Writer Chuck Thompson highlighted his troubles with the travel industry in his recent book, Smile When You’re Lying. I read the book while traveling Europe and loved its sharp commentary and funny anecdotes. Some people felt the same. Others did not. Intrigued by his opinions, I recently spoke with him about them in more detail:
Nomadic Matt: As someone so critical of the travel writing industry, why have you stayed in it for so long?
Chuck Thompson: I’ve been critical of the travel-writing industries, but it’s a mistake to assume that this means I’m unhappy with everything. Most of the time I enjoy the work; most of the time I enjoy the travel. I’ve just gotten back from India—how many other jobs send you to India for a month?
That said, I don’t write exclusively travel stuff. I just did a story about New York sports teams for a new magazine called Luxury Manhattan. I’m doing an essay about smoking bans for a city magazine in Portland. I consider myself a “writer” as much as I do a “travel writer,” so oftentimes the work is a matter of opportunity.
Could you see yourself doing anything else?
I can see myself doing a thousand other things. What a tragedy that we have only one life to live, right? I don’t want to bitch too hard about a job many people would love to have, but I don’t know a single freelance writer who doesn’t sit around thinking of ways to get out of the business. Part of this is because there’s very little financial security for writers. The pay is lousy, the work is unreliable for most of us. There are no 401k’s or health insurance for most writers. Magazines are asking us to do much more work today for the same pay we got twenty years ago.
How do you overcome that? The majority of writers never get rich- Bill Bryson seems an exception to me. What would you suggest people interested in writing do so that they can write and not worrying about what happens when they get sick?
There have always been more aspiring writers than publishing outlets. This makes it a buyer’s market, which means writers will generally wind up on the short side of the ledger. How to overcome it? Become Bill Bryson. Or be content that you will likely live a scratch-and-claw existence as a writer. Like music, acting, painting, etc., real money comes only to a small percentage at the top of the game.
Did you think about writing this book for a while or did the thought just come to you one day? Was there anything in the book you wanted to include but weren’t able to get in?
The idea developed over time. I sat on it for a couple years just kind of thinking about angles before ever committing ideas to paper. Eventually, I wrote the first proposal for the book. It took about a year and a half after that to sell it, another year to write it. During this whole time the entire book was being tweaked constantly. The rough draft of this book came in at about 600 pages. The final book is about 325. So, yeah, there were a number of anecdotes or observations I’d originally hoped to get in. But some just didn’t fit the chapter themes, or were redundant, or just plain didn’t seem that interesting once I had them written up. I’ve saved a few of them — a Shanghai Bob story or two — that might show up down the road somewhere.
When you were discussing the Travelocity magazine, you said that only about 5 million people read travel magazines. Why do you think that number is so little?
For the most part, travel magazines are marketed to elite travelers. So, if you figure on 100 million unduplicated American travelers every year and then figure you’ll try to sell to the top ten or fifteen percent, then five million subscribers is probably what you’ll wind up with. Another way of saying this is that travel magazines don’t want the bottom eighty or ninety percent of the traveling public to read their magazines because those people can’t afford Rolex and Cartier watches and Escalades and business-class tickets to Tokyo and Starwood suites in London, and those are the advertisers that keep most magazines in business. A readership base with a household income of under $100,000 USD drags down a magazine’s ability to sell to high-end advertisers.
Why can’t a magazine that isn’t a glorified press release sell? I’d be interesting in buying a magazine that dealt with independent travel and highlighted the wacky places in the world.
This one’s pretty easy to answer. Publications don’t write about wacky and independent (i.e., “cheap”) travel because the businesses that support cheap travel (local restaurants, inexpensive modes of transport, family-owned hotels, etc.) don’t have the money to advertise. Travel publications and travel sections of newspapers exist largely to be the megaphone of their advertisers. So, if Four Seasons buys $250,000 worth of advertisements in a certain publication, what hotel do you think the publication is going to write about? A mom-and-pop guesthouse can never afford to advertise in a Western magazine or newspaper. But the Raffles Hotel in Singapore can. That’s why you get “tips” advising you to go to the Raffles in Singapore, and not a funky one-room hut just up the coast in Malaysia. Readers are important, but ultimately magazines are kept in business by advertising money.
What do you think about the rise of online travel mags, like World Hum, Matador, or Gadling? Is the future of independent travel magazines online?
Online travel mags and sites are great; I check them out from time to time and have a couple bookmarked. But the Internet is going to replace print the same way television replaced radio and the movies. In my view, the demise of print is greatly exaggerated. I still prefer reading on paper over a monitor.
You’re pretty pessimistic on the whole industry. Is there any hope for the travel writing profession or are we doomed?
The travel-writing industry will be fine as long as the travel industry stays afloat. Now, if peak oil and the resource wars and all that really kick into gear, or if the American economy goes down and the dollar continues to be international toilet paper, the travel industry will take a very hard hit. And most travel writers will be looking for other work. It all depends on how optimistic you are about oil prices and the overall economy.
What did you think about the Thomas Kohnstamm affair? He’s another writer who laid the industry bare in some ways and got a lot of flack for it. Was he selling books or telling it like it is?
I haven’t read his book, but from everything I’ve heard about it, nothing about what he says surprises me at all.
But let me address an assumption that’s at the root of your question. The suggestion you are making when you ask if someone is “just out to sell books” is that somehow the work is corrupted simply because it has a price tag attached to it. I’ve never understood why this line of reasoning gains so much traction among book reviewers and readers. The profit motive drives every kind of work and service and product in this country. Every single one of us does what we do for money. Teachers, lawyers, the guy who bags your groceries, cops, plumbers, cab drivers, everybody. None of these people would show up for work fifty weeks a year if they weren’t getting paid for it, nor should they.
Does the fact that you get paid for your job mean that I can’t rely on the integrity of your work? On the contrary, being a professional typically implies some level of reliability. People who get paid have a much greater incentive to do good work, because good work means they’ll keep getting paid and maybe even get paid more for the next job. Let’s say you want to build an addition to your house. Who do you think will do a better job: an amateur who agrees to do the job for free, or a professional contractor who gives you a bid of $60,000 and wants the job “just so he can make some money”? The amateur might be cheaper, but I guarantee you the contractor will do the better job.
I meant “was he sensationalizing what happens in the industry?” Are there a lot of cut corners and internet research done by writers? Or are most travel writers stand up folks who do everything by the book?
Again, I haven’t read the book. But do travel writers cut corners and research stories on the Internet rather than on location? Absolutely. Ask ten travel writers if they’ve ever written about a place they’ve never set foot in and, if they’re being honest, at least seven or eight of them will tell you, yes. Does that mean these aren’t “stand up” people? I don’t know. The problem is that publications that pay shitty writer’s fees and zero expense money and then ask a writer in Seattle to write a 500-word piece about Orlando. So the writer logs on and regurgitates some info because he or she wants the money and that’s what so much of the profession has become these days. That said, I think most of the information in magazines and guidebooks is fact-checked to some degree and that it’s generally reliable. But certainly not perfect.
Would you encourage people to become travel writers given your opinion of the industry?
I never encourage anyone to become a travel writer. I think it’s a rather thin goal. I get some form of this question from aspiring writers pretty often and here’s what I always tell them: You don’t really have to be a “travel writer” in order to travel and write. It’s easier and definitely better to focus on “writing” as opposed to “travel writing.” You can write about all sorts of things—politics, sports, the environment, immigration, movies, gardening, architecture, food, art history—and still travel. If some “travel writing” creeps into that process, fine.
What people are really asking when they ask this question is, “How can I get someone else to pay for my travel?” They are more attracted to the travel and, perhaps, the writing (or the idea of writing), than to the actual “travel writing,” much of which is glorified PR copy writing and not much fun to puke out.
A lot of my readers are wannabe travel writers. What pitfalls and mistakes would you tell them to watch out for?
I’m a firm believer in the Hemingway quote: “There’s no such thing as great writing, only great re-writing.” I’ve been an editor at four magazines and you’d be surprised at how much sloppy copy comes in. It’s quite obvious that most writers are content with their first or second draft, their first or second approach to a story. First and second efforts almost always stink. Somewhere around the tenth or fifteenth tries things start to come together. I never turn in anything I haven’t read through and edited twenty or thirty times, minimum. By the time I turn in a piece I can usually recite most of it from memory simply because I’ve read it so many times.
Bill Bryson is funny and obviously a gifted humorist, but to me his secret weapon is all the heavy research he does. That guy digs up some really great information about places, and not from overused sources like brochures and history texts and newspapers — he goes out and interviews people and really does the digging work of a historian. Most writers don’t take the time to do that.