I’ve been blogging since 1997. I have work in the early archives of Matador and BlogHer and World Hum and Travelblogs. I used Tripod (gone), MSN Communities (gone) and Blogger (now owned by Google) before joining the church of WordPress in 2001. I have a loyal audience, readers that have been with me for 15 years. Parallel to my blogging timeline, there’s a career in technology; I moved to Seattle right before the tech bubble hit and built a portfolio of skills that has served me very well. Given all this, it’s not surprising that from time to time, a newbie asks me how to make money blogging about travel.
You’d expect the answer to this question to be an established plan of strategizing, optimizing, monetizing, and socializing. Here’s your rule book, travel blogger, go forth and prosper. Instead, I have a much shorter answer to that question. How do I make money travel blogging? I don’t. Not much, anyway. Make no mistake about it, I know how to make money blogging, but that is not my path. I’m in it for art.
Let’s back up a little bit.
I was contracted for my first real job shortly after my 30th birthday. I worked as a caption writer for Encarta, Microsoft’s CD-ROM multimedia encyclopedia. It was my job to put accurate, pithy remarks beneath photos of dictators and geographic wonders and great works of art. I was good at it, the work was interesting, and it prepared me, though I did not know it at the time, for Twitter.
When that project was over, I went to work on travel planning software, a tool called Trip Planner. It became part of Expedia, and Expedia became its own company, but at the time, Trip Planner was Microsoft software that allowed you to plan your vacation in the US and Canada. I was a fact checker, which meant I made sure that all the attraction and restaurant and hotel listings were accurate and up to date. This prepared me, though I did not know it at the time, to write guidebooks for Thomas Cook.
I did many things that readied me for a career in today’s travel web. Natural language indexing, which evolved into keyword indexing for search. Web production work, coding HTML and XML, which made me bold enough to edit php in WordPress. Writing online help, which taught me to explain complex tasks in a simple way – perfect for those travel “how to” pieces. I even had a brief stint in management, but candidly, I hated it. I like doing things, not shopping them out.
In case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t hit the technology jackpot. Not by a long shot, I didn’t even win a nice nest egg. I was offered a number of full time positions at companies that were making people rich. But every time I was recruited, the fat salary and stock options and benefits had to compete with the lure of elswhere. I can’t take this job because I am crossing The Outback in eight weeks. I can’t take this job because I am spending the winter in the Austrian Alps with a man I met while crossing the Outback. I can’t take this job because I have six weeks of summer road tripping planned. I can’t take this job because your two week vacation package is like a prison sentence, but hey, I really like working with you, let’s keep it casual! I wanted to travel more than I wanted financial stability.
I never settled into traditional employment, and now, it’s impossible for me to take a desk job that requires my daily physical presence; I am constitutionally unsuited for regular office work. But I know how to give people the information they are looking for, to make it findable, to make it understandable, and to publish it. Companies pay me well for these skills and my work is project based, so I still have time to travel and work on the writing I love. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I would put this muscle behind my blog to build it into a thriving business. But.
I don’t blog for business. I do it for art.
I came out of university with a degree in drawing and painting and a rock solid commitment to the creative. The fine arts students were one floor up from the graphic design students. Downstairs, they learned how to assemble the portfolio that would ace the interview while upstairs we wondered how we’d pay our rent and pray we had a future in teaching. The graphic artists would have jobs when they graduated; we would eat ramen noodles long after the ceremonies were over. We optimistically hoped we’d find a way to make a living without compromising our art.
We were committed, regardless of the known economic challenges. We would make the work we wanted, we were Artists. We would strive for truth over popularity, the purity of our expression was more important than making money. We would never sell out our vision to The Man. We believed in the power of art. Even now, my classmates, many of them still close friends, hold solid to these ideals. We’ve all found ways to stay true to our art.
When I began to blog, as an expat West Coast Jewish girl in a tiny alpine town, I did so with an artist’s mind, a mind towards making stuff I wanted to make. I wrote about what it was like to be an outsider. I wrote about snow and cake and Nazi themed graffiti and racism. I wrote to make my readers feel something, and to see my stories outside myself. I wrote to understand my experiences. I still write to understand. I am not always successful, but I write to make art.
I didn’t worry about getting readers or being found by Google. I didn’t give a second’s thought to optimizing or strategizing or monetizing or socializing. I was surprised when people offered me trips, gear, ads, but I remained anchored in art. I wanted to write, I wanted to get better at it, I wanted to share my stories. Blogging allowed me to do that; it was my classroom and my gallery all at once. 15 years later – albeit with some digressions into commercial experiments — these are still my goals. Write. Get better. Share. Make art. I am first and foremost an artist, writing and blogging is my medium. I still do it for art.
There are lots of reasons to blog. Making money is one of them, but it is not the only one.
Blog because you are teaching yourself to write – blogging’s time driven nature creates an excellent framework for homework. Blog because you are compelled to share your stories – blogging is perfect for that. Blog because you can’t not write – a blog is a good place for you to see your story outside your own head, to see your work made real. The roots version of “Why blog?” is still 100% valid – because you’re having an adventure and you want to document it. Or blog for the same reasons I do, because blogging is your medium and writing is your art.
I make a little money as a travel writer. I have some nice bylines – Afar, Lonely Planet, the San Francisco Chronicle — to name a few. I work as technical writer and I design website architecture. The geeky work pays well, I learn things, and I genuinely enjoy it. Recently, I’ve worked on several projects that tap my social media and travel experience; it’s cool when worlds converge. I stay freelance so I have time to travel and write. And best of all, because I’m not locked into making my blog pay, I’m free to do the kind of writing I want to do. I get to keep making art.
Not for a second would I argue that my approach is right for you. If you blog because you want to attract sponsor attention and fund your travels, the lofty high art perspective is the long slow road – though all of my successes as a travel writer have come from exactly this choice. Lay a good foundation in writing and journalism basics. Strive for good grammar. Get your facts straight and be honest with your audience. But where you go beyond that is your call, it’s your blog, your business, your writing.
You can choose art, though, and it is liberating. Try this.
Don’t focus on making money today or tomorrow or next year, instead, focus on making amazing writing. Dig into the dark places the tourist office doesn’t want you to see. Tell a good story purely for the satisfaction of telling a good story. Experiment, write backwards, unravel history, ask hard questions, tell stories that leave your readers feeling dizzy or angry or exhausted as though they have made the journey with you. Turn away from all the optimizing and strategizing and monetizing and socializing because they do not have to be why you blog.
I could make more money travel blogging, but it’s not my goal, so anything I can tell you would be untested. My goal is to make art. If yours is too, ask me about that. I think we’ll both find it’s a much more interesting conversation.
[stextbox id=”info” bcolor=”000000″ bgcolor=”fee6e1″]This is a guest post from TBEX speaker Pam Mandel. She’ll be leading Friday’s extended TBEX writing workshop (along with Andy Murdock and David Farley) as well as speaking on a panel about self-editing your work.[/stextbox]
Pam is a freelance travel writer and photographer who’s been blogging about travel (and other topics) at Nerd’s Eye View since 1997. She’s created stories for Gadling, World Hum, Conde Nast Traveler Online, NPR station WGBH Boston, MSNBC, SF Chronicle, Afar, Lonely Planet, inflight magazines, custom publications and more. She’s a surviving guidebook writer (for Thomas Cook) and says never is too soon do guidebook work again. She’s currently procrastinating on her book about the ukulele by working as a user experience architect. She lives in Seattle with her Austrian husband where she shreds with Seattle’s loudest ukulele band, The Castaways.
Photo: Courtesy of Pam Mandel