the way. There’s a climax, then a nice wrap-up that ties it all up before the credits roll..”
It’s a tale as old as time, and it works. It doesn’t just work—we expect it. Nearly every great movie you can think of starts with something exciting, intriguing, or wondrous. Something pulls you in. If it doesn’t, the film is probably going to fail. The same goes for your narrative article. Give us a reason to keep reading or we’re gone.
Gut check hint: Have a brutally honest friend read the first two paragraphs of your story and then ask that person, “How badly do you want to read the rest of this?” Their body language will probably tell you the answer before they even open their mouth.
David Lee launched Travel Blog Success in 2010, a membership-based community where he helps educate travelers on how to start and promote their own blogs. David also runs Gobackpacking.com, a popular travel blog for backpackers and independent travelers. His success in the travel industry is both admirable and exciting, as he has learned how to use digital media and social media marketing to reach a large and diverse audience. Today, he shares some of those secrets with us. Enjoy!
Your GoBackpacking.com is one of the most successful ones out there in what has become a ridiculously crowded field of long-term budget travel blogs. How have you built up such a sizable audience and kept ahead of most of the pack?
Longevity and consistency are the two biggest factors. I got my toes wet with travel writing for an online audience as far back as 1998, when I transcribed a handwritten journal from my first backpacking trip onto a Geocities website (in HTML, no less). People were reading the whole thing, and asking me questions, so I decided to buy a domain in early 1999 and continue adding content.
But in 2001, I stopped working on the site due to the lack of easy-to-use software, and my own lack of new travel experiences. I dusted it off in late 2006, and once I discovered WordPress, began learning everything I could about blogging in advance of a trip around the world. During 14 months of continuous travel, my goal was to provide a new blog post every day. There weren’t many travel blogs on their own domain in 2007-2008, let alone ones providing fresh content on a daily basis from over a dozen different countries. When my trip came to an end in 2009, I made the decision to open the blog up to contributors, which allowed me to publish content related to many more countries than I’d experienced, as well as to present female perspectives on budget travel. It was a strategic decision to broaden Go Backpacking’s appeal by making it about more than my own experiences and beliefs.
In 2011, I transitioned to paid contributors, both of whom have been writing for my blogs for several years.
What was your history before you started traveling and blogging and how did you take it from a hobby to a real business?
During my 20s, I worked in customer service management for two start-ups, a dot com and a healthcare company. I was lucky that both companies allowed for 3-4 weeks of vacation per year, but it still didn’t seem like enough when I was meeting backpackers on multi-month, or year long trips around the world.
I felt inspired by the idea of taking one long trip around the world, and worked for five years to make it happen. I began the Go Backpacking blog 11 months before my departure date, and spent most of my free time after work each day (and on the weekends), reading everything I could about blogging. Back then, there was far less information available on the topic, nor was social media the force it is today.
The investment in time before my trip paid off as I was able to focus on generating content as I traveled, instead of learning WordPress or how to make money.
As the years passed, I was making more and more money through various forms of advertising and affiliate marketing, as well as accepting donations from readers. The trend was heading in the right direction, and I knew that if I could buy myself enough time, I’d be able to earn enough money to support myself living in Medellin, Colombia.
In 2010, to supplement the money earned from advertisers, I launched Travel Blog Success, a membership-based community where I would help educate travelers on how to start and promote their own blogs. By mid-2010, I was earning my goal of $3,000 per month, and moved to Medellin.
From 2011-2012, I did a lot of traveling, and didn’t continue to diversify my income streams. As a result, my annual income as a blogger decreased for the first time in 2013. It was a wake up call that I needed to begin investing time and energy into developing new products, instead of depending on advertisers.
When you moved to Medellin you started sharing your knowledge about the city on Medellin Living. Did you expect it to also become a success or was that a happy surprise?
I began the Medellin Living blog within a week of arriving in the city, because nothing like it existed in 2009. There were a handful of poorly designed sites with ads plastered on them, but based on my experience with Go Backpacking, I knew I could do better. My gut instincts also told me Medellin was far too beautiful to remain a secret much longer.
I knew that if I began the blog and established it and myself as an authority on travel to Medellin, it might take a year or two for it to pay dividends, but that the potential was there to earn money. Until then, I considered it my passion project.
In 2013, I self-published my Medellin Travel Guide, and started to become more proactive about building promoting a handful of Medellin-specific affiliate products.
I know you have a travel guide e-book for the city that you’re in the course of updating. From that experience, what advice would you offer to someone else looking to self-publish and launch a destination e-book for their city?
Once you decide to write your own e-book, don’t stop or give up until it’s published. Try not to let perfectionism slow you down. Leave your second guessing for after you’ve written the first draft, otherwise it’ll slow your progress down to a crawl.
I also recommend investing in a professional editor to clean up punctuation, grammar, and spelling mistakes at a minimum, if not offer feedback on content and organization. The other two expenses are paying for a nicely designed cover, and someone to format the e-book.
I spent $1,350 to create the Medellin Travel Guide, which might sound like a lot, but I made it all back within the first five months it was on sale. If I had a more aggressive marketing campaign, it would’ve been even faster.
My first freelance writing assignment was the result of Medellin Living. An Editor for AskMen.com contacted me in 2009. They were doing a special on best cities to live in around the world, and I was tapped to write about Medellin. Though they didn’t ultimately use Medellin in their list, they did publish the article, and that lead to me writing two additional articles for their site. Over the years, a few other paid projects have come my way, but I do very little freelance writing. When writing for others, whether a paid assignment or the occasional guest post, I put a lot of pressure on myself. It can feel torturous at times, so if I’m going to struggle, I prefer the story be published on one of my blogs instead.
What advice would you give to travel blogger #8,463 just starting out right now?
Make sure you’re passionate about your niche. I’m entering my eighth year of blogging about travel, and I’d never have lasted this long if it weren’t a topic that could inspire me, on an almost daily basis, to write.
Everything else, including money, is secondary. On the other hand, if you do begin a blog on a topic you’re passionate about, it can lead to a whole new career and life.
David Lee is the Editor and founder of two popular travel blogs, Go Backpacking and Medellin Living. He also co-founded Travel Blog Success, a community to help travelers build better blogs. When he’s not writing, he enjoys salsa dancing and trying new restaurants. David is based in Medellin, Colombia.
Last night I participated in a webinar that’s part of Travel Blog Success,which I’ll get to at the end. There were quite a few questions about breaking into freelancing, from bloggers who have only ever written for their own site. If you’ve never written a paid article for someone else, it’s an intimidating mountain to face and it’s easy to get frustrated. Since I’ve been freelancing for 20 years now and am also an editor who hires writers and pays them, here are my tips on breaking in and getting repeat business.
A remembered writer will always get work before a stranger. So take advantage of any chance to meet and talk with editors face to face, even if the person is editor of a publication or section that has nothing to do with what you write about. She might change jobs next month or might be asked for a recommendation from a colleague. Or you might come up with an idea that fits later. So if you’re at a conference and there are 40 tables of people with a handful of pens to give away and press trips to talk about, you may be tempted to spend all your time at those tables. But are there more important people you could be talking to who can give you paid work instead of free travel? At some point you need to make the transition from free stuff to bankable dollars. You probably won’t get there by having speed-dating sessions with tourism reps.
You can also build good relationships by getting referrals from colleagues or other editors. Or by doing a good job and getting hired again. But nothing beats face to face meetings, formal or informal. If you’re in New York or London, you’ll get loads of opportunities to do this regularly. It almost makes up for your inflated living expenses. But if you live somewhere far cheaper, take a bit of the savings and invest it in going to conferences. They can pay huge dividends.
The mistake that most rookie writers make is to come up with an article idea and blast it out to 20 or 30 editors, hoping one will say yes. This rarely works and it’s the main reason editors ignore so many queries without replying. It’s very clear that the person sending the e-mail hasn’t tailored the query to that publication and probably totally missed the mark. That will immediately be deleted and your second query may not even be opened.
Ideas are your currency as a freelancer and you need to come up with ones that fit the publication. It’s not about what you want to write: it’s about what they already publish. Send them an idea that’s perfect for a specific section and it might actually get read by a decision maker. Which leads us to…
You should study and dissect any publication you are going to query before you sit down and write an e-mail. Ideally they have their writers guidelines posted and they make it easy for you. If not you may have to get them from a paid source like MediaBistro’s Avant Guild or the Wooden Horse database. Or keep an eye out through postings on Writer’s Weekly or FreelanceWriting.com.
For every great query I get at Perceptive Travel there are 20 that are a total waste of time. And that site already filters out a lot of people by saying “book authors only.” I can only imagine what the deluge is like at big magazines that pay $1 a word or more.
If an editor does say yes to your idea and you’ve got a deadline and pay rate in writing, drop everything and make that article the best it can possibly be. Treat this job like what it really is: an audition. If you follow all instructions to the letter, return all the forms you’re asked for quickly, and hand in that perfectly matched article on time (or better yet, early), you’ve now got a very good chance of getting more work. Don’t get huffy about edits. Don’t moan that your gorgeous prose “doesn’t sound like you” after it’s been chopped up. Don’t complain when you’re asked to provide fact-checking sources or go look up a bunch of phone numbers. Smile, say okay, and get it done pronto.
One 100K+ print publication I write for assigns a whole year’s worth of articles in advance. They send out an editorial schedule to all their regular writers. We each tell them which articles we’d like to do in the coming year from that list. The editor decides and has them all assigned before Christmas. An outsider has no chance. The same thing happens with many of the “hot list” and “it list” sections of major magazines. The people who get paid to go stay in those fancy hotels night after night have delivered in the past, so they’re hired to deliver again. Good writing matters, but show you’re dependable and have a good work ethic: editors care far more about that than anything.
Get good advice
The last thing is, seek out good writing advice on a regular basis. If you don’t have Travel Writing 2.0, start there, then sign up for the free newsletter by hitting that button above and putting in your vitals. I said I’d link to the Travel Blog Success site, so go check that out if your stymied as to how to make real money from your efforts and need a crash course. It’s run by David Lee of GoBackpacking (who will be interviewed here next week) and Michael Tieso of Art of Adventuring (who we’ll get to later).
Any hard-won advice you have to share on freelance writing success? Put it in the comments below.
T.W. Anderson is the Editor-in-Chief of Marginal Boundaries, a travel blog focused on independent immersion travel. Having traveled full-time since 2008, he has learned quite a lot about taking the idea of being a writer and making it a reality. In our interview today, T.W. talks about the hard work it takes to get a travel blog off the ground, gives some tough advice to new bloggers, and offers some tips for making a blog into a brand. Enjoy!
T.W., you’re the Editor-in-Chief for the travel blog Marginal Boundaries, a site that generates more than 1 million page views per month between all of your social media channels and the site itself. Tell us how you started and how you got your blog to where it is now.
I subscribe to the “results, not luck” side of things.
There’s a brilliant quote by Peter Dinklage I came across recently where he said, “I hate that word – ‘lucky’. It cheapens a lot of hard work. Living in an apartment without any heat and paying for dinner with dimes. I didn’t think I felt myself lucky back then. Doing plays for 50 bucks and trying to be true to myself as an artist and turning down commercials where they wanted a leprechaun. Saying I was lucky negates the hard work I put in and spits on the guy who’s freezing his ass off back in Brooklyn. So I won’t say I’m lucky. I’m fortunate enough to find or attract very talented people. For some reason I found them, and they found me.”
One of the main components that most people lack when it comes to getting their brand off the ground is actually buckling down and working at it. A brand – and the blog that goes along with it – is a business. That means work. And while it’s a passion that I love with all of my heart and it rarely feels like I’m working, I put in far more hours with my own company than I ever did when I was working anywhere else.
Four hour work weeks? Please. That’s a myth perpetuated by marketing geniuses in North America to tap into the instant gratification generation of hipsters who want first place medals for simply existing. The reality is that if you want to earn first place you have to be prepared to put everything on the line. Sacrifice, dedicate, work, work, work and work some more. Olympian effort, not minimalism.
I got started with this particular project after I had moved to Mexico from Bulgaria. I’d been freelancing full time for about four years by that point and traveling throughout Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, but I hadn’t ever considered travel blogging until I was contracted to write a Cancun guide. From there, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine and realized that there was this actual world of bloggers who traveled and wrote about their travels for a living.
I’ve been self-employed since 2001, so I already knew the “research and planning and prep” aspect of brand management. I spent almost a full year (2011) writing the first three guidebooks for Sofia, Bogota and Cancun, as well as generating a slew of blog content at the website and living on-location in Colombia doing research for that guide, before I even considered taking it public.
During that time I was spending an easy four hours a day researching other bloggers, seeing what they were doing, buying their products, reading their books, subscribing to their newsletters, their RSS feeds, subscribing to forums, paying for private subscriptions…basically reading, reading and reading some more. Market research and analysis. All while continuing to write freelance for a living and produce content for the Marginal Boundaries platform.
When I first officially “launched” the brand just before Christmas of 2011, it was a soft-launch for friends and family. I then spent a few months writing The Expat Guidebook, which went on to become our flagship eBook when it launched in early 2012 and I then started the social media campaign. Since then it’s just been a steady grind from the bottom working my way up. I still read, subscribe and pay for other people’s products, on a regular basis. I follow the “someone else can always do it better than you” belief structure, which basically means I don’t believe that even though I’ve “figured it out” there aren’t still things I can learn. I’m always learning. Every day. There are hundreds of brilliant bloggers out there, and they all have things they can teach me.
How was your income changed over the past few years and how do you expect it to change in the next 5 years?
It’s been a steady rise. Something I think most people fail to realize, however, is that everyone starts at the bottom. There is this myth (going back to the four hour work week) that travel bloggers can make tens of thousands of dollars right out of the gate while sipping mojitos with their toes in the sand, perpetuated by marketing gurus in North America to sell people on the idea of “minimal effort, maximum results”.
That’s crap. I was making 80k a year working in construction before I made the transition to live abroad, and that was after 15 years of working in the industry. I started off sweeping floors and throwing out trash for 5 bucks an hour when I was 15, and before that I worked for free as a grunt for my old man, grandfather and uncles, from the time I was seven years old. When I first started working as a writer, I came in with zero experience, no college education, and I don’t even have a high school diploma. It was hell trying to land writing gigs those first six months. Lots of low-paying gigs to earn my way up…the equivalent of sweeping floors for 5 bucks an hour.
When the work finally started coming in, I was only doing about $500 to $1,000 per month in late 2008. Enough to “live” while I was based out of Sofia, Bulgaria, and a little bit for extra fun and exploration. From there, it was a lot of hard work and dedication and continual climbing, and as a general rule I saw an increase of about a hundred dollars extra per month until I hit 2010 where I was generating 4k – 6k per month freelancing. Now, I generate 3k to 5k per month on normal months through Marginal Boundaries, which has basically been running full-time for two years as of this writing. It’s less than what I made freelancing or working in construction, but I’m only in the third year of the blog (2014). That’s a combination of book sales, social media clients, advertising, consulting, speaking gigs, teaching classes and the occasional contract. During our brand boot camp months we pull in over 8k per month on the gross end. Right now I’m on a mission to break 10k per month by the end of 2015 purely with the travel brand, so we’ll see how that goes.
You started traveling in 1999 and have been traveling full-time since 2008. How did you make that happen and how can others follow in your footsteps?
Discipline. Seriously. The whole “throw my stuff in a backpack and just take off to see the world” is complete malarkey…unless you like sleeping in hostels with bad WiFi, semen-stained sheets, drunk hippies humping at three in the morning in the bed next to you (or above you), cold-water showers and living on ramen-noodles and street food for a dollar a day. And eventually running out of money because you haven’t planned, budgeted or set yourself up with an ongoing income source.
When I first started traveling it was during breaks between construction gigs. I’d take off for weeks at a time, and then weeks turned into months. Around 2004 I was working four to six months and then taking off for two to three months to explore Bulgaria and the surrounding region. And I never went without a plan. I would work hard for a few months, wait for a break in the schedule, research in my spare time, then take off when I had the chance.
If you really want to travel like a pro, that means planning in advance. Researching destinations, reading other blogs and their guidebooks, finding the best accommodations through personal recommendations from friends, sending out proposals for house-sitting gigs and press trip accommodations, negotiating long-term apartment rentals that you can use as a base of operations while you explore the surrounding region, making sure there is the connectivity you need, the weather you want, the medical care you might need if you have health problems…there is so much that goes into planning that many people take for granted.
At least from my point of view. I’m not a backpacker or budget traveler who just goes hops on a plane. I like good food, good wine, connectivity and modern infrastructure. I run a functioning business, which means I need a certain level of amenities. I’ll get in the mud and muck with the best of them when I’m on a week-long trek into the jungle with pack mules and machete-wielding guides, but when it comes to the business of travel blogging…it’s a business. That means being professional about it, not just winging it on a whim and a prayer with your backpack and your camera and a head full of fanciful tales of world adventure.
What’s your typical day look like?
I easily put in 80 hours a week with Marginal Boundaries. And it’s a non-stop roller-coaster blast. But was it easy getting to where we are today? Absolutely not. I keep a fairly strict routine: up at 6 a.m. most mornings, and I’m in front of the computer until about 11 a.m. answering emails, drafting and sending out proposals, blogging, producing new content, editing videos, sorting through photos, doing the morning social media routine, working out, having breakfast and coffee. Then it’s out the door for photo shoots, film work, interviews and street-pounding/tours/exploration. Cristina and I are usually out and about from around 10 or 11 in the morning until around 4 or 5 as a general rule on excursion days. Once we are back in the house, I do some more social media work and then spend the evening hours uploading photos and YouTube videos. I do most of my research and reading at night while things are uploading, so from around 4 or 5 until around 8 is when I’m going through other blogs, reading books, watching YouTube videos, as well as gathering emails and contact information for proposals. Consultations, Skype calls, interviews and the like are scheduled on an as-needed basis and are slotted in accordingly.
It’s not the same every day, but that’s the general schedule. I also have an assistant who handles part of my social media load as well as general website development and updates plus graphic design for our press kits and the like, plus he handles infographics and general research for me, as well as little things that I might be too busy to handle with the work load.
If we have time in the evenings we’ll go out and walk or explore, but most nights we settle in to watch shows. We follow a lot of series and watch them in the evening hours after “work” is done, and usually are in bed by 11 or midnight. As a general rule, every day is a 12 to 15 hour day, 365 days a year.
What tips do you have for new bloggers or freelancers who are trying to make a decent living in the travel industry?
Passive income is a myth. At least in your first couple years getting going. Think of it like an actor getting ready for a moving role: they’ll spend four to six hours a day, seven days a week, for six to eight months, getting in shape at the gym, taking fencing classes, learning how to ride a horse, dieting and the like.
Then, when it’s time to shoot, they go into maintenance mode; an hour a day of exercise and then the shoot itself. For bloggers, that’s the “passive income” that they all fantasize about. And while passive income is a reality, it’s not as easy as the sham of working a mere four hours per week while sipping mojitos on the beach. You will spend the vast majority of your time actively working. Writing blog posts. Film shoots. Interviews. Hiking trips. Trekking. Chicken busses through the jungle. Editing blog posts, photos, videos, uploading, doing your social media, writing the next eBook, working on a contract for a client. And, most importantly, proposals, proposals, proposals and more proposals.
Sponsored travel? Largely a myth until you’ve spent a couple of years building up your traffic and your following until you have enough to generate interest from companies. It’s like any other business: it takes time to build up. And while you can earn free trips, free food, free tours and the like…once again, it’s a full-time job lining up those sponsors and sending out the proposals and the press kits to earn the attention of the companies you are trying to woo. Until you’ve been in the game for a few years putting in your time and learning the ropes, you aren’t going to have clients and sponsors knocking on your door begging to work with you. Why would they? You are just another in a long line of travel bloggers who are all doing the same thing: writing about destinations and shooting them on film and camera. What sets you apart?
Which is where a niche comes in handy. It’s not necessary, but it can help you stand apart from the rest of the competition. Because we are all of us competing. Competing for traffic, for book sales, for sponsorships and compensation. And while I fully believe in coworking and mutually beneficial working relationships, it still comes down to you or me when I’m looking for a sponsorship…and you can bet your boots I’m looking to earn it for me, not for you, at the end of the day.
That being said, I’m a huge believer in coworking and networking, not capitalism (i.e. everyone else is my competition, stab anyone in the back to get a gig, screw working with others, climb over the corpses to reach the top, that type of attitude). Affiliations, working together with your so-called competition for book sales, speaking engagements, and the like…a cord is strongest when it is made up of many strands. And 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing, so always look for opportunities to work together with your fellow bloggers and writers on projects as opposed to thinking of them purely as competition.
Except when it comes to sponsorships: wink, wink.
Also, understand that professional blogging – that is, blogging for a living, for profit – is not a part-time job or something you can do in your spare time. It is a full-time job. If you want to run a part-time hobby blog where you post about your travels while you earn income from freelancing, that’s fine…but understand there is a huge difference between hobby bloggers and professional bloggers. One is making a living with their blog, and the other isn’t.
It takes at least a year – if not two or three – of full-time, ball-busting hours to get a blog to the point where it is generating a livable income. Unless you have money at your disposal and can pay for a publicity campaign with a high-end organization and buy your way in. Which is totally possible and absolutely viable. But if you are bootstrapping it on your own…be prepared to spend at least two years working your way up before you see an ROI.
And finally, understand that content marketing and advertising are part of building a business and a profitable blog. Just as much as a restaurant owner should be prepared to put 25-30k on the line to build a 100k a year business, you need to be ready and willing to put an appropriate amount of money into investing in your business to build it into reality.
Everything you do in that first year or three will be coming out of your pocket. Plane tickets, accommodations out of your own pocket, food costs, adventure tour costs, camera gear, website hosting, graphic design, content creation and, most important of all, content marketing and advertising costs.
You’re currently producing the Life on the Road – The Business of Travel Blogging series for International Travel Writers. What’s that process been like for you? How else do you diversity your time and talents?
Honestly, it’s been a blast. I was already producing content at my own blog on the business side of blogging, so when the opportunity came along I said sure. Plus I’ve known Carolynne for a while and was already blogging for her throughout 2013 with cultural immersion pieces for Sofia, Bulgaria and Cancun, Mexico, so it was just a natural progression of our working relationship.
The process started off as a 12-part series, but then evolved from my own end into the next book we are producing through Marginal Boundaries. It’s coming out in March of 2014. The 12 episodes and articles are the foundation layer, but the book itself has expanded content plus YouTube episodes and additional chapters that are unique to the book itself. I’m having fun doing it because I’m shooting most of the episodes on location while we are out and about producing Viajes Con Cristina episodes here in the Riviera Maya, which is a Spanish-language YouTube series we have featuring my wife and partner, Cristina Barrios.
We just shot an accommodation-hunting episode yesterday, actually, while on location in Playa del Carmen, covering the behind-the-scenes aspects of living a life on the road; that’s a chapter which isn’t being produced for International Travel Writers, but will be included in the book version.
It’s also being translated into Spanish for the Latin market as well, and it’s tied into our Innovator program, which is a private, subscription-based newsletter for our premium content where we produce twice-weekly newsletters, a once-a-week YouTube video, and a once-a-month webinar where we have other bloggers and professionals come in and guest speak with our subscribers. There’s also a Kickstarter campaign coming out later in 2014 related to the Innovator and Life on the Road projects, but that’s under wraps for now J
Above and beyond that, I’ve been presenting on social media and blogging throughout the Riviera Maya throughout 2013, in Spanish and in English. We had half a dozen presentations in October. I taught a content marketing and blogging course in Playa del Carmen in November and December of 2013 as well, and then on January 28th I’m the keynote speaker for the Last Tuesday event here in Playa del Carmen talking about the myths and facts of social media for businesses. I also manage social media campaigns for clients around the world, consult with a number of other brands and help them build their businesses up, work with clients to advertise their travel-related services and products through the Marginal Boundaries brand and social media channels, and I’m really keen on stepping up my game as far as YouTube content goes. I’m still fairly amateur in that department even though we shoot a lot, and I’m looking to increase production throughout 2014.
At the end of the day, I consider myself blessed to be able to pursue my passions in life: travel and writing. It’s all about creating your own destiny rather than be a slave to a corporation or The Matrix or society or “The System”, whatever you want to call a life living within someone else’s version of reality. I feel complete and I’m the one in the driver’s seat. For me, that’s all that really matters.
T.W. Anderson is the editor-in-chief and founder of Marginal Boundaries, a travel and lifestyle brand. He is the author of Beyond Borders – The Social Revolution, The Expat Guidebook, and Life on the Road – The Business of Travel Blogging. He is a full-time traveler who has been on the road since January of 2008.
Interview conducted in January, 2014 by Kristin Mock.