What’s going to make you a successful travel writer or blogger in 2015?
I’ll answer that question in more detail when I put out an updated second edition of Travel Writing 2.0 mid-year, but in the meantime here’s a quick index card version.
Kristin and I have interviewed a few dozen more writers and bloggers this past year so we have their wisdom to start with, and we see the patterns and the themes that keep coming up. I encourage you to spend some time in the archives to really read and absorb. I’ve also spent time with probably close to 100 travel writers and bloggers this past year at two TBEX conferences, three other conferences, and some group press trips. I see who is successful, who is not, and the why of both.
The big reason that I feel like I know what I’m talking about though is that my cash flow is looking pretty good these days. Living in Mexico helps, for sure, but I will likely be past the $100K mark for the year when I tally up earnings at tax time. That makes it possible to actually support a family with this gig and put some money away. Those of us who are doing that as the main bread winner are a rare breed it seems.
If you’re serious about becoming a six-figure writer, blogger, or web publisher, there’s no short cut to success. Here’s the path though, with a few maxims to heed:
“I’m a writer, not a salesperson,” says the poor travel writer who is always traveling but always broke. Sorry, but you can’t be one without being the other—not if you ever hope to make more than a pittance.
If you’re a freelancer, you need to be pitching new story ideas regularly, often to people you’ve never met. (In sales, this is dubbed a “cold call.”) If you’re a blogger, you’ll never make anything beyond three figures if you’re relying on passive sales methods where you just paste in some code and hope for the best. You need to strike deals, form alliances, convince partners to spend money with you. That requires things like pitches, presentations, negotiations—in other words, sales. If you’re an author, you either need to sell to an agent/publisher or you need to sell to a tribe of followers.
If we’re not working for a corporation and getting a salary just for showing up, we’re salespeople. Embrace that and you’ve got a shot at success. If you think that’s odd or icky, go get this book: To Sell is Human.
Those who sit around waiting for things to fall in their laps generally don’t do very well. Bloggers who completely rely on passive income methods (Adsense, network ads, affiliate sales) are usually not going to make enough to pay a mortgage and put away money for retirement. They’ll be constantly just getting by instead of getting ahead.
Hustlers send invoices. They ask for orders. They pitch deals. They create products that people pay for. They know that if it’s a real job or business, that means asking for money. Otherwise that’s called a hobby.
Ask me which writers I like working with the best as editor of multiple websites and group blogs, and I’ll tell you it’s the ones I know I can depend on every time. They meet deadlines. They hand things in already formatted correctly. The links in their blog posts work because they’ve checked them. They don’t give me excuses about why their photos are crappy. They don’t make the same stupid mistakes a half dozen times after being corrected twice.
Sure, I love a brilliant bit of prose as much as the next guy and since Perceptive Travel is a narrative publication, I want great travel stories, not just so-so ones. If that brilliant writer is a pain in the ass who can’t get the basics right, however, I’ll gladly pass on the potential award winner and go with someone who is easier to work with. Ask 100 editors out there and probably 95 of them will tell you the same thing. Do what you said you’ll do, in the manner the boss wants you to do it, and success will follow. It’s not really that complicated.
If you’re a blogger, it’s a given these days that you can string sentences together, avoid typos, and take good photos. It’s also a given that you will deliver what you promise to PR people, your readers, and people who buy what you sell. That’s the starting point, not some lofty goal.
Your angle and your ideas are your main currencies in the freelance writing world. Increasingly they’re the secret sauce in what makes one travel blogger stand out over another. This is a very crowded field with no real barriers to entry. Each TBEX conference has anywhere from 500 to 800 travel bloggers attending. And that’s just the ones willing to invest the time and money to come!
If you’re a freelancer pitching the same ho-hum stories we’ve already seen a hundred times, you’ll get a lot of ignored or rejected queries. If you’re yet another blogger writing about the experiences of you traveling around the world, yaawwwwnnnn. Give us a unique angle, a niche that you can own, a point of view we haven’t see before. Be different and be memorable.
You’ll hear a lot of entrepreneurs and success coaches pound home the word “focus,” that you should concentrate on one thing and do it really well. OK, fine if your goal is to launch a new product or put out an app that’s going to go viral. If you’re a writer though, throw that advice out the window because focus is overrated. As a freelancer, blogger, author, or (preferably) all three, you can’t rely on one thing to pay the bills and get ahead. You need to be constantly tweaking, trying, testing, and pitching to cobble together enough streams to add up to a nice income. Unless you go get a cubicle job with a salary—which comes with its own set of problems—you need a portfolio or joblets that are going to keep the cash flow going.
But hey, that’s not a bad thing. I’ve been reading this heady, philosophical, and intense book pictured here, Antifragile, where in one chapter the author celebrates the life of a freelancer and the self-employed. Corporate jobs are fragile, but these are the opposite. They can actually benefit from upheaval and chaos. Sure, you might have a terrible month now and then, but you’ll have others that make up for it. When the corporate person loses that editor’s job, which happens every week, their income drops close to zero. (And opportunities open up there for freelancers/contractors.) When you lose one gig, you just go get another gig. It’s a roller coaster, but your income doesn’t drop to zero unless you’ve made a very bad career choice. Your future is in your own hands, not someone else’s.
I put this slide below in my TBEX Europe presentation on productivity for bloggers. Over and over again, I see that the writers who struggle the most are the ones that are the cheapest when it comes to their own business. They don’t pay for that premium theme, that software service, that graphic artist, or that web design expert. They try to be a superhero and do everything themselves, even though that brings their hourly income from where it could be down to barely above minimum wage.
If your time is worth $20 or more an hour, which is pretty much needs to be if you’re living in a developed country with high expenses, then you shouldn’t spend your time on things you could farm out for less. There are experts around the globe who are more than willing to take on those tasks for a fraction of what you should be earning as a content creator. Part with some of your hard-earned money to invest in your business and you’ll almost surely earn more this year as a result. If you want a jaw-dropping look at why you shouldn’t be spending time figuring out how to change hosts, install a new blog theme, convert your e-book for Kindle, or design a logo, surf around Fiverr.com for ten minutes. Follow this link and get a free $5 gig on me!
How many books did you buy and read last year? How many self-improvement/knowledge gaining articles or reports did you read? How many conferences or courses did you attend?
Now, compare that to how much time you spent farting around on virtual water cooler platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Are you really spending your time learning and getting better, or are you just coasting along hoping your luck will turn? Here’s a clue: having 5,000 more social media followers is not going to double your income. Getting advice from people who are already earning six figures will.
So start here: sign up for the free Travel Writing Success Newsletter
Let’s rock the year!
Kristen Gill is an adventure travel writer who believes in diversifying portfolios and creating niche markets in order to be successful. A journalist who has been featured on places like NPR, she recently launched her own company, Kristen Gill Media, which provides storytelling services for businesses. In our interview today, she talks to us about managing various projects, breaking into the business, and what’s in store for her next. Enjoy!
Tell us how you got into writing and photography in the first place and what the first publications were that published your pieces.
I was an English Literature and Humanities double major in college, so was always writing papers. Once out of college, I continued writing, first for a real estate investment company in Chicago, then writing and articles press releases for The Irish American Cultural Institute in New York, some of which were published in the New York Times. When I moved to Seattle, I started doing technical writing for some of the big tech firms like Microsoft, and also started writing for blogs in the early days of blogging.
Photography was always a passion of mine. I took my first photography class in high school using my grandfather’s old Pentax. I was one of the only girls in the class. I loved learning about the light room techniques and seeing my photos literally coming to life. After college I studied photojournalism and was lucky enough to do several workshops with Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, whose (sometimes harsh) critique’s really helped me get to the next level.
I met you through the Adventure Travel Trade Association and you’ve been involved with them on multiple projects. What led to that association originally and why are you drawn to writing about adventure experiences?
I met Shannon Stowell, President of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, at a dinner promoting the wild and unexplored areas of China. He asked if I was going to attend the Adventure Travel World Summit, which I had never heard of before, and I said, “Next year!” I followed through, and 11 months later I attended the Summit for the first time. I was blown away by the quality of the people I met, the relationships I forged, and I felt like I had truly found “my tribe”. These people wanted adventure and a different kind of a life, and weren’t afraid to create businesses around doing just that. I knew that these were the people I wanted to work with in the future. In a way, that first Summit truly changed me (I have since been to four more – equally outstanding).
When I came home, I left my boyfriend, threw my stuff into storage, and took off for distant lands (in this case, my first trip to Africa) with no true direction of where my life was headed. I only wanted to follow my passion without worrying what anybody else thought of it, and to see where it would lead me. Back then it felt scary to enter into the unknown. But, now that I have a solid foundation of like-minded friends and colleagues in the industry that I can reach out to for support, I embrace it. Hey, I met you that way! Thank you, ATTA!
Specifically I’m drawn to documenting adventure experiences because it’s usually exciting and transformative, and it also combines all of the positive elements of travel, such as enjoying nature and the outdoors, challenging oneself, caring about the environment, and learning about new cultures. It’s the way I like to travel and the way I would want all of my friends and family to see the world. I am a founding member of the “Adventure Angels”, and our mission is to inspire others to travel, to push themselves both mentally and physically, to provide support and encouragement, to open their hearts and minds, and to enjoy the heck out of it!
I know from our chats that we both believe in having multiple streams of income going at all times in order to make a decent living financially. Where do your streams come from these days?
These days I write about travel, technology, and business trends at the corporate level, I do occasional grant writing for non-profit organizations, I write and edit technical documentation for the tech industry, and have also just recently served as editor on a colleague’s upcoming travel book. I sell my photography to newspapers, magazines, and businesses, and even have the odd photography exhibit here and there where I sell my work as fine art.
If you were advising a writer just starting out on how to make a real living typing words on a screen or taking photographs for money, what advice would you give?
Just like your investments, you need to diversify! You never know when a certain magazine you contribute to might go belly-up, or when the organization you write for undergoes funding changes and your job no longer exists. Know the value of your writing, find out who is paying (sometimes it can be from unusual sources), understand the market value of what you are providing, and say NO to unpaid work.
Take time to hone your skill. Take a few classes. Write all the time. Photograph regularly, pick up your own style, and learn the difficult task of editing your work. All of these things take a LOT of time, so you’d better love doing it!
You’re one of the few people I know who’s been featured on NPR, talking about Ireland for The World. How did that come about?
Well, first of all, I love that show, and one day I was listening and they asked about summer plans. I sent them a pitch (my first ever to them), and the following day while I was riding my bike to my local coffee shop, I heard my phone ringing. I pulled over, answered, and had a funny conversation with the editor, bike still between my legs. They were intrigued with my standup paddling (SUP) pitch, and especially SUPing in Ireland. I guess you never know what will pique someone’s interest! NPR did a more formal interview a couple days later, and then edited it down quite a bit, but I was pleased with the result. Any time I get to talk about standup paddle boarding and Ireland, I’m happy!
What does the future hold for you? What projects are next on the horizon?
I’m working on more in-depth story projects with several athletes this year, writing and documenting their struggles, triumphs, and defeats. I love water sports, and am excited to be working with some of the best surfers, standup paddlers, kayakers, and swimmers in the world. Some of these stories will take me back to Tahiti, Ireland, Mexico, and El Salvador.
Upcoming explorations for 2015 include Bulgaria, Baja, Malawi, South Africa, Iceland, Mongolia, and possibly Kyrgyzstan. I always like to throw in a few new countries each year, if possible.
I’ve also just recently launched my new company, Kristen Gill Media, which provides storytelling services for companies. Using film, photography, and the written word, we help businesses tell their story. We recently landed a new client that will keep us busy into 2015.
I’m always on the lookout for strategic partnerships, so if you’ve got a great storyline or idea where we can collaborate, get in touch!
Kristen Gill is an adventurous lover of life who seeks to explore and share her travel experiences of remote and off-the-beaten-path destinations. She believes in the slow-travel movement, getting to know the locals and their cultures, and believes it to be a life calling. Always on the go, you might find her roaming the mountains of Bulgaria or enjoying a pint of Guinness in the west of Ireland. You can follow her at: http://www.kristengill.com
Dalene Heck is half of Hecktic Travels, a blog that chronicles the adventures of Dalene and her husband, Pete, as they travel around the world. In our interview today, Dalene shares with me how she and her husband got started in travel writing and where she sees the future of travel media. Enjoy!
Dalene, you’ve written about your story and why you started traveling on your blog. It is such a powerful story and one that I know speaks to so many people. How would you describe your current niche in the travel blogging world?
That is a good question, but I think the best answer I can give is that we don’t really have one. From the very start we have been committed to the idea that our blog is purely a chronological narration of our story – from recording the devastating circumstances that inspired our travel, to grand adventures like our Greenland kayak expedition, to deep cultural experiences, to personal posts on our marriage, to even recounting the variety of foods we try. I write about what moves me, and that can be any number of things along the way.
So while some may consider our lack of niche a detriment to our blog or the ability to achieve success with it, that matters little to us. We will never be the biggest blog in the world, and it probably means we get passed over for certain projects, but we’re completely okay with that. At the end of the day, we have to enjoy what we do, and after four years we still adore it – not many bloggers get this far while saying the same thing. As well, I think our style has contributed to our success in other ways – our readers are highly engaged and very invested in our story. They appreciate our openness and honesty, and are always eager to know where we are going next. We hear/read the words: “Never stop traveling and blogging!” very often. That’s all that matters to us.
Being named Travelers of the Year by National Geographic also served as some validation to our blogging methodology. When we asked why we were chosen, the editor told us: “We’re interested in what people learn from their travels—how it changes them—what they discover—what they can tell us about the power of travel to transform their lives.” That award was by far our greatest accomplishment and I don’t know how it can possibly be topped – if we had focused on just one niche aspect of travel and not reflected on our whole story, I don’t think it would have happened.
Can you tell us a little bit about how the blog came to be? What were your original goals and how have those changed?
Hecktic Travels was born largely out of boredom! We had accepted a 6 month house-sitting job on the small island of Roatan, Honduras, and while hitting the beach daily sounds like paradise for some, we quickly grew bored. We had already been traveling and journaling for a year, but never discovered the world of travel blogs until that point. We stumbled on a couple like The Professional Hobo and Hole in the Donut and realized that there were people out there who were actually gaining income off of their blogs while traveling full-time. We knew that we wanted to keep traveling perpetually but that our savings would run out sometime, and so this seemed like a logical solution. Thus we started the blog to give us something to do as well as earn a few dollars along the way.
We were having a lot of fun and gained traction quickly, but also learned that it wasn’t likely that we would be able to entirely sustain our lifestyle with it. And thus began our “exploration period” of seeing what else we could do while paying a little less attention to our blog – we did some freelance writing, freelance video, new blogger training, we wrote an ebook, and more. And then finally in this last year we also started social media consulting and campaign management (as Hecktic Media Inc. http://heckticmedia.com) and really found our way. Now that we are more focused, we are far better organized and also able to invest more time into quality content for our blog.
Our new business venture has also taken the pressure off of our blog having to make money. We are proudly ad free, and while we do enter into some strategic partnerships where they make sense, we say ‘no’ FAR more times than we say ‘yes’. Our blog is thus a labour of love, and we’re only publishing the kind of content that we enjoy creating.
I’ve often wondered this when I read about people selling everything they have to travel: How do you relate to readers who enjoy their lives of occasional travel and living in a comfortable environment? Conversely, have you ever thought about settling down again in one place for a while?
I really strive to write for only one reader. And (maybe embarrassingly?) that reader is my Mom! She’s settled and only travels occasionally, so I focus on what she would be interested in reading about our life on the road. That might be an easy sell (my Mom wants to know everything of course!), but it does force me to make the posts relatable.
I also make the assumption that the reader knows little about each place we visit. I include very high level info so as not to exclude those who know nothing about it. And I try to tell each story with heart – to focus on what moves me and what true feeling I get out of being there – I find that it is those posts that readers attach themselves to most.
Pete and I have the odd conversation about settling down, but it never goes very far, we are too addicted to the journey. We travel quite slow and do some house-sitting along the way which allows us to feel like we are “home” if even for a short while.
What do you wish you’d known when you started blogging that you now know? What did you know about design, SEO, networking, etc. then versus now?
You have actually stumped me with this question. Partly because there are things that we STILL don’t know well (hello, SEO!) but also because I guess I just accept that this has all been a big learning process and is constantly evolving. We have mostly stuck with our overall philosophy since the very beginning and don’t feel like we’ve made any drastic mistakes. There are always things we can improve on, but overall are very happy with our blogging journey.
As many of our readers are budding or experienced travel bloggers or travel enthusiasts, I’d like to ask how you see your income mix changing in the next 5, 10 years. What does the future of digital media hold for bloggers?
Every six months I seem to utter the same thing – “Wow, we’re really turning a corner here!” – but it’s true. I’m always amazed at how quickly things are changing, and how the travel industry continues to strengthen their embrace with bloggers. It’s such an exciting time to be where we are.
I expect our income mix to stay relatively the same as we’ve found work (albeit outside the blog) that we enjoy. We both hold business degrees, have decades of experience in negotiation, project management, and analytics, so using those skills to help bridge the gap between influencers and industry is a natural fit. We’re also only taking on projects where bloggers are compensated fairly, so it feels good to be helping out our fellow bloggers. Focusing on our own blog as a source of income will continue to come second.
I think the overall trend will continue upwards. More brands and destinations will understand the benefit of working with bloggers and our value will continue to rise. I do believe, however, that there Is much more pressure on bloggers to improve their craft given the large number of new blogs starting every day plus the fact that the industry is getting more savvy at evaluating them. But those that work hard and have genuine audiences will be rewarded.
Dalene and her husband Pete are originally from Canada but have been nomadic for over five years and blog at HeckticTravels.com. In 2014 they were awarded the “Traveler of the Year” award by National Geographic, and Dalene has also twice been named a “Voice of the Year” by BlogHer.
Interview conducted in December, 2014 by Kristin Winet.
Many who attended my presentation at TBEX Athens asked if I could post it somewhere. Others who couldn’t attend have been asking as well. The audio from that conference is still not posted and the slides only make so much sense without it. So I’ve re-recorded it and here you go. So Much Content, So Little Time: Productivity Tips for Bloggers.
Note that sometimes it gets stuck for some reason after the second slide and then one point toward the end, so you may have to hit the > arrow on your keyboard or onscreen to take it off pause. It’s small here though, so use the full screen option to expand it, then hit the “slideshow” option.
Watch this when you’ve got some time, because it’s more than a half hour long. Naturally the Q&A part is not in here, but if the TBEX audio posts later, you should be able to fast-forward and hear that part. Questions were mostly about specific scheduling tools, how much to pay outside bloggers, and what to do if you can’t afford to hire others for tech or design work. (My answer to the last one is, you almost certainly can afford it if you look on some of the freelancer sites I mentioned. It’s cheaper than you probably think.)
I mentioned a lot of tools in that presentation. Here are some of the main ones I use on a regular basis. Free ones are first, paid ones after. Some have a free trial or are free with limited features, but then if you pay more you get more. A couple of these are affiliate links, most are not.
Boomerang for Gmail
Thunderbird (Outlook or Gmail for desktop will work too)
Mention.com *I think used to be .org and that’s what I said in the presentation, but it’s now .com
Speaking of LeadPages, you are on the Travel Writing Success newsletter list, right? RIGHT?! If not, you’re missing out on a great source of advice from me and the people we interview here. You can see the nice sign-up page I created with that tool here: success newsletter.
Here’s a poster created by Candace Rose Rardon with quotes from various speakers’ presentations at TBEX Europe. I was honored to be included and…isn’t this cool?
Adam Groffman is the voice behind Travels with Adam as well as a number of other sites (such as the popular My Gay Travel Guide). In our interview today, he talks about how his approach to blogging has changed over the years, what makes him unique, and offers some advice for new bloggers. Also, Adam wants us to know that he is giving away a trip for two people to Berlin! The trip includes flights from select USA cities and 4 nights accommodation at the Ku’Damm 101 design hotel. Enter here by Nov. 30th and enjoy our conversation!
In 2010, you left your job as a graphic designer to become a blogger. How has your approach to blogging changed over the past few years?
I started my blog out of a sense of guilt: I was quitting my job in the middle of the USA recession and felt pretty guilty about that so while I was backpacking across the world spending my entire life savings, I figured I should do something productive at the same time. I set up the blog as a place to start writing again (something I’d done in college but had lost sight of while working on my design career). Before I had the blog, I’d actually had my @travelsofadam Twitter account – mostly because I just loved social media. Blogging and social media were always passions of mine and when I started the blog, it was a chance to take my passion & interests to a new level.
These days blogging is still a passion but I’ve had to think more creatively and consider it as a business. I never intended it for it to become a business, but as the blog grew and my own interests changed from design to social media, it just seemed like a natural step. Plus it seemed like finally a good use for my Bachelors of Science in Communication.
I love your new web design! What recently inspired you to redesign the site?
Oh wow, thank you! The response to the new design has been overwhelmingly positive and I’m so happy about it. I’d had the previous design for over two years already and though that design had lots of great comments, I just knew it was time to change things up. Plus, as my blog has grown I’ve discovered the things that have interested me more and more – such as my small series of Hipster City Guides. I currently have 11 guides and there are two more in the work for this year. The new design puts a greater emphasis on the guides which I love producing and which people love reading.
With the advent of new travel startups like AirBNB, ridesharing and unique tours (food tours come to mind), I’ve noticed a trend in travel where travelers are looking for more special, more tailored, more memorable holidays. A trip to Rome is less about seeing the sights today than it is about experiencing Roman culture (and the food! — though of course a trip to Rome isn’t complete without a stop by the Trevi Fountain!). I think we can travel in more meaningful ways — ways that will make our trips more memorable rather than just a photo snapshot in front of the Colloseum. On my blog, I try to share about those unique experiences and share ways to achieve those same kinds of holiday memories — though of course every trip is different and every traveler is different.
What would you tell a loved one who wanted to become a travel blogger today?
Go for it — if it’s something you’re actually passionate about! Writing/blogging isn’t easy and can quickly become exhausting if it’s not a passion. Social media may be fun and easy for you as an individual, but as a brand it can be more tricky – you’ve got to really like it or else there’s really not much of a reason to do it.
You have another travel website, My Gay Travel Guide, along with Travels of Adam. How do you balance the two?
It’s hard work to manage two blogs! But I’ve got several friends and colleagues who are helping with MyGayTravelGuide.com and a small team of freelance writers and bloggers. I credit a lot of the success for that blog to the personal stories by David from lefashionisto.com and Sam from indefiniteadventure.com.
There’s no doubt there’s an effect but it’s up to the writer to determine whether it can negatively affect a story. I have the luxury of running a profitable website and a freelance business as a writer & marketer so I personally only join FAM trips and sponsored press trips when it’s most appropriate for the content that I actually want to produce. I don’t really want to be writing stories about African safaris or winter adventure holidays. I’m very particular when working with a tourism board or destination on a planned press trip. These days, it’s up to the writers AND the PRs to agree to and create press trips that are relevant for all parties involved. There’s no sense in an African safari company inviting me to join a trip because it’s not the content I know how to write or can produce, and I would never take the trip if it were offered to me for the very same reasons. It’s just about being smart and selective. Which is pretty much a key to success for many types of business endeavors.
Also, don’t forget! I’ve partnered with airberlin and VisitBerlin to give away a trip for two people to the greatest city in the world (hint: it’s Berlin!). Simply enter the contest before November 30 for your chance to win. The trip includes flights from select USA cities and 4 nights accommodation at the Ku’Damm 101 design hotel. Enter here: http://travelsofadam.com/contest/
Interview conducted in November 2014 by Kristin Winet.