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Rescued on the Internet - a travel writers tale

It was a cold and dreary January and I was in a bookshop on a high street in an English town, flicking through the pages of a travel magazine. The front page had an inviting photograph of a red-sky sunset over Darwin, Australia. Splashed down the left-hand side were the feature contents for the month. It was highly polished and glossy, and arguably the kind of publication to advertise in, to write for and to be seen reading. A professional magazine for professional people. But then I woke to find that it had all been a bad dream. I was not surrounded by fabricated gloss on some faceless high street, but in a one hundred rupee a night lodge in Madurai, South India. I was across the street from the Sri Meenakshi Temple. Its soaring gopurams (towers) were covered in a riot of carved and vividly coloured godlike figures, and I was not freezing in bleak mid-winter, but sweltering in the heat of a tropical January.

After "showering" by using the jug and bucket method, I went along to a local internet cafe to check out the website of the magazine that I had dreamt about. The submission guidelines stated that what is required are factual pieces on destinations - where to stay, what to do, costs, quality of service and so on. The magazine only publishes one traveller tale type article in each edition, but even then requires it to be less than eight hundred words. The guidelines state you have a one in eight hundred chance of being published, and that most people who appear in it will most probably be better at writing than you are. What is more, it is implied there is a good chance that they may also be better travelled! So they advise prospective candidates to think very hard before submitting.

Some may argue that the editors are being realistic - others might say, merely pretentious.
I have read the magazine in question, and yes, the standard of writing is high. But then again I've read Hacks, Zine5, Topwritercorner and a host of other webzines. The quality can be just as high, but, and a big but here, they provide a forum for different writing styles, and include a diverse range of approaches and opinions on travel ranging from, life-changing trips, to culture-shock stories, to social comment. Consequently, they are more of an interesting read. In certain magazines "traveller-tales" have to conform to highly specific content guidelines and provide little scope for diversity. But I suppose that they are probably more soothing and therapeutic because you can feel the glossiness of the pages and delude yourself that you are reading "high" literature because you have paid a top price for an self-labelled "up-market" mag.

It is not the intention of the editorial staff to discourage people from writing or to undermine a writer's self-belief. After all, they are caught in the competitive web of profit margins and markets. Unlike electronic publishing, print publishing can be an expensive endeavour. Although certain websites can have very specific requirements, many do not. They actually encourage writers to write. Their editorial policy states that all they require is "good quality writing". I remember when I first stumbled across Hackwriters, during March 2002 in an internet cafe in the Triplicane area of Chennai. It was refreshing to have found something that offered wide ranging opportunities for writers, and you didn't have to be an established, big name.

In the world we live in, a prevailing belief is that if something does not sell then it is no good. Or, in other words, if there is no profit in it, then it is useless. This is the error of the age. In the writing game, according to most editorial policies, your writing is not "good" enough if it cannot justify itself in terms of quantifiable sales or increased readership. Webzines have changed the rules. Many are run by dedicated individuals or teams whose financial overheads are not the same as the printed media, and who make little or no profit from what they do. They are also less constrained by considerations to do with space (number of pages). As a result, the whole process of getting published is more democratic and inclusive. You do not have to be a big-name, or to write solely for the market with the aim of boosting sales.

Certain internet sites for writers accept good quality work on a huge range of topics. Look at Hacks - travel, lifestyles, fiction, and reviews. Zine5 is another site with an open-door policy, and Babylon Travel Magazine, although concentrating solely on travel, is similar. There are a lot of good writers - even exceptional ones - who can find it difficult to get into print, but have found an outlet on the internet. Before the advent of the internet, good quality writing and "publishable quality" were much less mutually inclusive bed-fellows. Through the internet, more people are being published and a greater diversity of voices is being heard. Certain "glossies" lose something through their policies of exclusion. Their loss can be a webzine’s gain.

The internet has opened up a whole new world for people who write - and who write well. Just because it is electronic and not print, and there is usually no payment, does not mean that getting published in various internet mags is in some way inferior or that the quality of writing is poorer. Good writing should be valued in itself for being interesting, pleasurable or thought provoking, and not be evaluated solely in terms of its commodity value in the market place. Writing for the pleasure and because you want to say something can be rewarding, and if it earns a bit of money along the way, then even better.

The enjoyment of writing and having what you write made accessible to the public are hugely motivating in themselves. And through the internet, access to the public has increased. Financial gain isn't everything. Sam North and editors of other webzines have at one time or another noted that those who travel-write for their mags are ordinary people, travelling on their own money and incurring all of the risks entailed with independent travel. There is no support system, financial renumeration or advantages accrued from being a big name writer or celeb. But they share something in common - having something interesting to say (sometimes a lot more interesting than the "celeb" writers), and saying it well in the form of the written word.

There are no camera crews, expense accounts or photographers to accompany me when I am travelling through India. I'm not Michael Palin! I stay in grotty hotels, eat in dhabas (basic hole in the wall street cafes), spend days on second class Indian sleeper trains and get dysentery, down and out, exhilarated and stimulated. I am just an average traveller who spends some time in internet cafes in India writing stuff to send to Hackwriters and elsewhere. By spending between ten and thirty rupees an hour for internet use, I have become lifted out of obscurity by the internet. From a backstreet internet cafe in Delhi, Chennai or some back of beyond town in Madyha Pradesh, my world becomes published. I have something to say, have been given the opportunity to say it and hopefully someone somewhere reads it. What can be more democratic and empowering than that?

I have virtually replaced my camera with a PC and it feels great. I could never really have hoped to had got my photos published. I know next to nothing about photography and have a cheap point and shoot camera. Poor quality in any field should not hope to cut the mustard; but something of good quality should. Good quality writing should be published, particularly if the writer has something original to say. It should not left on some shelf gathering dust just because it cannot be commodified and falls between the cracks in the market - not appealing to strictly defined audiences who may rake in advertising revenue and whom advertisers can "target". Now there is less chance that it will gather dust thanks to the internet. What is more, webzines are immediately accessible worldwide. I no longer have to be in a bad dream on a English high street - just in an internet cafe somewhere in Asia.

© Colin Todhunter - The Madras Diaries - India August 2002

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'as people get to where they think they want to be, many realise that they didn’t want to be there in the first place or at least want to be somewhere else - somewhere better'.

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More Journeys in Hacktreks

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