Garden Writers and Travel Writers: Part 1 of 2


First, explain how travel writing works. Who pays for the rooms and the meals
and the airfare?  What kind of freebies are you allowed to accept? What sorts of
ethical boundaries are there?

It can work in any number of ways but here
are the most typical, all of which I’ve experienced:

Some sort of
agency—a national travel board, big resort, PR firm representing several clients
in a given area—will sponsor a press junket or individual trip for a writer or
writers. The sponsoring agency picks up the entire tab, from air tickets to
hotels to meals to in-country tours and entertainment. I’ve traveled to New
Zealand, the Caribbean, the American Southwest and other places this way. A
number of writers make careers out of these sorts of junkets, but I can’t stand
them because you become slave to someone else’s schedule and end up spending
tedious hours on a very short leash being bombarded with PR drivel. It’s like
accepting a beach vacation in exchange for sitting through one of those
three-hour condo-sales seminars. Only in this case, the sales pitch lasts for
ten consecutive days. I find this sort of travel utterly draining, but there are
people who love it and count the junkets as sort of trophies. Naturally, there
is the complete understanding that the result of such trips will be a glowing
feature-length tribute to everything covered in the trip itinerary.

publication assigns a writer to cover a destination, say some place in Colorado
or Mexico. The publication offers a $1,500 story fee and a $500 expense budget.
The writer knows damn well the trip is gonna cost $1,000, but he or she takes
the $500 in expenses and either makes up the difference out of his or her own
pocket (thus the $1,500 he or she gets to write the story becomes $1,000) or he
or she makes calls to local hotels and PR boards (sometimes with, sometimes
without, the knowledge of the publication he’s working for) and arranges comps,
usually for hotels and meals, with the tacit understanding that these hotels
will later appear in his or her story, probably as part of a service sidebar
recommending hotels and restaurants in the area.

A writer travels on his
or her own on spec, without an assignment, pays for every penny of the trip by
him or herself, and maybe arranges comps along the way with hotels and other
places he has relationships with. The travel is his or her "independent" trip.
Once home, the writer will sell stories based on the already-paid-for trip to
various publications. This is the way I recently traveled to Africa. I didn’t
line up a single comp, not because I wouldn’t have accepted one, but because
comps in places like the Congo are hard to come by.

Most rare is a
magazine assigning a writer to travel somewhere and paying 100 percent of
expenses out of an editorial budget. That’s happened for me a few times, but
it’s rare.

The ethics and rules vary by publication but in general
magazines either openly accept the comps or adopt a don’t-ask-don’t-tell
attitude with their writers. There are a few pubs out there that claim they
never take a comp or freebie and maybe that’s true. But most veteran travel
writers have relationships with resorts and PR flacks and travel boards and
accept comp trips on spec here and there, then write about the places they visit
six months later. In this way, the self-righteous magazines that "never take
comps" indirectly run copy borne of comped travel.

Why do you think most travel magazines are so uniformly cheerful and bland? 
Is it really as simple as the editors not wanting to piss off the advertisers,
or is there something else at work here?

Yes, the primary reason is
because ad directors and publishers (who have far more power than editors at
publications), don’t want to upset advertisers. It doesn’t make sense for, say,
Marriott or Continental Airlines or whoever to advertise with a publication if
there’s a danger that the publication will trash one of their destinations or
insult one of their corporate partners. When I was at a major U.S. airline, our
inflight ran a glorious feature story on the splendors of a certain Caribbean
country. The story included one mention of a broken-down truck on the side of a
road and a hotel with paper-thin walls. The country’s Chamber of Commerce or
some important group went nuts over this perceived insult and their indignant
screams went up to the national government level and then to the airline’s
executive offices. This was a big deal, because every airline has to remain on
good terms with governments in order to negotiate for airport gate space,
favorable arrival and departure times, etc. The crisis over that story was
soothed and things returned to normal, but not without a lot of trouble that
filtered down to the magazine and its writers. It just doesn’t make sense for
major corporations to risk offending anyone when hundreds of millions of dollars
could be lost because some snarky writer getting paid a buck a word wanted to
inject a little local color.

There’s another problem, too, and that’s
that editors, like pretty much everyone else in the work force, are overworked
and underpaid. There often isn’t time to really get into a story and make it
great. You just have to keep the copy rolling, even when you know it’s subpar.
Half the magazines I know people at are cranking out more pages than they were
ten years ago, with significantly smaller staffs. Same old story of American
corporate greed—maximize profits, minimize people and quality, contract out as
much as you can to stop paying bennies, and drive morale down in the process. It
doesn’t just happen on factory assembly lines, it happens everywhere.

And, of course, it starts with the writers. There are a lot of good
writers out there, but there are also a lot of bad ones. Writers who happily
fall back on clichés instead of taking an extra five minutes to rework a tired
description. Writers who don’t really think about how to present something in a
new or interesting way. The pack mentality is strong and many people are more
comfortable putting their heads down and following the well-worn path rather
than blazing a new trail. Same goes for writers.

But wait, there’s more!  Tune in Thursday for Part II.


  1. Hmm, my thoughts exactly. Criticism in garden writing is practically – maybe even literally – nonexistent.
    A garden writer recently told me she/he would NEVER review a book that she/he didn’t like. In those cases she/he returns it to the editor so that someone who likes the book can review it. I asked: “So how does that serve the reader?” But serving the reader isn’t the point, is it?

  2. “You just have to keep the copy rolling, even when you know it’s subpar.”

    Even academic publishing suffers from this kind of thing.

    I always get a giggle when some PR person sends me an e-mail with “story idea” as the subject line.

    I work part-time, it’s a 2 person office, we produce 12 issues a year. The most “story” we ever come up with is to edit the marketspeak out of press releases and publish it as “news.”

  3. I was doing some nexis/lexis searches for travel info about Sicily and the best stuff came out of the British press, including some very funny warts and all stories (museums being closed when they’re supposed to be open, hideous weather, scary boat trips) that in no way dissuaded me from our trip. I think the big dailies do a better job on travel stuff, or at least sometimes they do.

    It’s tough for glossy magazines to do gritty, edgy stuff. People don’t seem to want it. We get outcries from everyone when we try to be cutting edge, but we try anyway.

  4. While most of this particular post doesn’t particularly affect me, (as I don’t do much in the way of travel writing) something in the comments piqued my interest, regarding reviewing books.

    Why on earth would I waste my time and the newspaper’s precious space reviewing a book I don’t like?

    I’m with Margaret Atwood on this:
    A. just because I don’t like the book doesn’t mean it’s not a good one, just not to my personal tastes, which ain’t infallible;
    or B. If it IS subpar, why give it even negative attention by writing a nasty review?

    There are far, far too many good, even great, books out there that don’t get any attention. A newspaper like the Halifax Chronicle Herald runs a few pages of reviews each Sunday, but doesn’t have room for a lot, so when I recommend something that I’d like review, it’s because it’s a useful, entertaining, or otherwise attractive volume.

    Occasionally I get to do omnibus reviews of gardening books, where a half dozen to a dozen volumes get a few sentences each, enough to give a reader some indication of why I find it useful.

    And as Michelle observed, we can also turn to blogs, or to reviews elsewhere online, for other information. But again; why would I bother ripping something to shreds if I didn’t like it?

  5. Jodi, why do writers in any field – IT, TV, movies, theater – write honestly and let the chips fall where they may? To inform the reader. Same goes for reviewers of nongardening books. It sounds like Atwood is criticizing devoting space to _nasty_ reviews, and I agree with her.

  6. When I did reviews for our local newspaper, I was assigned books to review and expected to say what I thought, good or bad. Now I’m an editor, and I can assure everyone that most editors prefer to run strong opinion, not always nicey-nice stuff (though puff will always be with us). Readers get bored by that. Sometimes, though, we have a problem convincing advertisers of this fact!

Comments are closed.