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How do you make money as a travel writer during a pandemic?
Warning: a pep talk lies ahead...
As soon as the sh*t got serious in the UK back in March, my income dropped off a cliff. I was on the cusp of having my best year yet financially, and then 99% of my work fell apart overnight. Trips were cancelled, contracts were cut short and commissions fell through. I lost almost £20,000 of planned income. I’m sure it was a similar situation for many of you, too.
Five months later, it’s still pretty dire out there. While July saw little green shoots of potential as the government lifted travel restrictions and the media scrambled to cover the resumption of summer holidays, the continuing flip-flopping over quarantine rules and travel ban exemptions is still damaging an already fragile industry. It’s easy to have no hope.
There are, simply put, not enough opportunities out there for all of us right now – and that’s a scary thing. It means we’ve got to work harder than ever, probably for less money than ever, to try and do a job we were doing six months ago without half as much effort. All in all, it’s pretty bleak.
That’s why some of us have had to diversify over the last few months. I, for example, have been selling my good health for stories, after signing up to the coronavirus vaccine trial in Oxford and writing patient diaries for The Telegraph (look out for my next instalment in this week’s health pages). And Steph has been using her creative prowess to write sales pages about the female anatomy for a healthcare company. Her finest achievement? Getting the phrase “If you wouldn’t put it in your mouth, then don’t put it in your vagina” onto their website.
And lots of you have been creative about the way you’re making money. Lynn Houghton told me she’s been expanding into other areas of journalism, getting commissions on foraging and the climate crisis for non-travel publications, while Kat Barber said she has started teaching English online. My favourite pivot, though, is Tracey Davies’ new career in delivering eggs and other delicious things with her daughter, all for the very punny Sussex Organic Eggspress.
But what now? With the second SEISS grant hitting bank accounts this week, many will need to think about what they’re going to do when the cash runs out. And lots of us aren’t eligible for much, or anything at all, so we’re already quietly wondering how autumn is going to pan out. I say quietly, because so many of us in this industry present a picture of busyness to show just how successful we are – success breeds success, after all, and so the busier you look, the more work you get (or so goes the theory).
I’m guilty of this, and some of you are probably too. But it’s not always to our advantage. Right now, so many of us have taken knocks, financial and emotional. Both Steph and I have discussed our waning self-confidence in the wake of this pandemic, and I know so many of my friends in this industry are feeling it too. We’re scared, stressed, and possibly feeling a bit worthless. “What’s the point?” is the question on many a mind. Can we even make money as travel writers during a bloody pandemic?
The answer is: yes, but it comes with a caveat. Yes you can make money as a travel writer right now, but probably not as much as you’d like (or need). And yes, you can make money as a travel writer right now, but it’s absolutely fine if you don’t want to try. It’s hard bloody work – harder than before – often deeply demoralising, and for many of us, trying isn’t a viable option when you’ve got rent/bills/a mortgage to pay.
I recently asked my travel writer Twitter following how they’ve reacted during this crisis, and the results overwhelmingly pointed towards a shift away from travel writing. Well over half said they were trying to pivot away from it, largely without success so far. It’s hard, but don’t forget, you are a remarkably skilled human being. Travel writing encompasses so many talents (storytelling, negotiation, interviewing, time management, effective communication), so you’re not as boxed in as you might feel.
I’m in that ‘tried to pivot but failed so far’ camp. I’ve been pitching non-travel stuff for months with little success, and have even applied for some incredibly random jobs in fear that my mortgage won’t get paid if I don’t. I’ve still not had any luck, but I have managed to keep up with a little travel writing here and there.
In fact, in July I had my best COVID-era month and scraped together just over £2,300 in revenue. I don’t tell you this to brag – I just want to be transparent, because I believe open and honest conversations like this help everybody. So in the interest of being open, here’s how July broke down for me, and how each of my commissions came about.
£466 – Overseas trip with a day-rate, feature commission and some expenses paid; editor I know well approached me for the job.
£395 – two blog posts for two different commercial clients, one of which approached me out of the blue thanks to our interactions on Twitter, and the other I pitched.
£157 – BBC Radio 4 piece for From Our Own Correspondent; story pitched by me (had previously worked with the programme, but not this producer).
£625 – Writing, image sourcing and uploading for a regular editorial client; they approached me with the work after I tweeted saying I was twiddling my thumbs.
£400 – two UK-focused travel stories; I pitched these to editors at a national paper.
£175 – Last-minute newsy commission from a publication I’ve not worked with before; editor approached me as we met on a press trip three years ago (!) and she knew I had the connections for the piece.
So, even while it feels like the entire travel industry and media is on fire, there are still things we can do to proactively seek out income – be it pitching, hitting up old contacts, or simply being a bit honest on Twitter about having no work.
If you’ve got the energy, Steph and I have put together our top tips and best resources for finding work below.
Good luck and godspeed, travel friends.
Still got the hustle in you? Here's where to channel it
Subscribe to: Freelance Writing Jobs by the delightful Sian Meades-Williams
Pay for: The Professional Freelancer by Anna Codrea-Rado. It’s £9 a month but the back catalogue is well worth the investment, and she’s currently running a series on how to get regular paying gigs).
Sign up to:Pitchwhiz, a platform where editors share calls for pitches (Lottie got a commission from this platform in June).
Tweet about: your availability. This guy has been busy since June thanks to his viral plea for clients.
Email: past clients. You never know who might need some regular content, so remind them you're at your desk.
Reach out: to former colleagues and other people you know in the industry. Word-of-mouth goes a long way when it comes to landing gigs and those who know the quality of your work are best placed to recommend you.
Update: your Twitter bio, LinkedIn profile, Contently portfolio and professional website to make sure they're fully up-to-date and reflect any new topics you now cover - editors and other clients often find writers by searching for these types of keyword phrases.
Pivot: to adapt your skillset to the changing landscape of the media. Copywriting and content marketing jobs in other industries are a great source of sustainable income, with the Freelance Content Marketing Writer Facebook group and book great places to start.
Acronym of the day
ALCS — The Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society is an organisation that claims money for writers for ‘secondary uses’ of their work - i.e. photocopies, cable retransmission, digital reproduction and educational recordings. If you've ever written anything that has been published or broadcast, you may well have monies due and now's the time to join, with the bi-annual payment for members hitting bank accounts next month. Writers have been paid hundreds of pounds in royalties from their work.
Breathtaking — Struggling with respiration because you’re at an altitude sickness inducing elevation? No? Find a better adjective.
We were pleased to see the National Trust showing leadership around the very real - and oft-ignored - topic of how many of their properties have roots in slavery.
Find out how you can cycle/walk/paddle your way towards helping rangers in Africa whose livelihoods have been devastated by the pandemic with the wonderful initiative, Ride4Rangers. You can donate here to support Lottie's own fundraising paddling efforts as she kayaks 10km along the Thames this weekend.
This dark piece shines a light on the Chinese government's sinister use of press trips to refute claims of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang province.