A Conversation with Nicholas Gill

Nicholas Gill describes his job as  “traveling around and eating” (though he does take pictures and write, too). While he travels mostly to Latin America (and keeps a blog about it), his work has recently taken him to such exotic destinations as Bali, Iceland, and the Amazon. His work, which has been featured in Penthouse, Afar, The New York Times, and CondeNast Traveler, is an excellent blend of personal narrative and incisive commentary about the peoples, cultures, and places around the world. Check out his personal website here!

How did you “break in to travel writing”? What have been the keys to your success?

I was a budding food writer that, after graduating from college, began to travel quite a bit so the transition was somewhat natural. The key to my success has been to just keep trying. I’ve had far more rejection letters than acceptance letters, but you learn from that. Writing a good query letter and building a portfolio of clips to back it up is essential.

Where do you see your career as a travel writer being three years from now? How will your income mix change and what are you doing to adapt to the changing media landscape?

In general, things are moving more and more towards the web. Even everything in print finds its way to the web somehow. I think it is becoming more and more important to start your own website and carve out your own niche. The web allows a writer to find extremely select audiences with narrow interests from all around the world. That said, I think we have reached the point of too much crap on the web and quality is going to be more and more important if you want to be successful. Google has already begun to adjust rankings to ignore content farms and articles that basically are a list of keywords.

Knowing what you do now, if you were starting from scratch today to become established as a travel writer, what steps would you take to ensure success?

I would have started a blog or website much earlier. That database of work sticks around forever, or at least as long as you want it. I now have two websites: my ezine on Latin American food, drink, and travel and an online guide to Peru that I’m adapting from a guidebook I wrote. They are still fairly new sites and I don’t really make any money from either of them at the moment, but in the future hopefully that’s not going to be the case. The beauty of the web is the writer really can be in control. It’s more important now than ever to build your own audience and think long term.

What advice would you give to someone near and dear to you who wanted to become a travel writer—assuming they had zero credits to their name. (Besides “Don’t do it”?)

Try to be a good writer and a good traveler, but not so much a travel writer. Too many people are infatuated with the title of travel writer, but the best travel books and features are usually written by plain old writers. Concentrate on heartfelt, honest, revealing, surprising, quality writing. Think deeper than a blog that lists what you did today.

You’re the only person I know who splits his time between hemispheres, in your case Brooklyn and Lima, Peru. Besides it being a great food city, why Lima?

I was on an endless travel just passing through Peru and ended up signing on to write a guidebook, made Lima my base for a year, and then met my future wife. I kind of landed in Peru right when tourism and the food scene were just starting to get some buzz and now Peru is about half of what I write about. While I’m officially based in Brooklyn, I spend about a third of the year in Latin America. Most travelers tend to hate Lima. They spend 1 or 2 days there and see the Plaza de Armas, a few museums, 1 of 3 restaurants, and then go to Larcomar (a big, American style mall). They see traffic, gritty neighborhoods, touristy restaurants, and polluted beaches. There is so much more. The same can be said for Peru in general. So much is happening that goes far beyond Cuzco and Machu Picchu that isn’t getting written about. There are so many rich stories to tell about Peru right now.

In your eyes, what’s does the future of guidebook writing look like, and is there any way to make real money doing it?

First of all, there will always be guidebooks in print form. There’s no more reliable way, particularly in a remote and mysterious place when a guidebook is needed most, to read about where you’re going. Print versions will always exist. That said, the guidebook is changing. It is becoming digital, more dynamic, and it can be updated almost instantly. IPads and tablets are going to drop in price dramatically in the next five years and almost everyone (at least the people that afford to travel) will have one. There is so much that can be done with an electronic guidebook: video, images, GPS plotted trail maps. The guidebook is evolving and I don’t think anyone has quite figured out exactly how to take it to the next level. Yet.

Can you make money writing a guidebook? Sure. Just not much. I use guidebook writing as a supplement for my other writing and it gives me a chance to take side trips and explore ideas I probably wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. Among the traditional print publishers, only a few pay respectable wages. On the web, many writers are creating travel planning websites and are earning a respectable living. It has to be a long-term investment, however.

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Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill lives in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, New York Magazine, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, Afar, Penthouse, and Luxury Latin America. He has also authored/contributed to more than a dozen guidebooks. Visit his personal website for more information. Follow him on Twitter @newworldreview1.

Interview conducted in April, 2011 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Mock.

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