Tim Leffel On Travel Writing in the Internet Age
Tim Leffel is the editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, an online, non-corporate magazine devoted to showcasing original and thought-provoking travel stories.
Perceptive Travel is one of my favorite online media outlets, consistently serving up eclectic and engaging travel stories.
You won’t find any fluff at Perceptive Travel, and Mr. Leffel aims to keep it that way.
I caught up with Tim for an interview about travel writing on the web, the difference between major publications and niche websites, and why you may want to reconsider becoming a travel writer.
BNT: Unlike most media outlets that publish travel stories, PerceptiveTravel.com is not a corporate undertaking. What do you see as the weakness of big, corporate media like Travel+Leisure and the New York Times travel section?
Tim Leffel: They have to be, in the words of some departing ForbesTraveler.com writers, “page view whores.”
In order to make their Web stories bring in the kind of eye-popping ad revenues their print publications do, they have to resort to all kinds of annoyances: pop-up ads, e-mail bombardments after you’re forced to register, banners that take up space in the middle of the article, ten page-view clicks to read one 1,500-word article, and on and on.
The text and headlines are often dumbed down to make the original print articles more search-engine friendly. The end result is that the reader seems to be treated with contempt, like a visitor number on a spreadsheet instead of a human being who is already over-saturated with intrusive advertising.
With a more modest undertaking like ours, there are no shareholders asking us to squeeze our visitors every way possible and we can be more patient in building an audience-without annoying them so much in the process.
We can also publish things on obscure destinations and angles without worrying about whether we will turn off luxury hotels and spas who (don’t) advertise with us.
We don’t have to run stories about Caribbean resorts and designer boutique hotels because of commercial considerations. We can let writers explore odd places like Tuva, Turkmenistan, or Todos Santos. We’re never predictable.
Plus we devote space to reviews of travel books and world music we find interesting, providing a much-needed outlet for overlooked genres.
BNT: I’ve found it ironic, and frustrating, that most publications that pay good money for travel writing are not interested in the sort of stories that have a chance of critical acclaim – which in travel writing basically means inclusion in the Best American Travel Writing anthology or the Best Travel Writing anthology from Travelers’ Tales. Thoughts?
Tim Leffel: That’s a quandary that will probably always be around. Like Hollywood blockbusters and reality TV, the travel publications that pay the most tend to be the ones most resembling fluff.
That’s where the big money is. They are the publications that pull in the most ad dollars from deep-pocketed advertisers and can therefore shell out more for content.
They wouldn’t print “Five hot beaches for 2008” if it didn’t make people pick up the magazine or read the website. They are appealing to the masses in the middle or the masses that aspire to be luxury travelers.
It’s interesting to note that many stories making those Best Travel Writing collections do not come from travel magazines.
The format of something like Travel & Leisure does not lend itself to prose you want to savor. They have to be chirpy and cute. It’s like indie movies versus eye candy blockbusters, with budgets to match.
I’m looking at an issue of Travel & Leisure right now in fact and three of the four people featured on the Contributors page are photographers, not writers. A current Delta Sky article on Costa Rica has five pages of photos and one page of text. The content is often just something to wrap around a pretty picture.
Companies like Hyatt and Crystal Cruises don’t want to reach independent, free-thinking, travelers. We are too fragmented, too fickle, too unwilling to go along with what the sheep herders tell us is “the in place to go this year.”
The most successful travel magazines-and their advertisers-want to reach travelers who are easily influenced and are aspirational.
They want to appeal to people who won’t-like you and me-react with guffaws to the following text from Conde Nast Traveler:
“Call it the Bali high life; this year, visiting the island means staying at one of the new hybrid villa-hotels currently colonizing the beachfront.” (Prices quoted are $900 to $1,500 a night.)
Those magazines want readers who shop for travel the way they shop for Hermes scarves and Omega watches, as a way to show off and impress people. People who will actually read something about $1,500 suites in Luang Prabang and not think it’s a typo.
There just isn’t a big market for thoughtful, enlightening travel prose that really explores places and people in depth, especially if it encourages independent budget travel. That’s why most of that writing ends up in books rather than in magazines or newspapers.
There are exceptions–like Outside, the various mags from National Geographic, and Outpost in Canada. Thankfully the Internet allows publications like mine to reach the people who do look for more in their travel articles and gives them a place to find more perceptive writing.
The flip side of that is that the economics of a venture like this don’t allow lavish pay for anyone, including me! Not yet anyway…
BNT: With more advertising dollars moving online, do you think independent websites like PerceptiveTravel.com will be eventually be able to attract advertisers, compete with big media outlets AND maintain editorial freedom?
Or, at some point will you need to make a choice: run a “7 Best Spas” piece and add a zero to the $60 you now pay writers, or continue to publish stories Jason Wilson and readers everywhere will love while paying wages that barely cover rent…in Cambodia.
Tim Leffel: I’d rather pay a percentage of modest revenue than to resort to the reworked press releases you already see all over the travel media.
If writers want to get a $600 paycheck for that, there are plenty of places to query without us being on that list. (Hey, I work for some of them myself).
Perceptive Travel started paying $50 a feature from Day 1 when I was covering everything out of pocket and raised it to $60 earlier this year when we became profitable (barely). Ad revenues continue to inch up, though much of that advertising moving to the web is still going to the very largest sites.
I would hope by the end of ’08 I’ll finally be able to pay writers a big “three figures” per story. Still lame, but better than some small magazines at least.
If our readership continues to build, rates will rise. Nobody is getting exploited in this relationship: I am sure I pay out a higher percentage of revenue to writers than the Hearst or Gannett publishing companies do.
I am proud though that we have been able to publish interesting work by great writers despite the low pay, partly because they appreciate a place where they can stretch and follow whatever wierd angle strikes their curiosity.
Also we prominently feature the author’s book(s) alongside the story, which can be worth a lot. I know some writers have made more on book royalties from a story in our publication than they received as article payment.
They don’t get that kind of book promotion from a typical print magazine or travel website.
BNT: Of course, one of the really exciting things about the Internet is that it’s now very feasible for writers to live in a cheap place, like Cambodia or Mexico, and work just as efficiently as the guy with an office in Manhattan.
Writers starting out overseas is nothing new – look at Hemingway in Paris – but the Internet has opened a whole new world of possibility. What are the advantages for you, as an Editor, of taking stories from writers on the move?
Tim Leffel: It doesn’t matter where a writer is based for me, though it could be advantageous if they are living in the place overseas that they are writing about to add more depth. I haven’t kept count, but I would imagine I’ve gotten material from people living in at least ten different countries.
At some point in a few years I’ll probably be putting out Perceptive Travel from another dot on the map for a while as we’re talking about taking a family sabbatical in Latin America for a year or so. As I learned living overseas in a couple of places, amazing things can happen when you cut your cost of living in half.
Someone living in another place can start a website or blog related to that region as well, finding a good niche, and make some more income from that. There are definitely a lot more opportunities now to work from somewhere else and still get paid in the home country.
BNT: So – I’ve sold my car, sharpened my pencil, packed my bag, shot my dog and am all set to break into travel writing. The night before I quit my day job I go out and celebrate.
Just before last call, I stumble up to the bar for one last round and bump into…Tim Leffel. You ask me what I’m celebrating, then throw back a shot of tequila, grab my arm, look me in the eye and say…
Tim Leffel: “Dude, what have you been smoking? Why not become a movie star or a famous singer in a rock band while you are at it?”
This job is just as competitive as those, but with less potential payoff. Almost every travel writer I know is either doing something else to make a real living or they wrote part-time for years before making the big plunge once they had enough solid recurring assignments or royalties.
It takes a lot of time to build up a solid track record and often it also takes a long time to get paid for your work.
“Break into travel writing” is a good goal, but “making a living at travel writing” is a whole other goal, one much higher and more difficult to attain-and getting harder I might add. I would suggest reading this: The 7 Myths of Being a Travel Writer.
Like any “cool job,” you have to pay your dues for a while before earning real money. It’s great fun much of the time, and an enviable position, which is why the competition is so strong and the pay so weak.
BNT: No cop-outs allowed on this question: You’ve published dozens of great stories at Perceptive Travel. Which one is your favorite and why?
Tim Leffel: I am often surprised at which stories get the most traffic and shout-outs from bloggers, so my taste certainly isn’t the most important factor.
Personally I tend to like writers with a well-honed irony meter and a good sense of humor. I loved Rolf Potts’ story from the very first issue and it went on to be selected for one of those Best American Travel Writing anthologies you mentioned, so I was not alone on that one.
Same with Wendy Knight’s story about the dangers of Colombia versus her return to New York City: that one struck me right away and it won a big writing prize from a NATJA. I really liked Shari Caudron’s story about creepy marionnettes in Prague, in the recent Sept/Oct issue.
In between, there’s a whole lot of good stuff in those archives, including some more serious pieces, so we’ll see what stands the test of time. I can’t pick just one though-sorry!
For more Tim Leffel, check out PerceptiveTravel.com and TimLeffel.com
Thinking about submitting a great travel narrative to Perceptive Travel? Hold your horses. Right now, Tim only publishes stories from authors who have already published a book. Still raring to go? Check out the submission guidelines.
Photos by Leif Petterson, Originally published at PerceptiveTravel.com. Used with permission.
Both Tim Leffel and Tim Patterson disapprove of shooting dogs. Just wanted to make that clear.
Did Tim’s answers stir any thoughts of your own? Leave a comment below!