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The International Writers Magazine: Writer's Notes

Becoming a Travel Writer
Antonio Graceffo

receive numerous emails each week, from would-be writers, who think travel writing must be the most glamorous lifestyle in the world. And frankly, it is an awesome lifestyle. But, it is a hard way to make a living. If you are considering a career in travel writing, this may be of interest to you.

In this article, I will answer the most frequently asked questions, that appear in my inbox. I will share some background, as to the kinds of pieces I have sold, and how I lived while selling them. Then, I will give some advice on how to get started.

After having spent the last four years continuously on the road, I came back to USA for my book tour, the first time in four years. In Asia, my base of operations was my apartment in Taiwan, and later my apartment in Cambodia. In Hong Kong I started doing a series of one day adventures, hiking, rowing, climbing…which is not typical of what I like to write, but it was well paid. If you google my name, or check my website http://speakingadventure.com/ you will find hundreds of real adventure stories, which entail sleeping in tribal villages and monasteries, for days, weeks, and even months at a time. My books are full of the same type of long-term adventures.

Living on the road, your life becomes disorganized. I have belongings everywhere: boxes of clothing and my walking stick in Hong Kong, my laptop and motorcycle in Taiwan, all my documents and diplomas in Taiwan, another motorcycle and a desk top computer and half my clothing in Cambodia, two bags of clothing and equipment in Thailand....

I do not have a home and I travel light. So I wind up leaving things behind in case I ever go back. However, I don’t usually go back. I wind up buying a whole new set of equipment every year or so.

Is it worth it? People always ask how hard it is to sell your articles.
Is it worth it? People always ask how hard it is to sell your articles.
My selling points are that I do unusual adventures in strange places. Some of the places and tribes and people I have written about, I am one of the few who has ever written about them. Therefore, it was easy to place those stories. The Hong Kong stories floating around the web were part of my latest marketing plan. I pitched several magazines and book publishers with the idea of having me do a series of articles and a book about adventures in Hong Kong. Many people write about Hong Kong, but I am one of the very few that writes about adventure there. So, in this instance, I wrote about a well-documented place, but with a new twist. Maybe I am the only one with this idea. Therefore, that, plus the fact that magazines already knew me, made it easy to sell those stories. Another easy way to get the word out about your articles is to get a website. Figuring out which domain name to buy, and choosing a good hosting platform are the only two things standing in your way between you and the online world. With a website, you will open up your writing publicly to niches around the world.

Always find a hook. Find a unique niche and work it.
I have a background in linguistics, so for every new country I live in, I write an article called "On Learning the Awful Language." Another niche for me is my martial arts. I study and write about the fighting arts in the different countries where I go. I also do comparative religion. Since I speak Mandarin, I do articles about the Chinese minority in each country.

Other successful travel writers I have known write about fine arts, dancing, music, food, or women’s and workers’ rights in the countries where they operate. After they published the first articles in the first country where they worked, they established a name for them selves. They made media contacts. And now, every time they change countries they can do similar stories in the new country. Part of working a niche is finding all of the publications who may use similar stories. For example, there are NGOs (non governmental agencies) working in each of these fields just mentioned. Many of them will buy stories for their newsletter. Some of them will pay money for research. They will all provide opportunities for established writers and experts to speak.

People always ask if travel writing pays enough that you could live comfortably.
You must be a good salesperson and have good marketing ideas in selling your stories. In addition, you have to be able to negotiate contracts and set up sponsorship for yourself. For example, I just did a series in Cambodia, where two months of adventure travel was paid for by a tour operator. They paid for travel, food, lodging, and adventures. However, they did not give me a salary. After I finished the stories, I had to sell them to magazines to get cash to live on. Sometimes, if I am seriously broke, which is often, I will take a contract like this, just so I can eat.

Some magazines pay $40 a story. Some pay $250. You have to patch all of this together and make a living. In addition, some magazines are free, but you still publish there because your sponsors want to get some free advertising in exchange for the support they gave you. In addition, you need to get as much exposure as you can. Therefore, you give some stories away free.

My books work well with my whole financial and marketing plan. Using my books as a lead, it is easier to convince a potential sponsor that you are someone worth investing in. Now that I am in USA for a while, I am on a tour as a paid speaker. Speaking pays much better than writing, but it was the writing that launched my speaking. Each speech also results in a few book sales, so I get a little money from selling books. If you chose to go on the speaking circuit, a variety of people will come to hear you speak. Some of them will be media or have media contacts, and you will get more writing work out of it. Exposure and additional paid work are two benefits of speaking. Later, if you have enough speaking and publishing under your belt, you will get a bigger publisher, and they will pay you an advance on your next book. One of my competitors just got a huge break, an advance of $250,000 on a book about the Shaolin Temple. My book was first. But he got the break, because he had paid his dues, writing for larger and larger magazines, till he got to the big payoff. Other people I know get $8,000 per booking for their speaking. The money is there. You just have to know how to get it. And, you will have to put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears.

The fastest way to get paid for your travel writing is to sell it to the English language media in the countries where you operate. You should always do research, find the names of the publications in that country, and submit to them. In spite of the large number of ex-pats floating around the world, claiming to be writers, there is actually a shortage of good writers overseas.

Publishing abroad is a double edged sword, however. Most of my magazine publishing has been in Asia, although I am virtually unknown in America. In Cambodia, I am recognized on the streets because I have done kung fu movies and TV and radio spots. In Thailand, I am in the magazines every month with my writing. In addition, I fight professionally and my fights tend to get a lot of coverage because I am a crazy foreign journalist who likes to fight. Therefore, people know me. In Taiwan now, I would be recognized in Taipei. My stories are appearing frequently there and a huge magazine based out of Hong Kong and Taipei is running an eight-page story on me.

In America I have had very little success in magazine publishing. Martial arts magazines are the only print magazines where I have published frequently. Most of my US publishing has been in web magazines.
So, as we say in Italian, I have to make my bones. I have to make a name for myself here, in this country.
The good news at the end of all of this is that if you get big and you get good commissions from magazines, a big mag like Outside, Men’s Health, or National Geographic could give you as much as $25,000 or more for a single story if it is commissioned by them.

On the book side, a cheap publisher will give you $5,000 a big publisher could give you tens of thousands. In Asia, you only need about $30,000 a year to live like a king, maintain a large apartment with domestic staff to do all the cooking and cleaning. When I go on a long story in a desert or a monastery or in the jungle, I may even close up my house and live on $200 a month. So a $5000 advance could easily last me six months. Twenty-five thousand could carry me for two years.

Giving your writing away free and speaking free may pay off big guns in the end. You may be passing up a $40 commission today, in exchange for enough money to live two years over seas. When it comes to hitting the big money in America, you only need one. One good story in America could keep you writing a long, long time back in Asia.

The easiest place to publish is in web magazines. Web magazines may seem less prestigious in the beginning. However, the beauty of the web is that it will always be there. A hundred years from now, when someone is researching a particular subject they may come across your name. They would never go dig through ten years of back issues of a magazine to find you. In addition, if they googled your name, even ten years from now, they would find all of your articles.
 © Antonio Graceffo May 2006
Checkout Antonio’s website http://speakingadventure.com/
Get Antonio’s books at amazon.com
The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa

Outriggers of Hong Kong
Antonio Graceffo paddles

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