Why I have no desire to be a freelance writer

My background is as an internet guy. Since I saw my first website back in 1993 (it was a page from the Library of Congress showcasing items from the Vatican Museum) I’ve been doing something, one way or another, online. When I started to travel, my first and only idea was to make a website to share my adventures.

When I started I knew nothing of the travel media industry. I didn’t know how travel writing worked and I would have never pursued writing for another publication because I’m pretty sure that no one would have hired me. To be fair, I wouldn’t have hired myself.

As my writing and photography has improved (I hope) and as my stature in the industry has improved, the option of actually writing for publications has been put on the table.

The problem is, now that I potentially have the ability to write for other publications, the business case for doing so has disappeared. In fact, the more I’ve learned about the business, the less appealing it has become.

Here is a few of the reasons why I have no desire to pursue freelance opportunities:

  1. You just don’t make much money. I was talking to Spud Hilton, travel editor at the San Francisco Chronicle last year and I asked him how much you could make by having an article appear in the Chronicle. I assumed (and I had no basis for my assumption) that it would be around $1,500. It turns out the actual rate is $500. You would need to sell 100 articles at that rate to bring in just $50,000….before taxes. Even if you were to triple the rate, you are still looking at doing a lot of work for not much money. I wont even bother to talk about the abysmal rates you get for publishing online.
  2. Many publications wont cover costs. Many large magazines and newspapers don’t accept stories from sponsored trips. They also don’t cover the costs of your trip. That means that the $500 you get has to cover the costs of taking the trip, which is not a sustainable business model. I know that many writers will try to spin multiple stories out of one trip, but it doesn’t change the fact that the economics still suck. I’m amazed that this isn’t a bigger issue in travel writing circles. There is something fundamentally wrong with a business where revenues can’t cover costs.
  3. It doesn’t advance my core business. Being in print doesn’t help you online. I’ve been mentioned in some popular magazines. I’ve had friends who have been in print. If you can’t click, it almost certainly isn’t going to result in people visiting your site. From the standpoint of a blogger, there is far more value in being in the than there is in being in the New York Times. Moreover, people seldom pay attention to who wrote an article. I usually get offers to meet with readers in every major city I’ve visit. I don’t know of any print writers who have that level of interaction with readers.
  4. It is a hassle. I can write anything I want on my site without anyone’s approval. The moment you have to start pitching someone else, there is an enormous amount of overhead associated with getting a single article published. Unless you have previous relationship with an editor, you will have to deal with a lot of pitching and rejections.
  5. There is a limit to what you can make. Take the most you can get for an article and multiply it by the number of articles you can write in a year. That is limit of what you will make. This is assuming you get a great rate for every article and can pump out many of them. If you own a publication, there is no real limit to how much you can grow. I don’t know why I couldn’t grow my site to 10x what it is currently. It will take work, but it is possible.
  6. There isn’t much of a future. If you read my previous post on the advertising revenue for travel magazines, I don’t think there is going to be a big future in writing for print. The market for online writing is horrible. I’m not sure there is a point to investing effort into something which there isn’t going to be a big future.

I know there are plenty of people who make a living doing freelance writing, but it just isn’t something that appeals to me.

I have had my writing appear on other websites, but it is always without payment and it is intended to serve as a promotional vehicle for my primary website. I also never have to deal with the issues I listed above: sponsored trips, dealing with editors, and traffic generation.

I’ve been on many a press trip where the first question asked of me by writers is “who do you write for?” When I tell them I write for myself, I usually get a look of pity. The reality is, owning my own publication (aka a blog) has far more upside and potential than writing for others ever will.

By Gary

3 dimples. 7 continents. 130 countries.

9 replies on “Why I have no desire to be a freelance writer”

Agreed. Unless your name is Rick (as in Steves) or Arthur (as in Frommer) or a very few other examples, you won’t make very much money as a travel writer.

An interesting perspective and quite accurate.

I started out in the print industry and even in the good ol’ days it was an unsustainable economic model, “something fundamentally wrong with a business where revenues can’t cover costs.” I have always found it the height of hypocrisy that some of the industries top publications won’t accept articles produced from sponsored trips yet fail to offer publications rates that allow writers to create well-written articles, cover their expenses and still have anything left to consider a living wage, never mind a profit.

I too have seen the look of pity when I say “I write for myself.” I think in years to come the pity will evaporate.

Completely agree here, it is too difficult to make a living as a writer. I’d rather spend the time on my own site and supplement income with marketing consulting which pays far better than writing and takes much less time.

Realise the above is how it relates to you, but just as a counterpoint:

1) Don’t write for the Chronicle – write for Travel & Leisure – last time I did, I earned more than double what you note above, wrote the story in a couple of hours and didn’t have to leave my desk.

2) When some business dude flies to London, they often try to have more than one meeting while there to make the trip worthwhile – certainly what I do. Travel writing is no different. Multiple stories out of one trip are essential.

3) But surely it increases your audience? That is something you’ve stated before as being important.

4) Once you know what you’re doing pitching isn’t a massive time suck, especially, as you say, once you have developed relationships — in some cases the eds call you.

5) As writers become more successful, they may write less rather than more — because they are paid more — so as your experience grows, as does your ability to earn. To be fair that goes for online too.

6) Agree.

I’d say overall, a writer just starting out is better off writing for their own site, but I wouldn’t discount also approaching the traditional press just because of the reasons you outline above.

But, individual mileage will vary — if your approach is working for you, that’s great. I almost never write for traditional press, but that’s primarily because I’m kinda busy as is 😉

This. Exactly. -> “now that I potentially have the ability to write for other publications, the business case for doing so has disappeared. In fact, the more I’ve learned about the business, the less appealing it has become. ”

I was just having this conversation with my husband the other day. I adore writing on my own sites; I know what I want, know who my market is. And while the offers and opportunities are there for me to write other places, I turn down the majority of them. Why? Because they want the world and offer so little in return.

Everyone has their own goals and expectations. And, thankfully, they can change. I can remember being a bit intimidated by “real journalists” on my first few press trips. Now, after a few years, I know what I am worth writing “for myself” and how to leverage it. And now CVBs come to me to write in their guides and magazines. Which is fun- and, so far, pays quite well.

Right, but comparing newspapers to magazine writing is like apples to oranges. There’s a reason I transitioned from newspapers to magazines nearly a decade ago–no money in news. That said, magazines can be lucrative in the right market. I wrote three travel features in a two-month period last year that paid $2,900, $3,300 and $7,200 respectively. Not a bad salary for 60 days worth of work.

That said, I started out in the print industry from the get-go, and while I have a website and online company as well, I made the transition the reverse way (print to online) than most bloggers are trying to do. I think it’s much harder to go from online to print if you haven’t had the experience working in a newsroom office or environment and don’t know the ins and outs of how the pitching and assigning process works.

I will agree with you on the it being a hassle point. Sometimes freelancing IS far more trouble than it’s worth.

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