Following the old fiction writing adage of “show, don’t tell,” here’s an actual query I received recently as editor of Perceptive Travel.
” Dear editor, attached is a story of my visit to New Orleans Mardi Gras with my wife Barbara that you might be interested in using in your magazine.”
Firstname Lastname (withheld)
I’m starting with this one because there are an amazing number of problems in this one-sentence e-mail that’s short enough to put on Twitter. First, it breaks several general rules:
1) Didn’t bother to look up the editor’s name, which is all over the site.
2) Didn’t bother to read the guidelines, which are linked from the contact page.
3) Attached an unsolicited finished story, which is generally only common practice for newspapers.
For specifics, I don’t know any editor that appreciates queries sent in bulk at the same time, which this certainly was. I also don’t know any editor who thinks a generic travel story with no new angle to it is a good match for them. There’s no reference to past stories in our online publication, why this would work for us, or any sense that the person has actually ever read Perceptive Travel at all. He didn’t include any information about his track record in publishing articles and there’s no link to a portfolio site.
And why in the world would I care what his wife’s name is unless she’s a celebrity?
So I did what I’m sure 100% of the other people who received this did: hit delete.
If you’re a blogger or freelance writer, you’re likely deluged with press releases and poorly targeted news pitches on a daily basis. How does that make you feel? Do you have less respect for that PR person or company next time you see an e-mail from them? Do you maybe even cringe a little?
Well if you send out a query or finished story in bulk to editors—who already get 4X more e-mails than you do—you can expect them to feel the same way about you. Angry, annoyed, grumpy, incredulous even. If you want them to get back to you, or at least think you’re a professional, you’ve just killed your chances. Maybe permanently: a lot of editors have a “block” or “filter” command on their e-mail program that they use with abandon. Your three follow-ups may not even get to their inbox and you’ll have to guess why.
I have met a few writers over the years who swear by the multiple submissions strategy, of sending out the same idea to a bunch of editors and see who bites. In general I think this is a terrible idea. It’s the same principle behind pop-up subscription boxes, junk mail, and telemarketing: bug a lot of people in order to find a small percentage who will say yes. But if you’re going to do it, at least take the extra five minutes per e-mail to put in their name and say a little something about why this story would be right for them.
Much better is to take 10-15 minutes and write a really good query, which is really a custom sales pitch. You need to pitch the idea in a way that answers an editor’s essential questions. These are:
The unspoken question for magazines also is, “Where would this go?” In other words, tell her which section and why. (If you’ve never written for them, you are not going to be assigned a big major feature, so don’t even go there.)
In order to send a customized query, you need to know who you’re pitching to. You don’t want to pitch a British publication on a listicle for “best vacations 2015″ and put in resort areas on the west coast of Mexico and Costa Rica. It should be about “best holidays 2015″ and focus on places you can reach easily from Heathrow, Gatwick, and Manchester. With your spell check configured to accept centre, colour, and traveller.
I just got guidelines for a website I’m going to start writing for that is aimed at men 20-40 and wants articles to be full of pop culture references, jokes, and slang. I write for others that adhere strictly to AP style and want a serious, authoritative tone. The pitches I would send to these two publications should be different in almost every way.
You are only going to know how to pitch an editor by knowing what that publication is all about. If it’s a magazine, study at least two recent issues. If it’s online, poke through every section in their navigation bar. Pay close attention to the language in the “About Us” section. If they have writers’ guidelines, study them closely and follow them to the letter. If they don’t show them online, e-mail or call someone and request them. Usually the “Advertise with us” part is useful too as that shows who their ideal readers are and what they think sets them apart.
If you’re willing to part with a little money to save time, there are services out there that can tell you who gets queries and what they want to see. See our travel writing resources section for some of them.
If I’ve met you at a conference or on a press trip, great. You’ve already got an in. Amazingly though, most writers are too lazy to follow up on this. I’ve handed an opportunity to some on a silver platter and haven’t heard from them since. The ones that did follow up, if I liked their work, have frequently become part of my team at one of the Al Centro Media sites. If you’re fortunate enough to meet an editor who is a good match for what you can write, put that follow-up at the top of your priority list.
But if I don’t know you, we’re back to that sales job again. You need to convince me you’re a great writer with a real track record. That means having a good portfolio site at the very least. (If you keep putting that off, go right now and set up one at Contently.) The “Why you?” question is a huge one with most editors. Some get hundreds of queries a day and it’s easy to ignore the ones from people they’ve never met because they’ve met a lot of writers, especially if they’re in NYC or London. I think this is so important that it’s what I lead with in a query: I put my credentials in the first sentence so they’ll know I’m an experienced professional.
If you’re not very experienced, then stop trying to pitch stories about places you’ve never visited just because you want to go there. Pitch stories where you’re the obvious expert. That means places and subjects you know inside-out, like where you live or what you’ve already researched and written about extensively. Own and embrace your niche instead of trying to be a grand generalist.
Last, most editors don’t want retreads. They want what’s new, fresh, unique, unusual. Ask 10 editors what kind of query is their ideal one and one of those words will almost certainly be in their answer. Besides those hundreds of queries they receive regularly, at big publications they’re also having regular editorial staff meetings where they’re tossing around ideas. So if you’re pitching something obvious, they’ve seen it and heard it over and over already. Unless you’re trying to fill a spot for a regularly scheduled column (“A Weekend in ____”, “The 5 Best Restaurants in ____”), give them something they haven’t heard already and you will get a much warmer reception.
Nick is half of the voice behind the Goats on the Road travel blog (his partner, Dariece, is the other half!). Today, Nick talks to us about going from being travelers to traveling writers and how opportunities like house-sitting have helped them make traveling and blogging a lifestyle.
What took you from being travelers to traveling writers?
I think the transition from being a long-term traveller to a travel writer / blogger is a pretty natural one. During our first big trip back in 2008, we started sending emails back to friends and family that basically documented our trip and we found that after we returned home, we enjoyed reading back on our own stories and reminiscing over the photos. When we left on our second trip in 2010, we opened a travel blog that would basically serve the same purpose, on a more user friendly and easy-to-follow platform. At this point, we still hadn’t invested in our own domain and we were simply writing about our story and our ongoing travels on the TravelBlog.org website. It wasn’t until we read an article by Johnny Ward of OneStep4ward.com that we realized that travel blogging can actually be a lucrative business if done properly. A few weeks later we bought our own domain: “GoatsOnTheRoad.com” and started writing our story, along with help and information for adventurous, off-the-beaten path travellers.
What was the point when you started to realize you could support yourselves doing this?
At first, supporting our life through blogging was just a dream. It seemed so far out of grasp that we weren’t sure that it would ever happen. Along the way, we had a lot of help from bloggers who had already made a living in the business and they really helped us to realize that this could be a sustainable model for continuing our travels. Bloggers like Dave & Deb at ThePlanetD, Nomadic Samuel and Mike Richard at Vagabondish, really mentored us along the way and helped us to understand that “if they can do it, so can we!”. We still haven’t reached the success that they have with their incredible blogs, but through their help and guidance we’ve been able to mould our blog into a profitable, life sustaining brand that has allowed us to travel indefinitely for the past few years.
You also do a lot of things on the expense side to keep costs down, like house sitting. How did you get onto the first page of Trusted House Sitters as a caretaker?
You want us to tell all our secrets here? Okay fine! TrustedHouseSitters.com is a great site for finding house sitting jobs and it’s search algorithm is based on a few things including:
The latter bullet point is the most important. When you open your account, you should contact anyone that you know that you’ve house sat, pet sat or even baby sat for and send them a reference request through the sites reference request interface. Once you’ve built up a few references, then you should hunt aggressively for your first sitting job. Contact every home that goes up and try to get a few sits under your belt because if you can land a good reference from a home owner that is a user on TrustedHouseSitters.com, you’ll move up drastically in the search results. There it is… our secrets revealed. We currently receive an invitation to house sit nearly every day and we’re very grateful that our profile is appealing to home owners and that we’ve had these opportunities offered to us.
You do some rather long, well-edited videos (including #25 in Guanajuato, where I make a cameo). You don’t monetize those though, so what else do you get out of all that time and effort?
Good question Tim. I often ask my self the same thing. When things are going well on my Macbook, editing videos is kind of a zen space for me. I truly enjoy it and even though it takes a considerable amount of work, it’s an easy way for me to dive into my job and really have fun with what I’m doing.
We’ve created some pretty epic videos on our YouTube Channel in the past and we get a great response from those who do watch them. That is one thing that I get back from creating movies, good feedback and happy viewers. But even though we don’t profit directly from the videos, we do often have companies offering us hotel stays, products or tours in exchange for a cool video on our YouTube Channel. The food tour with you in Guanajuato was a great example of our YouTube Channel opening doors for us and allowing us to experience cool activities around the world.
Where does most of your writing and blogging revenue come from and how do you see that changing in the coming years?
When we first started out, we were making about 99% of our income through sponsored posts (shhh! Don’t tell Google). As the blog progressed, we started to move away from sponsored articles because search engines penalize some bloggers for publishing them. Today we are more into banner advertising, affiliate marketing and freelance writing. Currently, freelance writing accounts for about 75% or our income and the rest is spread between direct advertising and affiliate sales.
On top of that (although we don’t count it as actual revenue), we also save a considerable amount of money on travel through partnering with great companies like HostelsClub.com, The Backpacker Magazine Group and AeroMexico. We’ve been able to receive accommodation, tours and airfare in exchange for our writing, which brings our costs down significantly as we travel around the world.
In the coming years, we hope to continue making money from freelance work, because we think it’s a great way to get our names out there, but we would also like to move towards a more passive income model. We will be selling an ebook in 2015 that will help people to realize that work doesn’t have to be a place. The book will show just how easy it is to make money on the road, live abroad and travel forever. We hope that the book (and any others we publish after it) will be good sellers and therefor drip feed our accounts with money, even while we’re sleeping. Some people like to work really hard for there money and that’s great, but I find it more rewarding to work hard at first, and then continue to make money from it without any further effort. I don’t want to work for money, I want money to work for me (excuse the cliche)
Travel + Leisure calls you out of the blue and says they’ll send you anywhere in the world to write a feature story. Where would you go and why?
That’s a hard one Tim! First of all we’d just be stoked to have been contacted by T&L and if they had a place in mind, we’d hop at the opportunity. But if they gave us the choice, I’d have to say that we’d head to Bhutan! We love to visit off-the-beaten path locations and given Bhutan’s current regulations on foreign visitors, the continued promotion of cultural heritage, and the King’s focus on “Gross National Happiness”, we think it would be one of the planet’s most fascinating countries to visit. It can be expensive to travel Bhutan though ($200 – $250 USD for visa and obligatory tour operator bookings), so we’d be happy to have T&L picking up the bill. I can just imagine the amazing photos, videos and experiences that we’d be able to share with our readers from such a captivating country.
Nick and Dariece are the couple behind Goats On The Road and the bi-weekly columns on Credit Walk & Travel Pulse. Their website is designed to show others how to turn their travels into a lifestyle. Masters at making money abroad, they’ve been on the road since 2008 and have explored some of the least visited places on earth. Follow them on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and YouTube.
Audrey Bergner started traveling when she was 18 years old and is now a full-time travel blogger, photographer, YouTube video maker, and freelance writer. In our interview today, Audrey shares with me how she got over 100,000 Facebook fans and why she has learned to diversity her approach to media. Enjoy!
Audrey, your Facebook fan page, That Backpacker, has over 100,000 followers. (Incredible!). Can you share a little secret about using social media?
I think the secret is consistency, sharing the right content, and being business savvy. Being consistent is important because in the world of social media there are always a million things going on, and if you fail to post regularly it’s easy to fall by the wayside. If you only post once every 6 weeks, you’re not going have much growth or engagement, and yet I see so many pages on Facebook that start out strong and slowly go silent.
Next, there’s the matter of content. I think it’s important to keep it varied. If all you are posting are links to your site, then that gets dull and repetitive. Try to change things up: post photos (visually appealing images do really well on Facebook!), write personal updates to create a human connection, share videos. If you come across a really cool article on another blog or news outlet, share it. It’s tempting to make it all about you, but part of being social means being generous with what you share. Also try to think about the types of blog posts you share on Facebook. As an example, whenever I post an article that has a lot of tips, I get a lot Facebook shares (which are different from likes). Monitoring things like this will help you gauge what type of content your followers are interested in.
Lastly, if your blog is going to be your business, you have to be willing to invest back into it to help it grow. That means targeting an audience in your niche that is interested in what you’re doing (whether that be travel or something else). I know Facebook ads were really taboo for a while, but I’m seeing more and more people using them as part of their business strategy. Facebook allows you to create highly targeted ads that help spread the message of who you are and what you do to a relevant audience. And just to be clear here, I’m not talking about buying fake followers (that’s probably the worst thing you could do for your business!), I’m talking about reaching out to a community of like-minded individuals with similar interests who will become an active part of the ongoing dialogue.
I’ve learned that networking is a very important component in this industry. There’s only so much you can do sitting at home, in your pyjamas, typing away at a computer desk. If you want to keep your business growing, you’re going to have to get out there, shake hands, meet people, share ideas, swap business cards, and repeat. Yes, sometimes opportunities will come a-knockin’, but you also have to be willing to go out there and get ‘em!
What advice would you give to someone near and dear to you who wanted to break in to the travel industry?
Blogging involves a lot more work than what you see on the homepage of a blog, so if you’re looking to get into this because it looks easy and you like the sound of all the travel perks, let me stop you right there.
For starters, travel blogging requires you to take initiative, be self-motivated, and adhere to your own deadlines. No one is going to be checking in on you to make sure you’re putting in x number of hours.
There’s also a steep learning curve; you’re going to have to teach yourself about SEO, analytics, WordPress, widgets, plugins, and all that goes on behind the scenes. (I told you there was more to it that what you see on the homepage!)
And as for the travel perks, those aren’t going to land on your lap because you’ve been blogging for 6 months. It takes quality content, a unique perspective, and consistency for you to become a trusted voice in the field. You’re going to have to put in a lot of hard work (sometimes even years!) before you start seeing results, so make sure you’re getting into this for the right reasons. At the end of the day, you really need the passion for this because that’s the driving force behind it all. I hope that doesn’t sound too harsh, I’m just being brutally honest, because after all, you want to know what you’re getting yourself into, right?
How do you balance the creative process of blogging with vlogging?
Vlogging is very fun and casual. I feel that filming YouTube videos for our travel channel is easier than creating a blog post, but that could be because I’m not the one who does all the editing – that’s Sam’s job!
One of the things I like about vlogging is that it helps fill in the gaps left by blogging. When I’m writing a blog post, there’s only so much I can convey through words and images, but with vlogging, I can take the viewer right into the heart of the action. You get to see the surroundings, the finer details, our reactions. I find video is very personable and you get to know the people you’re watching the same way you would a friend.
As for the creative process, it does take a bit longer when you’re juggling both writing and filming. Sometimes Sam and I have to walk through an area twice – first do all the filming, and then to focus on taking photos that we can use in blog posts. I guess you could say we get to see places a little better.
What’s it like being married to another travel blogger? (For those of you who don’t know, Audrey is married to Sam of Nomadic Samuel).
Haha, very convenient! I honestly feel very lucky to have met someone who shares a lot of the same goals and interests that I have. It means we’re able to work together towards them. I also think we really help balance each other out in both our travels and our work. For example, Sam enjoys scouting out accommodations and planning activities, so he takes the lead with that. I, on the other hand, am really good with logistics and navigation, so I usually end up booking our transportation and getting us to our final destination. We make a good team!
Audrey Bergner is the blogging voice behind the travel blog That Backpacker.
Interview conducted in January 2015 by Kristin Winet.
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!