Travel writing is the dream of many a backpacker. Getting paid to do what you love most and seeing your name in print in the airport bookshops is the dream of many a traveler with a laptop under the arm.
After all, you’ve traveled the world, blown your mind many times over and when you get back home no one wanted to listen to your stories. But if your travelogue was displacing Bill Bryson at the top of the best seller list, then everyone would listen up…
Okay, so now put down the joint and take a dose of reality. Almost no one makes a living out of travel writing. And most of those who do are hacks who provide copy for holiday brochures and tourist information offices. The fact is the money aint in the wild travel stories but in writing brochures for flights, insurance and package holidays.
But wait, you cry, what about Paul Theroux, Gita Mehta and V.S Naipul? I have a special story to tell – why shouldn’t it make money?
The truth is that the publishing world is an absolutely miserable industry. Most publishing houses actually expect to lose money on many of their writers that they put into print. They survive by spreading their bets and waiting for the a book like Papillon, which will sell year after year, decade after decade.
Just because a book gets published doesn’t mean that anyone is actually going to buy it. Countless books make it through the publishing process, hit the stores and don’t sell even a single copy. Perhaps only 10% of books published actually turn a profit.
A new author is unknown, distrusted and only taken seriously once he’s already successful. It’s commonplace for a writer to be over the moon about being published, only to see his print run of books pulped and sold as recycled paper a year later. So now you’ll understand the industry joke that writers are ‘people who think there’s money in books’.
That’s not to say that you can’t make any money as a travel writer. It’s just that you’re unlikely to be writing the stuff you want to and if you do, you’re unlikely to be able to support yourself by writing alone. The only exception to this is if you live somewhere like Guatemala where $50 a week makes you a rich man. And the advent of the internet means that making a living by travel writing is just a little more feasible.
The fact is, though, for the true writer, writing is something you do like breathing. There’s no choice about whether to sit down at the figurative typewriter or not, it’s just something you do. A writer writes. It’s a joy and a burden and one of the things that give meaning to the ambiguous series of events that make up our lives.
For the travel writer that’s even truer. Writing about your travels becomes the only way you make sense out of what’s happened to you on the road. More than a catharsis, it’s a way of understanding all that you’ve seen and heard. Beyond that there’s the hope that someone somewhere might read what you’ve written and catch a glimpse of your soul. And there’s no price to be put on that.
So this is the world of the travel writer. There are some ways to make a buck and we look at them in this guide. Maybe you’ll prove everyone wrong and be accepting the Booker Prize this time next year. But one thing’s for sure – 99% of you reading this won’t.