Until the advent of the Internet, it used to be difficult to get published. Unless you produced radio, television, slide talks, or cinema programs, there was only print. You could send your manuscript to the editors of a book publishing house, a magazine or a newspaper, and hope for the best. You could, if you had a hefty sum of money, get published in print on your own, through a vanity publishing house, or by starting up your own magazine or newspaper. (Don't laugh, printing a tabloid newspaper isn't all that expensive, though a lot of trouble.)
Before the Internet, I used to advise students there were three kinds of print available. For contemporary effect, turn to the newspaper, I said. For glamour, with glossy pages and gorgeous photographs, consider the magazine. But for immortality, you should write a book. Today, I add that for instant notice, you publish on the web in one form or another.
There are drawbacks to the traditional print forms, of course. Getting into a newspaper is easier than the other print media, but the pay is always far less, as I noted in my article on freelancing earlier. Major newspapers seem to be in trouble, as always, but suburban and regional papers are expanding, so you need to research the changing scene. The majority of newspaper readers, surveys show, are mature people, the young relying on the Internet for their news.
Getting your article accepted by a print magazine is difficult, as there are so many competitors angling for the relatively few opportunities, and it is often months between submitting your manuscript and its final appearance. The pay, however, is much better, and there seem to be new niche magazines popping up every week. There are many new luxury magazines, for instance, all devoted to flattering the rich and tempting readers with mouth-watering advertisements. There's even 02318, a magazine about Harvard, for Harvard alumni, and published by Harvard grads. (It occasionally mentions that there are other universities in the world.)
As to books, being an author conveys benefits above and beyond the royalties or fees you can get, the main one being that you automatically become an expert on the subject of your tome. Few people ever write a book, and millions read books, with nearly everyone aware of how much work goes into producing one. The work itself in most cases deserves respect.
In the Society of American Travel Writers, you need author only one book, or revise it heavily, every 18 months to keep your membership current. In contrast, you need to publish dozens of articles yearly just to get in.
Sol Stein, a famous editor, says in his marvelous book, On Writing, that publishing your book also is nearly permanent proof of your work. He tells the story of Elia Kazan, the late Hollywood and Broadway producer (On the Waterfront,), who wrote about coming to America as a child with his Greek parents, in the book, America, America, which Stein edited. A short while after the book came out, Stein was visited by Kazan, who came to the editor's apartment on the spur of the moment, to thank him again for helping him get the book in shape for the publisher. Kazan said that his mother had never learned English well, and though happy with her son's success on Broadway and in film, never showed much interest in the cinema or the shows. But she was ecstatic when he wrote the book. "Finally," she said to him, "I have something I can hold in my hands and show my friends when they ask what it is that you do!"
What kind of money can you earn from books? In the old days, unless you owned a publishing house, you were limited to royalties or a flat fee. If you were willing to sign away your copyright and take a fee, you might get $10,000 or maybe $20,000 for writing a complete book, usually for a series. You would ask for, and sometimes get, one-third on signing the contract, one-third when you submitted the manuscript and one-third on publication. If the publisher wanted you to revise the book a year or two later, you might get about ten percent of that figure each time you did so.
The royalty route seems better in many ways. In the first place, you keep the copyright to yourself, and your contract should have it in it a provision that if the book goes out of print, you have the right to take it elsewhere after a certain time has passed. The bad news is that you get your royalty, usually around ten percent, in dribs and drabs after the first advance. You should try to get a good advance up front when you negotiate a contract with a book publisher, but if you are unknown, the amount is unlikely to be over $5,000 or $10,000. That amount, too, can be delivered in pieces to you, often, again, in three installments, on signing, delivering and publishing dates.
Then you wait for the real royalties, as the advance is against royalties earned, so you have to hold on until the publisher has sold enough books to equal your advance. Royalties are usually paid twice a year. They will then further delay paying you anything by holding back money "against returns," meaning that they retain funds in case some books they have listed as "sold" (but are really on consignment) are sent back unsold, erasing your royalties forthwith.
Despite frequent proclamations of its demise, the book is not dead yet. The American Library Associations says library use is up nationwide, though I am sure access to computers therein has helped to raise the numbers. The Book Industry Study Group says book publishing will earn about $15 billion this year. Although 27 percent of Americans had not read a book in 2006, an equal number read 15 or more books, an Associates Press survey showed, and eight percent read 51 or more.
This is the sixth in a series on "How to Be a Travel Writer." The author, a contributing editor and columnist for Frommers.com, is a former editor-in-chief of the Fodor Travel Guides, a former president of the Society of American Travel Writers and director of the British Guild of Travel Writers. He teaches his Key West Travel Writing Workshop every January and February in that Florida resort. Details at www.heritagehousemuseum.org.