Lara Dunston, author of many Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, and Eyewitness travel guides, is this month’s travel interview. Lara provided such a depth of answers that this interview will be spread out over two posts and will cover a wide range of topics, including addressing some of the issues Thomas Khonstamm and Chuck Thompson brought up in previous interviews.
Nomadic Matt: For starters, what gave you the travel bug?
Lara Dunston: I blame the travel bug on this pivotal event as well as several ongoing features of my childhood – sitting around the dining table during Sunday dinner at my Russian grandparents’ house hearing stories from their childhoods and youth, and descriptions of their journeys as young people fleeing Europe for Australia toward the end of world war two.
Then there were the regular school holidays when my parents would take us caravanning, and then, when I was in my early teens – my parents gave up what they called “life in the rat race” and took my little sister and I traveling around Australia for 5 years. So, I really had no choice in the matter – the bug was biting whether I liked it or not.
How did you move from traveler to travel writer?
I’ve always written – short stories as a child and teenager – English was always what I excelled in at school. At university I wrote for the student newspapers. My first degree was in film and writing. And my jobs have always involved some kind of writing, whether it was developing discipline through writing press releases every day (along with research reports, correspondence, policy documents etc), or more creative and critical writing when I was a filmmaker and a film critic.
I’ve always had simultaneous and parallel careers, so I just didn’t decide to become a travel writer and that was that. I wrote a teen novel, published by Harper Collins, in two months, so I could both learn more about being disciplined in my writing and also pay for a trip to Cuba. At the time my husband Terry was a publishing manager for a huge publishing company in Australia, which published street directories, maps, travel guides, 4WD and camping books etc, along with travel hospitality and incentives magazines. They gave us some writing work, and I remember laboring over my first teensy piece on Yum Cha. I’m so embarrassed to think it took me 2 days to write this little piece then.
It was for Terry’s company that we wrote our first travel guide called the Sydneyside Guide, which must have been one of the first compact guides in Australia – well before Lonely Planet did the ‘Best Ofs’. But it still wasn’t “yay, I’ve become a travel writer!” That was around 15 years ago or so, and even after that, I did my Masters degree in film, went to South America for a year, returned to Australia and wrote my thesis, taught film some more, and then got a job at a women’s university in Abu Dhabi teaching film/media production, writing and media studies. It was while working there that we got the opportunity to write the Syria and Lebanon guide, and the Dubai guide for Lonely Planet and we fell back into travel writing.
I think the lessons I like other aspiring writers to learn from that is that there’s nothing wrong with developing your writing portfolio while you have other careers. Your other income might be more lucrative and can therefore pay for your writing trips or support your writing income so you can have more enriching travel experiences (i.e. eating in Michelin star restaurants instead of making your own sandwiches from the buffet) that a) help you develop skills of discernment and b) help you write better and more interesting stories.
I’ve read the Thomas Khonstamm book. He gives the impression that travel writing, at least for guidebooks, is a real hassle- low pay, rushed experience, superficial reviews. Do you think that’s true?
Hmmm… it’s a lot more complex than that and it’s important for your readers to understand how and why. Firstly, publishers rates vary, so while some pay dreadfully low fees, others pay rates that are fair, and some pay very nicely indeed. But other factors also come into play.
We rarely made money writing for Lonely Planet – and mostly only broke even – because of two reasons. Firstly, their official policy is that writers should not accept any media rates (like corporate rates) for hotels nor accept discounts or freebies – and yet they don’t pay for your expenses, so you have the Thomas Kohnstamms and other writers accepting freebies left right and centre, and then the more ethical writers like us losing out. Secondly, Lonely Planet won’t let you write for another publisher on the same geographical area for up to two years after a job on that destination.
Both of these things make it really tough for writers. We stopped writing for Lonely Planet after authoring and contributing to some 25 books for those two reasons (and a few others too!) and it was the best thing we ever did.
Think about it. Book reviewers get free books, music reviewers get free CDs, film critics get to see movies for free, car reviewers get to drive a car for free, yet travel writers don’t get to test out destinations for free (i.e. hotels, restaurants, sights, tours, etc). That makes no sense to me. While there are some other publishers that have the same policy, they tend to pay more and they pay royalties, but most publishers don’t have that policy and they’ll actually help you secure discounts. For example, Rough Guides let you do contra deals where you exchange products and services for ads in the back of their guidebooks (contras are used a lot in film and television also). AA Publishing, for instance, provides a letter confirming you’ve been commissioned and asking the reader to provide assistance. We show this so we can get media rates, i.e., discounted hotel rooms. When you can make savings of this kind, you’re going to come out way ahead obviously.
The other area where publishers differ to Lonely Planet is on their clause requiring you not to write for another publisher on the same geographical area. We’ve developed reputations as destination experts on Dubai, the UAE, Arabian Gulf and Middle East (regardless that most of our commissions have been in Europe), and barely a week goes by without us getting a request to write on those destinations. We couldn’t accept all those stories and opportunities when we wrote the Dubai books for Lonely Planet. Most other publishers allow you to write for whoever you want to write for, so this means we can accept that work. It means that we can do a research trip for a guidebook but then we can also be researching articles for magazines on the same destinations and we can continue to develop our reputations as destination experts and this is how writers can make great money. Magazine stories pay a lot more per word than guidebooks do so the spin-off stories are far more lucrative.
As for guidebook research being a “rushed experience”, well again it depends… if you’re only working on a book for Lonely Planet and they pay you $10,000 for 6 weeks of research and then write-up, it probably is going to be rushed. But it doesn’t have to be rushed if you’re also working on a couple of magazine stories that might pay $2,000 each. Then you can afford to take a bit longer and do higher quality research and make an effort to turn over more reviews and look for different places. You have to consider the fee and calculate your daily expenses and work out how many days the research will take. If it means it’s going to be rushed then you either accept that and work your butt off all day every day for that period OR you figure out how much time you need to do a slower, better quality job and you try to get a couple of magazine commissions so you can do that.
The Internet is fast becoming an important source of information. Most travelers, including myself, use that as their main source for research. Do you think the Internet will make paper guidebooks go the way of the dodo?
Only for the same people who don’t read books, newspapers, and magazines anymore, and prefer to read everything online. Personally, I like to read certain things online, but I also like to read a book in bed before I go to sleep and I like to read a newspaper over coffee and flick through a magazine by the pool. I do a lot online but I don’t want to do everything online and I’m sure there are other people like me. To me quality is key. If there are high quality guides online I will use them, but if the higher quality products are still in book form then I’ll use those. I’m not going to use an online guide written by a person without any destination expertise or traveling experience or skills at discernment just because it’s on the web or available for a handheld device. To me, the things that count are the quality of the product and the author and their experience.
I think there are many places to find high quality information. I myself spend ages over each post to ensure accuracy. Are you implying that you can’t find good, accurate information online? In my opinion, travelers are always the best source for information.
Everyone dreams of being a travel writer. What advice would you give to new writers who want to start in profession?
Treat it as seriously as you would any other profession. Educate and train yourself – in research, writing, travel, destinations, geography, history, politics, economics, languages, culture, cuisines, wine, art, architecture, fashion, retail, hotels, hospitality and tourism, you name it! You really have to develop knowledge in a bit of everything. Place a value on your time – don’t work for nothing. Ever. Write some samples and use those to get your first gig for a (paying) publisher, and then continue to develop your portfolio with that person or publication, and then use that portfolio to get other work.
Guidebooks are a great way to start as they allow you to develop destination knowledge, research skills, people skills, and discipline. Discipline is one of the keys to success, it really is. I can’t emphasize that enough. Now, is Mr Kohnstamm had a bit of discipline… and if Lonely Planet was a bit more disciplined with its writers, we might never have had the Thomas Kohnstamm Affair, but I said I wouldn’t say anymore on that, didn’t I?!