Travel blogging and capitalism

In June I suddenly started hearing about a product called the ‘Paradise Pack’, a package of e-courses and e-books that promised ‘Everything you need to learn how to make money travel blogging online!’ It was on sale for seven days (and seven days only!!). When you clicked to the home page, it asked:

Would You Like To…

Live rent free (yes free!) in villas and penthouses around the globe?

Fly anywhere in the world for less money than you spend on a tank of gas?

Ditch your job and create a business you can run from anywhere in the world?

The package cost $197, though the materials, it claimed, were worth more than $2000; these covered ‘travel hacking’ (credit cards and air miles), ‘freelance blogging’ and affiliate marketing, ‘location independence business mastery’, videography, housesitting, and ‘how to crowdfund your dream on Kickstarter’. There was a language course that didn’t seem to actually teach a language, but helped you pick a language to learn and gave tips on getting started, and the contributors called themselves by titles like ‘Suitcase Entrepreneur’, ‘Location Rebel’, and ‘Freedom Engineer’.

The first interesting thing about the Paradise Pack is that none of the material it contains is about becoming a better writer or photographer – it’s entirely about commodification. In fact, one of the contributors (a ‘Freelance Professor’, apparently) reassures potential buyers that doing quality work is neither important nor necessary:

Do You Need to Be a Good Writer to Be a Freelance Blogger?

Freelance writing has traditionally been a career reserved for those who have spent a lifetime steeped in the vagaries of spelling, grammar and punctuation.

However, the world of freelance blogging offers a level playing field. No longer are writers expected to create perfect pieces every time.

OK so I totally admit that I have no idea what ‘travel blogging’ is other than ‘travel writing, but like on the internet’ (Pam at Nerd’s Eye View has a good post/discussion here). What’s odd is that in the Paradise Pack marketing, travel blogging isn’t framed as really anything worthwhile on its own. It’s explicitly, and exclusively, a way for the package buyer to travel for less money, and feel like they’ve got something for free. (Who doesn’t like free things, right? Especially travel, which is super expensive! And if travel blogger = free travel then wheee let’s go be a travel blogger!)

The second interesting thing is that the Paradise Pack pitches it as travelling ‘for free’, even though it actually requires hundreds of hours of labour performed with no guarantee of return. A ‘freelance blogger’ starting out in 2015 isn’t going to be making much from ad clicks or even content farm work, and as I understand it ‘free travel’ in the form of comped trips is becoming much harder to come by for smaller and newer bloggers (ie, people buying the Paradise Pack), both because lots of people have started blogs explicitly to angle for free trips (ie, as suggested in the Paradise Pack), so competition is high, and governments performing austerity have often cut back on tourism budgets, so availability is low. People buying the pack are being encouraged to set up a blog and write, photograph, film and work on social media in the hope that, at some point, they’ll start making some money (but probably not very much) and receive some comped travel (but probably not very much); but there’s no guarantee that this massive amount of labour will ever receive compensation, it’s being performed completely on spec.

As I said, the pack went on sale in June and I didn’t pay it much attention then, except to think ‘well that’s a bit silly, oh well, get-rich-quick schemes on the internet are nothing new’, but it came back to mind last week when Abigail Nussbaum (read her on everything, by the way, she’s excellent) linked to a post by Jonathan McCalmont, What Price Your Critical Agency? He asks:

“Why do so many bloggers make it look as though they are working an extra job as unpaid interns in the entertainment industry?”

He’s talking about book and film reviewers, but replace ‘entertainment’ with ‘travel’ and it pinged exactly what was so off about the Paradise Pack to me. The pack (and I’m sure many other ‘how to be an [X] blogger’ programs –it’s not the only one, just the one I noticed most recently) doesn’t encourage people to develop and improve their work, to think or learn about themselves or the world. It encourages them to spend their free time and labour trying to sell things on the internet, for no certain compensation and, as more people try it, decreasingly likely success.

I do think blogging is a good thing for writing and for thought; the fact that it’s really easy to set up your own space on the internet and start publishing your writing, without having to go through a gatekeeper, means more voices can not only be heard but can speak to each other directly, which is great. In questioning the use of travel blogging as a kind of WordPress-based frequent-flyer credit program, I definitely don’t mean that barely disguised classist thing of, ‘well, there are travel writers, who read Freya Stark and Paul Theroux and have opinions about Elizabeth Gilbert and go to Book Passage*, and there are travel bloggers, who go on comped group tours and take selfies at Angkor Wat and can’t even write properly, the uneducated poors‘. Instead what’s frustrating to me is the total lack of being bothered at all about the writing and photography part: how the pitch is ‘travel blogging: travel the world for cheap and score free stuff!’ and not ‘travel blogging: finding your voice’ or ‘travel blogging: avoiding ethnic stereotypes’ or ‘travel blogging: what is the rule of thirds anyway?’

Where it gets really interesting for me is looking at established bloggers’ income reports [not just travel], because the biggest chunk of money consistently seems to come from (surprise!) selling ‘how to make money blogging’ e-books and courses. The how-to-make-money-blogging pack even includes a ‘how to write a “how to make money blogging”‘ e-book, because of course it does.

This kind of work seems separate from (possibly parallel to) travel writing as a literary genre, although there’s probably a good Master’s thesis in examining what kinds of things people write in ‘travel blogs’ that are intended primarily as ways of funding travel, not as creative works. And I don’t think this is unusual to travel writing/blogging, it seems pretty common across the internet. I’m just really interested and a bit impressed by how capitalism has managed to take what I think is a clearly good thing – more people travelling, writing about it and talking to each other about their experiences and the world – and turn it into a pyramid scheme of people throwing their labour against the wall and hoping it sticks enough for them to get a free night in a hotel in Florida.

 

*for the record, I have read Freya Stark and have opinions about Elizabeth Gilbert (her writing is smart, funny and warm; she looks a lot like a neighbour I used to hate) and have gone to Book Passage. I have not read Paul Theroux because I have received the impression he’s a bit dude-ponderous. I also have not read Jack Kerouac because oh god life’s too short.

27 thoughts on “Travel blogging and capitalism

  1. I think about these themes you have discussed, a lot, and in my opinion this is the best expression of the whole travel-blogging-scam I have read. Nice work. This is my first read of your website, I'll now explore it more.

  2. I've been running my travel blog for almost 9 years now. I make a good living from it now, but for the first five years, I didn't make anything.

    I've had people ask me many times to create an ebook or a course on travel blogging, but I've always refused to do it. There are several reasons.

    First, I'm really not that interested in blogging for blogging's sake. I keep up on things, but I really have no desire make blogging to bloggers about blogging something I'm known for.

    Second, from a strict business standpoint, the market for bloggers is pretty small. Much smaller than the population of people who just want to travel or learn to take better photos.

    Third, focusing on blogging, marketing, or business takes away from my focus, which is about travel. It is confusing for my audience, and I want to keep on point. I used to talk more about it, but I haven't written about the subject on my main website for several years. When I do have something to say, i do it on my personal website.

    After 9 years I'm finally releasing my first product later this year. It is a on how to become a better travel photographer. Nothing to do with social media, marketing, business or blogging.

    One problem is that most bloggers judge success based on traffic, followers, or money. Those things are all great, but I don't know why wouldn't would bother to get into this if they don't want to be respected for creating quality work.

    1. I think your last point nails it, which might be because it's easier to count followers than it is to judge the quality of your own work. I mean obviously if you're doing something just for the money, success means making money, but the returns are so poor that it doesn't make sense to me to pick this as the thing to do just-for-the-money.

  3. I read a lot of travel blogs. Some are good and insightful; others simply seem to sell a place, which is fine with me because I often just want to know what to see and do if I travel there. I have noticed that several of the bigger, more established bloggers sell ebooks or online courses on how to be a successful travel blogger. I’ve often wondered how much money they make from those. I can see the appeal– they make travel blogging seem like a dream job. It’s usually only the newbie who doesn’t realize that to be that successful, you have to treat it like a job. It’s a lot of work getting paid to write.
    Juliann recently posted…Harper Lee’s Hometown – Monroeville, AlabamaMy Profile

    1. It's a lot of work getting paid to write.

      Yes, exactly! And it seems like it gets sold as 'how to make money off your hobby', when it stops being a hobby when it becomes a thing you do for money instead of a thing you do for fun.

  4. Really interesting to hear about the Paradise Pack – it's schemes like this making me feel jaded about blogging sometimes. I don't blog to make money (and if I did, I'd have given it up ages ago!), but it's so frustrating to hear people say that spelling, grammar, etc. don't matter, and that getting freebies should be above actually being able to write.

    Maybe I'm sad for still thinking things like spelling are important, or that your passion for writing and telling a unique story should be more of a priority than getting popularity or cash, but I just think it's sad to see the Paradise Pack and similar schemes being promoted as the way forward. Good for you on telling the other side of the story! (P.S. Definitely don't bother reading Kerouac – vastly overrated).

    1. I do think that most bloggers who aren't bothered about writing well aren't going to do very well (in general – there are always exceptions!) and like you say are likely to stop doing it pretty soon. The part that makes me sad is all the time and effort (and money!) they waste first.

  5. Jodi of Legal Nomads just pointed me in the direction of this post, and I'm so glad she did. I just wrote a huge post about what I know/think about travel blogging, and you've touched on so many things I believe. What happened to quality writing, even on the "lowly" travel blogs?? As Gary said in his comment above, "One problem is that most bloggers judge success based on traffic, followers, or money. Those things are all great, but I don't know why they would bother to get into this if they don't want to be respected for creating quality work." I totally agree – I think that success should not be and cannot be defined by numbers alone. My blog certainly is nowhere near the biggest blog out there in terms of numbers, but I'm super happy with it and consider it a great success.

    And I laughed out loud at your Kerouac comment. Please don't be turned off by my blog name then – it comes from one of his quotes. But do you believe me when I say that I legitimately thought I was just coming up with a nice-sounding name until I googled it and realised he had written about battered suitcases?!

    p.s. keep meaning to go to Book Passage, but it never works out!

    -Brenna

    1. Book Passage is GREEEEAT, it is quite expensive but a really really useful weekend with lots of really quality people (both as teachers and as, er, actual people). Also I know many fine people who have read and like Kerouac! Some of them I still even speak to! ;)

      Your #1 is so on point that I want to get it embroidered and hang it over my bed.

  6. Also loved your line about Kerouac. So true!

    Coming from a comms background, good writing and engaging content are what appeal to me and make me stick with a travel blog.

    If you’re making money, good for you. If not, enjoy writing for yourself, friends and whoever else is reading.

  7. I'm from social-democratic Denmark so I shouldn't be posting this, but I don't think it's capitalism that has turned travel blogging into something less interesting than it used to be, I think it's less interesting travel bloggers who have turned to capitalism. But that's the egg and the hen, I guess. Otherwise I agree with everything written here, especially cause it's long and free of affiliate links.

    1. I'm curious why that means you shouldn't be posting this! :) I mean capitalist in the sense of people exchanging labour for capital, then exchanging that capital for food/shelter/swish plane tickets. Without that, I don't think there would be a market for courses about how to spend less capital on travel ('travel the world for free!') by spending more labour (blogging).

  8. "Travel blogging isn’t framed as really anything worthwhile on its own."

    Because it isn't. Those involved in the pack recognise that. What's "worthwhile" is merely a matter of opinion. I find writing this comment worthwhile even though people reading it probably think I should just go die.

    Likewise when I read a "10 things about how cool the time was when I inserted my selfie-stick so far up my arse that they kicked me off my press trip that's ROI can never be measured anyway" kind of post that I deem to be a huge waste of time but is probably benefiting someone.

    Let's just stop fighting the noble 'craftmanship' fight and just jump cap-in-hand on the capitalist bandwagon. The Universe will never bend the way of the lonely warrior. Might as well just learn to be a travel hacker and attempt to fill our boots living with no greater concern other than that of gratifying our lonely, sex deprived, jealousy-ridden, success-bashing, loathsome selves.

    I have deep respect for those people selling their products in this package. Namely because they realised that emotional disconnection and preventing yourself getting caught up in pointless debate is critical to just ploughing on, releasing a product and cashing in. And secondly because it's only as a collective that they're being critiqued.

    Separate their work up and their individual messages and you'll see a lot of them care about quality, craftsmanship and facilitating debate.

    Slap $200 on a product and market it keenly though and it's obvious the type of concerns you list will rise to the surface.

  9. Hi Kerry,

    I really think you should give "The Great Railway Bazaar" a go. It's a terrific book, I've read it twice, the second time last winter as I was taking trains in India.

    It's unfortunate the way travel blogging has evolved, and the (often deservedly) bad reputation it has garnered. I am a print writer with a degree in Magazine Journalism and a love of writing, and a desire to both improve my craft and my awareness of how I write about travel and represent other cultures. I started a blog as a platform for my writing and experimented with being a full-time blogger … but it is indeed a slippery slope.

    I was hoping making a name as a "travel writer on the internet" would open doors and lead to opportunities … and it has. But most of those opportunities are either unpaid or would require me to basically change my profession and become a marketer. It's tricky. Not sure how to move forward, especially now that writer's fees have dropped so low.

    I also think many creative professionals are in the same fix. The internet has created opportunities … but at the same time, created downward pressure on fees. And quality is not rewarded … What's the answer?

    1. Thanks for the recommendation – I love trains, so if I ever do try a Theroux it will probably be that one! I've just got the impression he's a bit, er, dour and man-grumpy – not that there's anything wrong with feeling that way, but also not really something I'm keen to spend a lot of time with.

      But most of those opportunities are either unpaid or would require me to basically change my profession and become a marketer.

      TOTALLY. Having thought about it a bit more, I wonder if the model most likely to succeed for writers working independently online – ie without an editor or institution to help sort out income – is one like Patreon and Byline, with lots of readers paying small amounts to writers.

  10. Pyramid scheme – that nails it. As a blogger (who writes a bit about travel) I've been tempted down the path of doing things because 'that's the way you become successful' but often put my brakes on as it's just not me. Many times I've done the exact opposite that everyone who is good at blogging is supposed to do. Your point that people receive rewards 'for free' which actually means hours and hours of commitment and investment in time, energy and sometimes cash for uncertain rewards is so true.

    1. Yes! I'm really embarrassed about some of the things I wrote when I first started, that I thought Travel Bloggers were Supposed to do, and how hard it is to get away from that and just think about making something that's good, instead.

  11. I know this is an insanely old entry, but I just stumbled on your blog and found this entry poignant because a friend of mine spent a good portion of yesterday talking to me about how she wants to become a travel blogger. And I kept being like "you realize it takes a ton of hours to start and is nearly impossible to do effectively?" But she has totally been swayed by the times of ads like this that can make travel free, wee!

    1. OH NOOOOOOOOOOO! This is exactly the thing! The bad thing! Of course the ads make the ~travel blogger lifestyle~ sound appealing, because they are lies aimed at getting her to give them money! ARGH. Good on you for offering a counter voice – even if it doesn't seem like it's made an impact, I think it's always useful to have someone going "um, this may…not be a good idea?"

  12. Great article, sums up everything that depresses me about the 'travel blogging community'. A little bit of me dies inside every time I see a 'Work with me' link on a blog full of clickbaity listicles about '10 things you need to know about staying in a hostel', written by someone who can barely string a sentence together…

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