TBEX Speaker Post: Ask Me About Art

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.

vintage typewriter

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

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32 Responses
  1. When I’m asked about making money blogging, my stock response is now this:

    “Become a good amateur before you try to turn professional. If you can’t do that, don’t expect to make any money.”

    Blogging isn’t that much different than music, acting or sports. In most fields of human endeavor, you have to go through a period of learning and development before you try to cash in. Even then, the vast majority of people who play sports or an instrument will never make any money at it. Most do it because they enjoy it, or because they had domineering parents who tried to live vicariously through their children’s success (I think we are about 10 years away from parents forcing their kids to blog).

    For some reason, people expect to go skip immediately to the professional part of blogging without every going through the beginning and intermediate phases.

    I had my blog for 5 years before I made any money at it. I did it on purpose and the time was well spent. I grew my audience and worked on improving my photography. I went from not knowing my aperture from my ISO to winning a Lowell Thomas Award during those five years. It was because I made a conscientious effort at trying to get better at my craft.

    I like to believe that the size audience and my attempts at trying to improve my craft have something to do with each other.

    1. I’m super distrustful of discussions about size. [Go ahead, I’ll wait while we do the 17 year old boy thing. I’m doing it mentally right now.] Bloggers are notorious for faking size. I like other metrics more — that Lowell Thomas, for example, or longevity, or a broader portfolio that indicates your work has life outside your own terrarium.

      But this, this, this, over and over this: “I made a conscientious effort at trying to get better at my craft.” I hate it when we agree, Gary. It makes me look more reasonable than I want to appear.

      I’ve been hearing that this skip level thing is generational, that it’s a “millennial” condition. I worked on a project earlier this year that relied heavily on research on that demographic, they think they “deserve” success (money, headlines, whatever) before they’ve logged the hours. I don’t know if this is true, but my anecdotal observations in blogging certainly back that up.

    2. You both made great points about blogging to become a better writer. Bloggers are eager to make money from their writing without considering whether it’s any good. Companies eager for “content” are also to blame. As long as an article hits a word limit, it can have typos, cliche phrases, and poor sentence structure. Without feedback from editors, the cycle will continue.

      My writing was greatly helped by reading books about writing. I recommend Bird by Bird, On Writing Well, and The Elements of Style.

      Writing is like any other job in 2013. You have to constantly get better and find your angle. If you’re just fitting parts on an assembly line of junk, you will be paid like you’re replaceable.

  2. This is really inspirational for those of us new to blogging. I particularly like what you said about blogging as a way of teaching yourself to write. I’ve only been blogging for about six or seven months, but already I’m struck how my writing has changed. I’m not sure if it’s better, but it’s certainly different. I’ve been asked to write a few guest posts on other blogs and have entered a few contests–and by doing so, I’ve had to break out of my normal writing patterns. Reader feedback also gives me some clues as to what works and what doesn’t. But in the end, my blog gives me the motivation to keep experimenting, to keep evolving, to keep pursuring the art even when it often seems just out of reach. Thanks for the advice and inspiration!

  3. Pam, thank you for this post. Up until just this minute, I would say, “Oh, well I’m just a hobbyist.,” right after I would say, “I have a blog.” As if apologizing for not having a blog with hoards of followers or one that (gasp!) didn’t have sponsors. I blog for the very same reasons you posted above. I blog to practice writing. I blog to make sense of my experiences. It just so happens that a lot of my experiences right now are through travel. I blog also to have a different life other than the stressful corporate one I have. I’m one of those rare types who actually loves her stressful corporate management job. And so maybe I blog a little to make a point to Corporate America that I still have a life I’m passionate about, and if it means I take unpaid vacation to pursue that life I will. That all aside, your post made me feel better about going to TBEX where I’m sure there are a lot of attendees who monetize their blogs. I was wondering if I should even still go, but then I read this. Thanks again. Looking forward to your class. I was one of the lucky ones who got in.

    All best, Lisa

  4. What this brings to mind for me is the distinction between a successful BLOG and a successful LIFE. (And you can insert “business” in place of “blog” there, too.) Even if I never make a mint from a blog, if I have a job I enjoy that earns money to pay for things like trips (as well as all those boring & necessary bills), the opportunity to travel pretty doggone frequently, & maybe – MAYBE – the occasional press trip… Is that a success? It certainly is to me. I am more than my blog, just as I am more than my job. I don’t want the success (or lack thereof) of either my blog or my job to be the sole determining factor of whether my life is a success.

  5. Inspiring stuff, as usual Pam, thanks for writing this. I always saw my blog as a platform for my improving my writing and pursuing my passion — travel in India — but didn’t start “monetizing” until this year, many years in. It’s only taken me about three months to realize I don’t want to monetize my blog. I just want to write. For art. Not money. I am now looking for a job.

  6. When asked, “How can I make money as a travel blogger?” I suggest they keep their day job and write/blog on the side.

    I agree that knowing how to give people the information they are looking for, making it easy to find, and making it understandable are very important aspects in the blogging world.

    Have fun at TBEX. I’m sorry to miss this conference again this year.

  7. Pam, I have always appreciated your insights on these topics, as well as the fact that, ultimately, you encourage folks to do what works for them instead of insisting that there’s only “one correct way” to do things. I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say at TBEX again (Will the ukelele be part of the presentation? Please?)

    1. Scott, the only time I present with the ukulele these days is when I’m with my band, but I will have it with me and I’m kinda hoping there will be a jam. I know I’m not the only one Toronto bound with uke in hand — I’m just waiting for the daily schedule to find a time to suggest the ukesters hang out.You should join us, uke or no.

  8. Great post, Pam. Creative expression is an important aspect of blogging, and new media offers all manner of creative outlets. You’ve done a marvelous job of highlighting some of the different motivations people have and the reasons they start a blog. However, having travelled in artistic and literary circles for a long time, I’m always very skeptical about exhortations to do things “for the sake of art.” I bristle at that phrase because too often that attitude is a fancy package for plain old snobbery or judgement, and the insinuation that there is some sort of hierarchy with art as the exalted pinnacle, and money the mark of the dreaded “sell-out.” One of the things that I love about blogging is that there are few rules. There is no set path and everyone can find the way of working that they are most comfortable with. It would be a shame for that to be ruined by purists who disdain anyone who chooses a different approach. (Not that you have ever advocated such a thing. I’m speaking in extremely general terms here)

    No one should ever get into blogging (or writing for that matter) for money. I can’t think of a more indirect path to financial enrichment. It must be worth doing for its own sake, not because of some lofty ideal, but for the fact that blogging is an enormous amount of work and there is no guarantee of any other reward beyond the sheer joy of doing it. Luckily that also seems to be one of the surest paths to success — making remarkable content because you are excited about creating it. So I agree wholeheartedly with you that one should focus their energies on on making awesome stuff and being true to oneself, but by the same token I will never begrudge anyone the opportunity to pursue commercial success as a means of making their work fiscally viable.

  9. Love this post. I went from starting my blog just to share my stories, to trying to do ads, affiliate links, etc. once I realized people actually made money from blogging, to just saying to hell with it, removing all the ads and focusing on just writing. I have a full-time job and while I’d love to do something else that allows me to travel more, I have no illusions of trying to make a living from blogging. I just enjoy sharing my experiences and perhaps opening people’s eyes to other parts of the world.

  10. Hi Pam,

    I remember you from my early days of blogging, not sure if you still remember me but I think we communicated before. I used to have an expat blog that has now morphed into a travel blog. Anyway, it’s nice to see you sharing here, and I guess speaking at TBEX soon? I’m not very good with all these blogger meets, networking and conferences but I lurk around so I have an idea what’s going on bloggerspace.

    What you wrote resonated a lot to me. I did think, at some point, about monetising my blog. Such as bringing my blog to the next level by actively promoting, marketing, networking, etcetera and then there is that attracting sponsors thing as well, but in the end, I decided to not go into that route. I kept my blog private.

    I realised that I blog for myself. Just as you said, I am compelled to share my travel stories because I am having an adventure and I want to document it. If other people want to read my blog, be inspired by it or take down notes, then they are all welcome. If I write about a business—a hotel, restaurant, tour, etc in my blog, then they are all my opinions based on my experiences. No one asked me to write about them. The freedom to write whatever I want in my blog is sacred.

    But I never thought of blogging as an avenue to improve my writing because I never consider myself a writer. I am sure there are many people out there like me who never envisaged themselves to become writers of some sort. They just want to blog. But I do like putting down things into writing because it gives form to what I am thinking and at the same time structure when I describe the events that took place during my travels. Hence, the existence of my blog. You are right. Blogging is my medium; it is my art.

    Nevertheless, I am still in a daze about all these networking and technicalities surrounding the travel blog world. I am feeling the pressure to keep up, well at times, but I also know my priorities and the purposes as to why I blog.

    Thanks for the enlightening article.

  11. Aloha,

    Thank you for your insights, I do agree with many of your thoughts.

    As a newbie blogger, I think this gives me a creative outlet to showcase my art, photography and writing all in one space, my blog. Not only am I building my portfolio, a presence to my target audience but I’m also learning about technology, new trends, social media and communication and honing my skillsets in all the creative fronts. The journey and learning is the exciting part of doing this and creating something that I’m proud to show to the public.


  12. As usual, beautifully argued.

    And yet…while I want to stand up and cheer at various points, I also see things here that make me twitch.

    The word art, for example.

    I totally get the concept and the philosophy driving the concept and the intention feeding into the philosophy etc. And when someone has created something that is absolutely the best their heart and soul can muster, that is a demonstration of the way the world should be. But…Art vs. Business? You have to choose?

    If “business” is defined as marketing the [honk!] out of what you know is [parp!]ing lackluster content, I don’t see that as good business. If it’s putting money before doing meaningful (for you) work, it’s not good business (not good in that it’s not sustainable, because it’s an easy way to burn alive in the fires of your own self-disgust). If it’s doing system-based, number-crunchy, so-called-‘unglamorous’ procedure-driven makery and if you’re actually *uncomfortable* doing that, then it’s not good business. If you are, if you love it and you have people that pay you for it, then hey, go nuts.

    Similarly – the hint of a suggestion hanging in the air that if business = money, Art = Anti-Money. I don’t believe this and I never will. And I know you’re not suggesting this, Pam – in fact you’re making very clear how knowing how to construct a sentence and string a yarn has helped you professionally for the last few decades. They’re key business skills. If you can write, you can communicate exactly what you mean to another person, you can write things that gets all the way into people’s heads, and you can lead others with your thoughts.

    I don’t believe in the stereotype of the struggling artist, even though it’s easy to neglect making a living when you’re losing in creative work – same way it’s easy to kill your creativity by working just for money. I don’t think focusing on good, deep creative work means you *have* to suffer Great Existential Agonies. I don’t believe in the line between money and art having to be drawn. I don’t believe chasing personal success means shouldering art into the ditch. (Anyway, “success” is a subjective rabbit hole filled with a bazillion different things for each of us).

    But saying “choose art” over “choose business”…well, I say “choose both”. If you believe in the things you absolutely love to do, if you really want to do those things as your sole or your main job, and if as a consequence you really are prepared to hurl yourself off that cliff just to see what happens – then you are allowed to choose art and business together, without compromising either. Find a way to do what you love for a living, in a way that thrills your mind and sustains your body in equal amounts.

    That is absolutely allowed.

    Also, don’t use too many hashtags in your tweets.

    Actually, hell, forget everything I wrote except the hashtag thing.

  13. Alison Chino

    “…your two week vacation package is like a prison sentence,”


    Thanks so much for this perspective. I am hesitant to call what I do art, but in my heart, that is exactly what it is, even if I don’t say it out loud.

  14. Steph, Mike, you two, yeah, i’m tawkin’ to you.

    It is easy to mistake this argument as an either or binary of art vs. business. It is also easy to jump to weirdass conclusions about art isn’t art if it’s sullied by money. I don’t make either of those cases and I don’t think you’re really accusing me of that, but let’s be clear. What I say is this: I have decided to pursue writing about travel as an art more than as a business. You could do that too. (The universal “you” but you can take it personally, if you like.)

    I think that for newish writers and artists, where the money appears is an interesting point on the map.
    If the money comes in before the work — “I will give you X dollars if you will write about Y” there is the potential to pander to the sponsor/patron/third analogous character writing the checks. Note that I say newish, because more established folks can take on a commission, know when to push back, know when things are going to make your punk rock friends say, “Dude, you’ve totally gone commercial, you’re dead to me.” And potential, because it’s not guaranteed… makers of any variety with a clear vision know how to produce work on commission that doesn’t lead to selling out, and they turn down work that does.

    I would like more work on commission, it’s better financial security. Mostly I work on spec, probably because of the type of work I do. But check it: When I write a story and sell it to a publisher after it’s done, I’m especially pleased with myself. Why? Because I wrote the story I wanted to write simply because I wanted to write it. I didn’t change my voice or style or story to make the suits happy. I do my share of happy suit work, but I won’t do it on my blog or in the stories I write when I’m trying to be all snobby and literary.

    [Sidebar: I think being snobby about what we consume is underrated. See also: Keeping up with the Kardashians, Fifty Shades of Gray, and the Twilight movies. Yeesh.]

    Hey, if your art turns into money for you, right on, that’s the ideal, you go. If the art you’re making has broad commercial appeal, well then, aren’t you lucky, yay you. We have no argument. Let me say this again. *Not for a second would I argue that my approach is right for you.* I’m telling you that art is why and how I do it. YMMV.

    1. I’d say odds are good, but it’s way too soon to commit, plus, I don’t make the schedule. But I’m genuinely flattered that you want me to be there.

  15. I am so refreshed to read that someone else hasn´t got money as a priority for their writing or blog. I have a blog that I have been running for a year now. It seems that as the traffic as grown the questions from people asking me when I am going to monetise, how I am going to monetise are asked more and more often.
    I can´t bear to tell them that that isn´t my priority at all.

    Fantastic to read Pam Mandel´s advice on this exact point. I met Pam briefly at TBEX Girona last year. A clear concise article. Thanks!

  16. Suzanne

    Really enjoyed your article. I’ve just started and have had advertisers and others ask about monetizing – I’m still trying to get widgets to work that I like and learn to edit better so haven’t really thought about it much. i started to tell the stories of my travels and feature my photos since it never felt complete to say “the trip was good”. For those of my family, friends, etc this lets them glimpse my travel life and hopefully inspires them to travel. I’m going to TBEX to see what the blog could be and then decide what I want it to be – as long as its true to my spirit it will always be my success with or without money

  17. Pam,
    I really enjoyed this piece. I was just hanging out with a woman from Spain yesterday, basking in the sun of Portland, OR, sipping on a cafe con leche and chatting about travel blogs. We both agreed we are more interested in people who are storytellers…not hotel/tour reviewers. I’ve noticed many of the blogs I used to love to follow because there were great stories featured have turned into websites gushing about the press trip they just went on. I want stories!!! I think that’s why I love Breakaway Backpacker so much. Jaime speaks from the heart about his travel experiences and isn’t being sponsored by anyone. I first heard about him at TBEX in Vancouver when some of the guys were telling me about his Chicken Bus Handjob story. I still think it is one of the funniest travel stories I have read. I understand there are people out there who want to make a living at traveling and writing. I just know I am not one of them anymore. I’d rather write for the joy of it, to share with my friends and family, and maybe someday, I’ll be a good storyteller too!

  18. Yay, nice to meet a travel/tech writer, Pam!
    Thank you for your post, it’s come at a great time for me. I’ve spent the last 2+ years focusing loosening up my writing style so it doesn’t come off so tech-writery and on crafting the best stories that I can. I haven’t been paying much attention to stats or making money.
    In preparing to attend my first travel conference – TBEX – I looked at the application for the press trips and felt a sense of panic. I’ve always followed my own North Star but in that moment, I questioned whether I’ve been focusing on the wrong thing.
    Your post was reassuring and encouraging. Thanks!
    Look forward to hearing more from you and perhaps meeting you at TBEX.

  19. I have a blog. I don’t make a cent off of it (save for a sponsored blog post). I genuinely love to explore, write and photograph. Thus, my blog is a labour of love and I use it as a portfolio to get writing assignments. It’s worked for me. My blog and social media channels have also helped me land contract assignments. I get to travel when I can, get a steady paycheck and work on my blog on the side. This situation has enabled me to write blog posts that I care about rather than for blogging’s sake. I get to take chances and write whatever I want. That’s the best part.

  20. Not sure how I missed this post earlier, but it’s a nice story you’ve got there, a life well spent 🙂 I agree with most of it, although I definitely think Mike makes a good point too (but not about the hashtags – hashtags make the internet hamsters happy). Here’s to being unable to fit into an office anyway!

  21. I began blogging for art as well. I still do it for that reason, but I wouldn’t mind picking up some paying writing gigs. That of course has nothing to do with making money from my blog. I think like all artists, I just want to create and i don’t want to worry about money. I hope my blog will act as a portfolio and eventually, I can land some paying assignments. If that’s blogging for money, I’m ok with that.

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