Continuing our interview with writer Lara Dunston, this week with discussing the future of travel writing, online tools, the nitty gritty of the business, and whether or not travel writing is actually any fun.
Nomadic Matt: Chuck Thompson said last month that he thought travel writing was great but that you couldn’t make a living doing it unless you were someone like Bill Bryson. Do you think that is true? Or do you find that you can be just travel writer?
Lara Dunston: Well, I for one haven’t always been a travel writer. The first work I published was for two university newspapers, which were film, book and band reviews, and interviews with comedians and performers. I wrote film criticism for a number of years for Australian film publications, so I focused on film reviewing but also reporting on the film industry, film festivals, industry conferences. I was studying film and making films (and so wrote scripts), and went on to teach film. I also did PR writing, plus I wrote teen fiction for a while (a couple of books), published under a pseudonym for a series for HarperCollins. And it was around that time that I did my first travel writing. I think a good writer can develop the skills necessary to write on a range of subjects, that is, research skills, narrative skills, and skills at analysis and the ability to describe and inspire.
Thomas Kohnstamm the issue of dishonesty in the field. Chuck briefly alluded to “online” updates my writers, i.e. they get there information online without going to the destination. Do you see a lot of that in the field?
Just like any profession, any field, there are honest, hard working travel writers who do the hard slog of research on the ground, work hard to scout out new places, check their facts meticulously, etc. But, look, there are unethical doctors and lawyers, there are lazy teachers, dishonest politicians, lazy graphic designers, poor coders, lying advertising sales guys. I don’t see how other travel writers work. Sure, I have friends who are travel writers, but I don’t watch how they work. The best way for me to judge the quality of a writer’s work is to actually use the book in the field, and I have used (and updated) good books written by great writers, and I have used crap books written by lazy researchers who haven’t updated everything.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that there are different types of travel writers out there and they all do things very differently to each other. There are the writers who are predominantly guidebook writers who also write stories for magazines/newspapers and create digital content, and it’s the guidebooks that get them out into the field to then be able to gather content to write stories. (This is the category my husband and I fall into.) Because we started as guidebook writers, we’re used to getting out into the field, pounding the pavement in towns and cities all day every day, methodically ticking shit off, talking to locals and scouting out new places.
Then you have travel writers working full-time for magazines and newspaper travel sections who have a kind of naivity to their writing because they’re writing about places they haven’t been before. But unless they came from a guidebook writing background, they don’t tend to be as thorough as guidebook writers. I’ve read a lot of stories in Conde Nast Traveller and the New York Times travel section that are full of mistakes. The NYT will correct those when you point them out to them of course. But the thing is how do you expect these writers to get it 100% right when they fly into a place for a few days and only see so much? I trust magazine content less, unless I know the person was a guidebook writer, because I know then that they’re experts at parachute artistry. But I guess what these stories give us are a feel for a place.
In the last interview, you implied that the internet’s quality is not as good as print writing. I think there are many places to find high quality information. In my opinion, travelers are always the best source for information.
I’m not suggesting there isn’t good quality, accurate information online, it’s just a hell of a lot harder to come by quality advice online than it is in books, and you have to sort through a lot of crap to find the good stuff. What’s also been happening online is that there have been a lot of people starting websites and travel blogs to make money from advertising and they’re just putting up a lot of content that they’re stealing from other sites, which has often been stolen from books. You have to spend time to find the bloggers and sites that you trust and that produce quality content. So, just as there are guidebook authors who are better than others (i.e. more knowledgeable, more experienced, more discerning), there are web-producers, travel bloggers and travelers that better than others.
But I have to say I have a huge problem with this statement “travelers are always the best source for information.” If they’re professional travelers yes. And that’s what guidebook writers or any travel writers are. They get paid to travel and they spend a lot of time honing their craft (art) of traveling. Sure, I seek the opinion of ordinary travelers when I’m on the road and visiting a hostel or a resort or a restaurant or whatever but I always compare it to my own experience and what I know. Some advice can be helpful but not all advice is good. The first thing I try to gauge is how much that person has traveled and what kind of traveling they do. Some people only have for 3-4 weeks a year. Are you going to trust that person’s review of a hotel over a professional travel writer who spends 200 nights or more in hotels and on planes each year? A professional travel writer, however, has experienced every level of travel, so they’re in a position to compare and provide the best advice. And the traveler who has been on the road for a year is not going to spend all day every day in a place visiting every museum and attraction in town, visiting every hotel, eating out three times a day, checking out every café, bar, pub and club, visiting tourist offices, bus stations, train stations, and so on.
Any chance you will publish your own book? Is there a “Lara’s Guide to Rome” in the works?
Kind of. We’re working on a few of our own projects. One is a book about these years of continuous travel on the road together – it will be more than 3 years on the road by the time we stop travelling and start writing in March! The book will be part travel literature, part guidebook, part insight into travel writing and the travel publishing industry. It will be about the places we’ve been to and the projects we’ve worked on. It’s going to look at whether it’s possible to make a good living out of being travel writers, whether it’s possible to live out of suitcases for 3 years, and whether it’s possible to survive as a couple! Normally Terry and I write together and edit each other’s work to ensure there’s a unified voice, but for this book we’ll keep our separate voices – mine is more descriptive, emotional, feminine, perhaps even optimistic, Terry’s is more insightful, funny, witty, and perhaps a little cynical – and what we’ll do is contrast those two perspectives on different places and people and issues and events – not always, but sometimes. We’re really looking forward to it. We have a few other projects also.
After doing a number of these interviews, I’ve moved to the opinion that guide book writing isn’t as fabulous as I once thought. It seems a lot of toil for little reward. Thoughts?
I consider myself a travel writer primarily (although I’ve published in other genres) and one part (a big part) of what I do is guidebook writing, and I absolutely love my job. I do think it’s fabulous. Every day I meet people and they tell me “you’ve got the best job in the world” and I smile quietly to myself because I think they’re right. Yes, it’s bloody hard work, so it’s not a job for people who don’t enjoy working hard. But Terry and I have always worked hard and we’d rather work hard for ourselves traveling the world than work for someone else in one place. It’s doesn’t pay well enough for what’s involved, and the insane expectations of some editors do not correlate to the low fees they pay. But no other job enables you to travel in this way and to get to know so many places so intimately and meet so many amazing people.
How do publishers compare? Well, they’re all different. Since we decided to stop writing for Lonely Planet, we’ve worked for DK, Rough Guides, Footprint, Insight, AA Guides, Thomas Cook Publishing, and we also did some work for Fodors. Several of those publishers pay better than LP does, a couple pay a bit less, although the ones that pay less don’t expect as much of writers as LP does. I have to say though that they’re all a whole easier to work with; LP expects an enormous amount from its authors (the AQ process is a time-consuming nightmare) which doesn’t necessarily equate to better books.
But ultimately, I have to ask myself what makes a job fabulous for me. Well, it’s doing something I love to do that is satisfying, that is something that I consider to be meaningful, that gives me freedom and flexibility to do what I want when I want, a job which involves working for/with nice interesting people, and one that makes good money. For me, travel writing satisfies all those requirements. I can travel wherever and whenever I want. If I don’t have a good experience with a publisher, then I don’t have to work with them again. We’ve managed things so that we’re making enough money to do what we want to do in life. And through the research we do and the choices we make about what to write about, we’re giving people the inspiration and information to have the best possible travel experience they can have. We’re essentially showing people a good time. And how can that not be fabulous?