Before the days of the Internet, it was difficult to be published. One of the arcane rules was a version of Catch 22: You have to be published in order to get published. Since there were relatively few publishers, it was a hard nut to crack. With the advent of almost universal publishing opportunities, it's much easier now: You simply publish yourself.
Before we go into the ease of self publishing, however, let's look at getting published the old-fashioned way, by someone else. If you have a contact related in any way to some kind of publisher, whether it be print or electronic, call and offer your work. If the reply is, as so often is the case, "we have no budget for freelance work," consider giving your article to them for nothing. Why? You want bylines, to build up a collection of your published work. Clippings from what you have published will accumulate until you have enough to show that you have already been published, and this will help you get your next, better, paid assignment.
Maybe you don't know anyone in publishing. In that case, start with any outlets you may have occasion to see. You can start even with local free publications, the variations on the Penny Saver type of handouts. (It's better if they have a name other than Penny Saver, as most do now.) Offer them articles about the area or nearby, depending on what the editor needs. Sometimes they need filler when there aren't enough ads to fill up the pages. Better that it be something intelligent and interesting, even amusing, from you than the usual kind of dull filler (frequently stolen from the Farmer's Almanac or some such) written by the unemployed cousin of the advertising department's manager.
Then work your way up through such publications as your alumni magazine, the Elks or Eagles newsletter, town or city magazines, regional publications, to the national theme magazines (bird watching, pet lovers, knitting, whatever). Mine the Internet for print or electronic magazines, newsletters, newspapers or other forms of publications that might take freelance work. Consider also going to the library, where you can browse through such reference books as The American Directory of Writer's Guidelines. Better yet, ask the reference librarian to help you look.
An easy way to get your first work published by larger publications is to write very short pieces, often called "postcards," often in the front part of magazines before the longer features are placed. Many publications like these short pieces because they fill in the blank spots where they didn't sell an ad. They are often just 100 to 500 words in length, and if you can command $1 a word or better, that's a dandy little check in the mail for you. You can send these straight to the editor of the publication without having to first write a Query Letter (see below) before you settle down to compose the article.
(Query Letters. To communicate with the publications you want to write for, you'll need a Query Letter, or proposal, which I'll take up in a future lesson.)
Most writers think self publishing is only for books, and that's an important outlet, of course. But you could also start your own newsletter, magazine or even newspaper, in print or online, which I'll get to in the next lesson. Remember though, authoring a book makes you an immediate expert on the subject of your tome, at least in the public eye. Consider whether you want the book to be in print, on line, or both, the latter option being what I recommend. If you self publish, you will be in good company, as is evidenced by some famous authors who were first self-published, allegedly, including Mark Twain, James Joyce, Edgar Allen Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Walt Whitman and many more.
Your book should be, in all probability, concerning one of your three (or more) areas of expertise, either a destination or a thematic subject. While it used to cost from $12,000 to $15,000 to publish 2,500 copies of a plain book of 240 pages (with no photos), you can now get books printed on demand for just about $8 to $10 each copy for a few hundred copies or less. If you want very few printed copies, you can pay about $50 each for up to ten copies, perhaps. A good book on self publishing is The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poynter, available at www.amazon.com and elsewhere.
The reason many authors want an established publisher to print their books is simply for decent distribution. It's fine to have a few hundred copies of your magnificent work on hand, but how can you get them sold to complete strangers? I know of authors in the past who always kept their car trunks filled with copies of their books and never passed a book store or other possible retail outlet without going in and offering to leave at least one copy on consignment. (Meaning, the author should get paid if it's sold, but gets nothing if the book isn't sold.) You have to leave an invoice with the outlet so that the presumably honest seller will know where to send you your money. A common wholesale price from you to the retailer is 30 to 50% of the cover price in this kind of direct case. Which leaves you with more money than the usual 10% to 15% royalty you'd get from an established publisher, of course, if that entity sold your books to the book store.
If you do your own publicity and promotion and do it effectively for your self-published book, you may sell many copies, and you may even have a phone call from an established publisher wanting to pick up distribution (and risk) for you. Well-known examples of this happening are the Jean Auel books on prehistoric mankind and books such as Christmas Box and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Eragon, a self-published fantasy by a teenager from Montana, was picked up by Knopf in a three-book deal said to be worth $500,000 back in 2004.
In the next lesson, we'll take about publicizing your book, regardless of who publishes it, even if that is yourself.
This is the ninth in a series of "How to be a Travel Writer." The author, a contributing editor here and former editor-in-chief at the Fodor guidebook series, teaches at the Key West Travel Writing Workshop, which he founded in 1991, every January and February. Details at www.heritagehousemuseum.org.