Travel writing - its part in saving the world

TRAVEL writing isn't just an excuse for journos to swan around the globe's tastiest destinations at someone else's expense, as LFB found out at April's meeting. In fact, according to Andrew Mueller, LFB member and contributor to the acerbic travel guide book The World's Most Dangerous Places, and Rough Guides writers Ian Stewart and Marc Dubin, very often it's at your own expense.

The travel guide book business works by its own set of rules, with freelance contributors earning the responsibility to research, write and update a country guide in return for a modest advance on royalties. Most surprising of the many details Stewart and Marc Dubin revealed was the fact that guide book writers are expected to fund their research trips out of their advances: try spending eight weeks in Chile and getting change out of your £1500. As a rule of thumb they suggest it's not worth going unless the advance is twice the expenses for the trip.

The up-side is considerable. If your destination becomes the next hot place to visit, you can coin it in: one Rough Guides author has become a millionaire from his well-timed book on Thailand. But you're also at the mercy of global events and our old friend, The Market; the Branch heard of one scribe who seems doomed to forever remain five figures in debt after doing a guide to Argentina. It was ruinously expensive to visit, and has hardly been over-run with guide book buyers since the economic trauma of 2002.

The Rough Guides authors have formed what amounts to a freelance chapel. They established a network when the company was taken over. While initially greeted with less than open-armed enthusiasm from management, they've begun to see successes. The company has recently retreated from single-fee buy-out contracts on a key new range of titles, which means contributors will continue to benefit from the re-formatting and repackaging of extant text and images that seems to be the way the industry is going.

Mueller's problems more to do with that other bane of the freelance life, the lack of an outlet for a good story. Anyone with a yen to write about little-covered destinations will frequently despair at the intransigence of newspaper travel editors, who want "interminable puff pieces about palm-fronded Carribean hideaways or this month's allegedly hip Eastern European capital, interrupted only by the annual 'Cuba: Land Of Contrasts' piece."

Not bog-standard puffs

Travel supplements, of course, need to sell ads to package tour operators, who tend to not offer trips to Mueller's favourite places - like Baghdad, Beirut and Kabul. But Mueller argued strongly that it is the responsibility of travel journalists to tell these little-heard stories.

"Indifference to foreign places becomes less likely the more people feel they have a stake in them," he concluded. "You always take more interest in a news story if it's about somewhere you have a connection with - whether you've visited it, have friends from there, or even just once read a really memorable article about it. Orthodox news coverage has an obvious value, but it doesn't encourage that sort of attachment - by definition, foreigners almost only ever appear in it as victims. Travel writing, when it is done well, can make them look like people, and now more than ever, I think it's important that we do that."

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