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Show me the money

Ever dreamed of being a travel blogger? If the answer is yes, how can you make it work for you and pay the bills too?

Show me the money

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Like many travellers, Torre DeRoche started her blog as a modern-day equivalent of the postcard home. She’d decided to sail across the Pacific with an Argentinean boyfriend her parents had never met and figured a regularly updated blog would put their minds — at least partially — at ease.

“I started my blog to let my parents know I hadn’t been kidnapped, mauled by wild animals or locked up in a third world prison,” says Torre.

“My blog recounted stories of the mishaps and discoveries of our voyage, and it found a small audience of regular readers.”

In the not-too-distant future a few more readers would get to know about those mishaps and discoveries and a couple of out-of-the-blue approaches via Twitter have led to book deals in the UK, Australia and North America, while Hollywood has come a-knocking for the film rights.

Love With A Chance Of Drowning is due out in 2013, but Torre isn’t the only one managing to turn her online travel musings — now at FearfulAdventurer.com — into something more lucrative.

In the travel blogging world Gary Arndt is one of the big fish. A serial internet entrepreneur, he decided to travel the world in 2007. “Given my background in the internet, starting a blog was a natural thing for me to do,” says Gary.

Four years later, Everything-Everywhere.com has turned into a lucrative business — he employs an assistant to do most of his travel planning and pays commissions to a manager and agent.

Of course, there’s nothing new about people earning money by writing about their travels. The tradition goes way back, past Bill Bryson (and magazines such as National Geographic Traveler, US), through Robert Louis Stevenson and arguably back to Arabian adventurers such as Ibn Batutta. What the web has done is eradicate most of the costs and cut out the need for middlemen in the publishing process.

It’s free to set up a blog with the likes of Blogger and WordPress, while buying your own domain name and web hosting can cost less than £10 a year. It’s also remarkably easy to get adverts alongside what you write by using Google’s Adsense programme (www.google.com/adsense) or affiliate networks such as Commission Junction (uk.cj.com) or Tradedoubler (www.tradedoubler.com). Adsense gives you small sums every time someone clicks on one of your ads; affiliates give you commission payments every time someone clicks through and then buys something, such as a flight or a hotel room.

So can anyone set up a blog, write about their travels and make a living from it? Gary Arndt reckons there’s a big gap between theory and practice. “Is it possible? Sure. Is it probable? No,” he argues.

“Travel writing has always been a difficult field. Everyone wants to travel the world; there’s no shortage of potential travel writers. While the internet has removed many of the barriers to finding an audience, it’s also massively increased the competition. Of the top 100 travel blogs, I’d say maybe 10-15% are able to make a full-time living from it, and there are a lot more than 100 travel blogs in the world.”

Fellow success story Matt Kepnes (www.nomadicmatt.com) agrees: “Monetisation is always the hard part,” he says. “It’s a lot more than just putting ads up.

“I have to market my website, create products, put the right ads on the right pages. With the internet, you need to really focus your ads to your audience. I would say that all the successful people I know online have their hands in many pots. You need to diversify your income from as many different sources as possible.”

For Matt, that diversification includes writing travel budgeting articles for personal finance websites and selling e-books. Other bloggers run separate sites from their main blog that are more focused on things that sell — reviewing travel clothing and equipment, for example.

By the standards of Torre, Gary and Matt, my own entry into the world of travel blogging is small-fry. I set up GrumpyTraveller.com because, as with many old-school paper-and-ink journalists, I wanted to get some kind of foothold in the brave new online world. It also offered an opportunity to publish whatever came into my head that I felt like writing about. I didn’t need to pitch and sell an idea to an editor, rewrite it to fit a storyline that suited the publication better, or wait months for it to be printed.

It looks ugly, I update it in my spare time and I earn £1,000 to £2,000 a year in advertising. It tootles along as an enjoyable hobby. From experience I know it’s remarkably easy to get a few people to visit your site, read the content and talk about it, but to get them to do so in such numbers that serious money can be made takes a lot of effort and marketing nous.

Can you make money?

Last year I attended a fairly informal travel blogger meet-up in London. Around 100 people were there, most of whom have reasonably well-known blogs. An illuminating question was asked: Whose blog earns them more than £1,000 a month? That’s pretty much the wages you’d get working full-time in a fast food restaurant. Only one hand went up. The consensus was it’s not too hard to earn a bit of cash to fund your travels, but getting to the stage where you can pack in the day job and make a proper living is a much bigger step.

This, of course, is assuming that you’re trying to make money from the blog directly. Some bloggers are successfully using a different strategy. Former optometrist and management consultant Andy Jarosz (501places.com) decided his blog worked best as a shop window.

“I didn’t want to plaster my site with ads and spend my time managing multiple debtors for small amounts,” says Andy. “I figured if I’ve created my own blog from scratch into one that attracts a respectable audience size, I could provide the same service for travel companies. They would benefit from well-written, fresh and regular content that improves their online visibility while attracting potential customers to their site.

“I currently write for four regular clients and sell occasional posts to others on an ad-hoc basis. This makes up the bulk of my income.”

Jodi Ettenberg (Legalnomads.com) works on similar principles. She says: “I get a few offers a week, as I suspect most bloggers do, but I’ve turned down all advertising and paid text links for the site. I declined them because I wanted LegalNomads.com to remain a platform for my passions and interests without having to think about page views.

“Instead, I’ve used the site as a springboard for other things — guidebooks, freelance writing, associations with travel companies I like, etc, — but not on my site, on their respective platforms.

“Writing about travel is only one of my interests, and I’m also interested in public speaking roles, food history and social media consulting.”

I’ve found this a more effective route too. The people who are interested in my travel might not pay me, but people who are interested in my writing will. There’s an important distinction between earning money while travelling and earning money from writing about travel. There’s more to the craft of writing well than just putting words on a page and hoping people click on the adverts next to them — it’s a skill that some people have and others can learn. But, at the very least, an interest in that skill is vital.

This is a factor that can lead to friction. Blogging is a world where the barriers to entry are so low that just about anyone can have a bash. The editorial gatekeepers are done away with, as are traditional publishing processes. Attitudes are rapidly changing, but some established travel journalists still have a sniffy attitude towards bloggers.

Matt Kepnes says he stills sees a lot of resentment. “Sometimes I think it’s jealousy,” he says. “A writer can work his whole life to get to where he is, while a blogger can hit upon a good idea and — because of the way the internet works — be successful overnight. That said, there are many journalists who get that new media is here to stay and they tend to view bloggers more favourably.”

Gary Arndt believes the animosity comes from a small minority: “I’d say 90% of the travel writers I’ve met try hard to understand new media and want to integrate it into what they do,” he says. “The 1% is a very cynical and vocal bunch that seems frightened of the changes that are happening. They also don’t seem to have very successful careers to begin with.”

From my experience, the writers and bloggers attaining any degree of success really don’t care about the labels — they prefer to learn from each other. Attitudes are shifting very fast — most trainee journalists are encouraged to set up their own blog, and quality bloggers who have had no previous paid writing experience elsewhere are recognised as genuine authorities.

The old guard

Some of the old guard, however, have forged a third way on the web. There’s no hard and fast definition of what a blog entails but most travel blogs err towards the inspirational, conversational and evocative. There are, however, individually-run sites that focus on cold, hard information.

Tom Brosnahan’s TurkeyTravelPlanner.com is a great example. Tom applied the knowledge and methods he learned writing guidebooks for the likes of Lonely Planet and Frommer’s to his own site. It’s now a huge, in-depth resource for anyone wishing to travel to Turkey.

Stuart McDonald of Travelfish.org applies a similar approach to South-east Asia. There are some more blog-style articles on the site but the main focus is on planning — where to stay, how to get from A to B, where to find a good meal for relatively little money. Essentially, it’s the sort of information you’d get in a guide book, but being on the web means that it can be kept up-to-date. If something closes or changes, it takes a few minutes to rewrite or remove the relevant information.

Unsurprisingly, Stuart’s background is in writing guide books, but he’s making those skills pay online. He says: “We were profitable from early on — though barely — as we did all the work ourselves and didn’t rent flash office space or, indeed, any office space. We were living somewhere cheap (Phnom Penh then Jakarta), and we both still work from laptops.”

He sees no reason why someone needs to have sat through a journalism degree or training course to be able to do something similar. “Could anyone do it? To an extent, of course!” says Stuart. But he has a warning. “Anyone can learn to write and hone the craft; and anyone who is crazy enough to traipse through 20 guesthouses on a beautiful beach in the tropical heat instead of lazing on said beach can be a travel researcher.”

This is a common theme among those making money out of online travel writing. Everyone I spoke to was keen to stress that it’s not just about travelling, writing about it, then raking in the money. To make a decent living you have to work hard and make certain sacrifices.

Matt Kepnes says: “I don’t clock in or out but, like any small business owner, I’m always working. I’m the CEO, editor, writer, web guru and marketer for my site. It takes a lot of work. If I’m not out doing something, I’m inside working on my website. I put in a lot of hours, and it seems the more successful the website becomes, the more hours I have to put in.”

Torre DeRoche agrees: “Successful travel bloggers are exceptionally driven individuals with a range of skills. Some are gifted at creative writing, while others are skilled with technology. All are entrepreneurial, persistent and hard working. A travel blog is essentially a small business, and all businesses require bucketloads of blood, sweat and tears.

“On weekends, while Average Joe is out draining kegs with his buddies, travel bloggers are normally to be found snuggled up with their best friend, a laptop, as they resolve web coding issues, plan out their next strategic move, and design blog posts that will reach a wide audience.

“Society doesn’t yet acknowledge blogging and social media as a valid career path, so bloggers go blue in the face trying to explain their vision to family and friends. Try telling your parents you’re quitting your job to start a blog and see what they say — they’ll probably urge you to join the circus instead.”

Travel blogging is, however, becoming a credible industry. Tourist boards are running all-expenses-paid familiarisation trips purely for influential bloggers, while travel companies increasingly want people to write quality content for their own sites. Perhaps more importantly, there’s a widespread feeling that a generational shift with advertising executives will soon see the ad dollars shift significantly from print to online.

It’s an industry that’s still foetal, and no one really knows what will happen in the next few years. But Gutenberg probably didn’t foresee today’s mass media and the Wright Brothers couldn’t have predicted the scale of today’s airline industry.

The answer to the question, Can you make money from setting up your own travel blog or site?, is a highly qualified yes. You’ll have to work extraordinarily hard, learn more skills than you may imagine and abandon the concept of a holiday. But the opportunity for a career — and even Hollywood stardom — is theoretically there.

David Whitley blogs at www.grumpytraveller.com and is on Twitter as @mrdavidwhitley
Five top tips for blogging

1. Have something interesting to say: What can you say about a place that hasn’t already been said? What’s new? What’s changing? What’s significant and under-appreciated? How can you tie the information together in a way that’s different, gripping, entertaining, inspiring, or all four?

2. Identify who you’re writing for: If your readers are 20-year-old backpackers, make sure what you write fits their interests. Blathering on about luxury resorts or making Dame Vera Lynn references probably won’t cut it.

3. Specialise: Pick a niche — whether it’s adventure sports, art or Albania — and get really good at it. Experts will always be in demand.

4. Get on Twitter: Most bloggers and writers who you can learn from are there, and they’re amazingly helpful if you join the conversation. It’s also a great tool for promoting your blog posts.

5. Read: It’ll give you ideas, and it’s the single best way to improve your writing.

ESSENTIALS

Blogs

Blogger: www.blogger.com

WordPress: www.wordpress.com

Google’s Adsense programme: www.google.com/adsense

Commission Junction: uk.cj.com

Tradedoubler: www.tradedoubler.com

Torre DeRoche: FearfulAdventurer.com

Matt Kepnes: www.nomadicmatt.com

Andy Jarosz: www.501places.com

Jodi Ettenberg: www.legalnomads.com

Tom Brosnahan: TurkeyTravelPlanner.com

Stuart McDonald: Travelfish.org

Further reading

Grantourismo: www.grantourismotravels.com. Lara Dunston and Terence Carter get under the skin of the places they base themselves in, getting the right mix between people, food, information and great photos.

Quite Alone: www.quitealone.com. Middle East expert Matthew Teller regularly digs out powerful stories that aren’t being covered elsewhere.

Wandering Earl: www.wanderingearl.com. Full-time traveller Derek Earl Baron frequently comes up with blindingly useful tips within the destination content.

Inside the Travel Lab: www.insidethetravellab.com. Abigail King has an uncanny knack for showing a location from a new perspective.

Nerd’s Eye View: www.nerdseyeview.com. Pam Mandel’s humour and passion for writing bursts through in every sentence.

Uncornered Market: www.uncorneredmarket.com. Dan Noll and Audrey Scott’s site is full of heart and insight.

More info

Books: WordPress All-In-One for Dummies. RRP: £16.42. WordPress is the most popular blogging platform.

Travel Writing, by Don George (Lonely Planet). RRP: £7.69. A travel editor’s tips.

On the web

Travelllll.com. News and opinion site for the travel blogging community.

Bit.ly/blogdosh. Heather Cowper of Mybloggingjourney.com has put together arguably the most thorough assessment of how to monetise a blog.