"You have a dream job!" Half the people I meet for the first time tell me that, and I agree. It's heaven for me because I am intensely curious, always wanting to know what's around the next corner. When you travel, there's always a new next corner, a new surprise. It's no way to get rich, and it can be hell on family and other relationships because you seem never to be home, from their point of view, anyhow. You can't be a new parent, for instance, or taking care of an ailing family member. The most prolific travel writers are away at least a quarter of the time, I believe, sometimes half the time.
About ten years ago, a television network ran a series about "Dream Jobs," which I happened upon by chance. They said they had polled a nationwide sampling of people and came up with everyone's dream list. When I tuned in, they were telling of how a food critic made an average of $50,000, so I stuck with the program, and sure enough, Dream Job # 2, they said, was Travel Writer. They showed a writer perched on a yak in Tibet or somewhere, scribbling a few notes and taking photographs, then said the "average" travel writer made $100,000 a year. I recovered from the floor, where I had fallen laughing, to hear that the Number One Dream Job in the popular mind, they said, was "movie actor." Not TV star or pop singer, but movie actor.
Deciding to check this out before repeating it, I contacted the network, which told me a production company on the west coast had furnished the story, taken the poll, etc. I wrote, emailed, phoned, faxed and otherwise tried to get the production company to tell me how they had taken the poll, how many persons were questioned, etc. I got nowhere, so on a later trip to that part of the country, I phoned for an appointment and getting no reply, went there to see what was up. I never made it past the receptionist. I had to conclude they made the whole thing up or had some other reason to refuse to see me. I remembered, of course, that everything is entertainment these days, including some person's idea of "reporting" in many cases. The show wasn't pure fiction, though. I later met the writer they had shown on the yak, and he said that he did make $100,000 "in my best year, including sales of photography rights, of course." (That's the truth -- you can double your income if you can take good photos and write well, not an easy combination.)
But, yes, it is a dream job. It's a continuing education of the most enjoyable sort, involving history, geography, culture, gastronomy, language, literature, religion, sociology, anthropology -- you name it, travel writing takes you there, in every sense of the word. You will never be bored, especially if you keep your heart, eyes and ears open, your mouth mostly shut, and have left your preconceptions at home.
What Today's Audience Wants
Although I began my career in guidebooks and spent much of it there, I know that viewers and readers today want more than just the facts. Earlier guidebooks were very strong on facts, very short of interpretation, starting with classics like Baedeker. (You could argue that Homer's Odyssey was a guidebook, but I would call it a personal narrative. Some claim that spies were the first travel writers, but I doubt if Moses' agents in Canaan wrote anything down, as they reported verbally, no doubt.)
Readers today, on the web or in print, are more sophisticated. They know how to get the facts (guidebooks such as Frommer's, or websites such as this one.) What they want now, I believe, is interpretation by well-traveled contemporaries, writers like Pico Iyer, Paul Theroux and Arthur Frommer himself in his outspoken columns and commentaries. Although Americans are beginning to enjoy their second or third decade of such writing, the British have been in that field since the turn of the last century, and perhaps even before.
Young lords (almost never ladies) of the 18th century made a Grand Tour of the Continent, taking their luggage trunks, valets, tutors and other hangers-on with them, and bearing letters of introduction to foreign nobility. They often stayed a year or more, learning Italian in Italy, dining in France, architecture and dueling in Germany, perhaps even archeology in Greece. Then they came home and many wrote of their travels, some even going so far as to print them up in limited editions for their friends to read.
Americans today have traveled a lot, enough so that many of us want to compare our experiences with those of other visitors, especially to foreign climes. Some of my friends insist they get as much pleasure in reading about a place they have just returned from as in reading before they go, as they can now see themselves in the pictures described. Advisers frequently suggest reading novels about a place to be visited, to get a sense of it before going. Personally, I prefer not to study up much on where I'm bound, as I want to be surprised, to discover things naturally (if not innocently) and not by design. Until I got into the guidebook business, I never studied up on destinations before traveling, trying to journey serendipitously whenever possible. Somehow, I suppose, that put me ever so slightly into the realm of exploring, or maybe I was just ahead of my time and living like countless young backpackers do today, never quite knowing where I would be sleeping that night.
Guidebooks like Baedeker's (from 1832) spent most of their many, many words describing cathedrals, castles and museums, with nearly nothing about practical information, such as hotels, restaurants, government papers and rules of the road. Later on, with the development of the rubber tire in France, Michelin began issuing pamphlets about where to get tires fixed or to buy new ones, then added listings of restaurants and hotels. Their Red Guides are still all practical information, the later Green Guides taking up where Baedeker left off in describe sights to be seen.
Probably the first combined book of note, with both description of sights and listings of helpful information, was issued at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, by an unknown author and publisher. Later in the mid 1940s came Sydney Clark's books, but most important of all was Eugene Fodor, who published 1936 on the Continent as the first in his still famous series of books covering the globe. In addition to the classical stuff and listings, he added essays on the life and people of the country concerned, providing a triple template for many other books and series to follow.
In 1957, the next important development in guidebooks was the series started by Arthur Frommer after serving as a GI in postwar Germany. The concept of traveling cheaply and wisely took off and has been a winner ever since. His books and related volumes published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. now cover almost every kind of interest, activity and economic bracket.
The final development in guidebooks, electronic or printed, is the niche book, with titles involving shopping, various sports, visiting museums, sleeping in castles, traveling to get medical work done, and the like. There now seems to be a guidebook for every taste in travel, including Robert Pelton Young's The World's Most Dangerous Places.
A Short Reading List
The future of travel books and websites will see many more personal descriptions of sense of place, of memoirs, of blogs, even, giving readers a chance to compare their experiences with those of others. Among dozens of great writers I have enjoyed and whose writing evokes wonderful visions of their world are this handful: Eric Newby for A Short Walk Through the Hindu Kush, Rose MacAulay for The Towers of Trabizon, Pico Iyer for Video Nights in Katmandu, Paul Theroux for Red Rooster, and John Bernard for Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil.
This is the second in a series of "How to be a Travel Writer." The author, a contributing editor at Frommers.com 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.
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