Travel Narratives via London

Posted by Chika On 2:12 PM 0 comments

Slimmer Days

Are you a celebrity? Then you can probably indulge yourself and make a journey, then return home and have some ghostwriter pen some drivel about your adventures. Oh. You're not a movie star or TV game show host? In most cases, you are just out of luck, as the following article in The Book Standard makes painfully obvious.

Long Way to a Bestseller
The Book Standard
August 25, 2005
By Giles Elliott


The prevalence of fiction in booksellers' summer-reading promotions means that one of the traditional mainstays of the suitcase or backpack book—the travelogue—now has to fight hard to make itself heard. Paperback editions of Christmas bestsellers have the easiest task, featuring, as they do, celebrities with maximum exposure on television.

Long Way Round (Time Warner), the account of a motorbike trip around the world taken by actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, is one such title and it tops the travel chart. The broadcast on which the book is based was shown only on Sky One—cable and satellite subscriptions in the U.K. are still relatively small—but McGregor's high profile and the popularity of motorcycling books in general has helped sales stay steady and high. The No. 1 TV travel presenter is former Monty Python star Michael Palin, and Himalaya (Phoenix), which chronicles his latest travels—and last, for a while, so the story goes—is going along nicely still in fourth place.

Lower down the celebrity scale, but with a prodigious output of ideas for shows and books, is Danny Wallace. Warner Bros. recently bought film rights to his latest book, Yes Man (Ebury), along with those of its predecessor, Join Me, and he has kept busy in the meantime with a BBC show, How to Start Your Own Country. Wallace's old flatmate, co-author and travel and comedy sparring partner Dave Gorman, meanwhile, has been relatively quiet since his bestselling Googlewhack Adventure was published.

Time Warner and Ebury also provide the two more traditional travel literature titles in the Top Five, both with a distinctly British air about them. Charlie Connelly traveled around all the areas mentioned on radio's nautical weather forecast for his Attention All Shipping (Abacus), while a late-in-life debut comes from Don Shaw, whose The Hike details the adventures of three retired friends walking across northern England.

Lower down the chart, among the multiple Bill Bryson books, lies another couple of new names on the travel-writing map. Another pensioner, Terry Darlington, took his canal boat across the English Channel for Narrow Dog to Carcassonne (Bantam), while Joe Bennett opted to hitch-hike around New Zealand for A Land of Two Halves (Scribner). The status of the genre may have dropped from previous heights, but it still continues to produce excellent and popular books.

The market as a whole is going nowhere fast, though, with mid-August revenue stagnant. It seems that everyone is on holiday.

Top Five Travel Books

1. LONG WAY ROUND, Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman (Time Warner, 0751536806)
2. YES MAN, Danny Wallace (Ebury, 0091896738)
3. ATTENTION ALL SHIPPING, Charlie Connelly (Abacus, 0349116032)
4. HIMALAYA, Michael Palin (Phoenix, 0753819902)
5. THE HIKE, Don Shaw (Ebury, 0091906075)

* Based on sales in Nielsen BookScan's Total Consumer Market in the week to 20th August.

The Book Standard Link

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The End of Freelance Writing

Posted by Chika On 12:05 PM 0 comments

Unemployed Freelance Travel Writer

Slate has just published a fine story about a freelance writer of 30 years who is throwing in the towel. God, how I know the story.

My Life as a Hack
It was glorious. Now it's over.
By Ben Yagoda
Aug. 26, 2005


I can recall seeing only one movie about a freelance writer: Woody Allen's Celebrity. In an early scene, a movie star (played by Melanie Griffith) takes the hack (Kenneth Branagh) on a tour of her childhood home then seduces him in her old bedroom.

That struck me as unrealistic. It's been my experience as a freelancer that film stars almost never invite you to their houses.

It did happen to me once, however. About 15 years ago, Rolling Stone asked me to profile the teenage Uma Thurman. We had lunch at the Russian Tea Room (where Rolling Stone bought Uma a caviar-blini combination so expensive it had an unlisted price) then took a pit stop at her family's apartment on the Upper West Side. There was no seduction, the least of many reasons being that her little brother was due home from school any minute. Even so, the whole thing was a highlight of my freelancing career to that date.

Shortly after I submitted the piece, my editor phoned to say she was so sorry, but they couldn't use it: It wouldn't do to run two profiles of oddly-first-named starlets in one issue, and another editor had inadvertently assigned an article about Winona Ryder. Moving swiftly to Plan B, I mailed (no e-mail yet) the story to American Film magazine, which accepted it. Out of courtesy, I informed my Rolling Stone editor. The next day she phoned: On second thought, Rolling Stone did want to run my piece, only I would have to cut 3,000 words to 900. I was embarrassed to have to withdraw it from American Film, but the connection led to three rewarding assignments from that magazine. Then it folded.

That was nothing new. The majority of magazines I've written for no longer exist. A moment of silence: American Stage, Atlantic City Magazine, Business Month, Channels of Communication, Connoisseur, Fame, Horizon, In Health, Lingua Franca, Memories, New England Monthly, Next, the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Phillysport, Politicks, Push, Saturday Review, Ultrasport, and Working at Home.

We freelancers have always had to put up with magazines that die on us, along with butchered copy, chuckleheaded editors, rights-grabbing contracts, isolation, lost manuscripts, whacks to the ego, changed quotes, the absence of security or benefits, and—unkindest of all—the kill fee (i.e., paying authors a third or a quarter of the agreed-upon rate if an assigned piece is not used for virtually any reason, up to and including the fact that someone else wrote about Winona Ryder). Usually, though, these indignities are outweighed by the good stuff about freelancing: freedom, no commute, funny war stories, the periodic ego boost of appearing in print, and the chance to eat caviar with Uma Thurman.

But something has changed. These days, when the pros and cons are put on the scale, the minus side sinks every time. I've spent 29 years as a freelancer—some of it full time, most of it on the side—but it may finally be time to take down my shingle.

Perhaps this is just the Lion King factor—the circle of life. Freelancing, with all its scrambling and uncertainty, is like rock climbing or white-water kayaking: one of those things that comes fairly easily in your 20s and 30s but requires some mulling over as you enter your 50s.

But I'm convinced that the nature of the game has changed as well. For one thing, the economics of the freelance life seem worse than ever. And they were never good. Just take a look at George Gissing's 1891 novel, New Grub Street, about London hacks barely breaking even. In the cosmos of skilled tradespeople, freelance journalists have always been bottom-dwellers. Plumbers don't do kill fees. Screenwriters have negotiated an ironbound fee schedule: currently, a minimum of $53,256 (I said minimum) for two drafts of an original script, plus $17,474 more for a rewrite and $8,742 for a "polish." But for magazine hacks, an unlimited number of rewrites and polishes have always been gratis.

As far as freelancing rates go, they were modest when I started out and are about the same now. I don't mean the same adjusted for inflation. I mean the same. I became a full-time freelancer in 1978, and the first piece I published in a prominent national magazine was a "My Turn" essay in Newsweek. I was paid $500. Just a couple of years ago, I had a slightly longer essay in a popular online magazine that will go nameless. $500 again. I received the check 97 days after publication, which broke a personal record.

Of course, online publishers are notorious skinflints, but their print counterparts aren't paying much better. According to Writers Market, the freelancer's bible, New York magazine paid $1 a word in 1996 and pays the same rate in 2005. Catholic Digest's fees were $200 to $400 in 1989 and are the same today. The Village Voice was in the news this month for planning to slash its already low fees: Short pieces that used to go for $130 will now fetch $75. There are a few glossy exceptions, but stagnant rates are the rule. That's even worse than it seems. Magazines commonly pay by the word and have been assigning ever shorter articles—which means that writers are virtually certain to get less for a typical piece.

Freelancers are treated this way not because they're schlimazels or because editors are jerks, but because of the law of supply and demand. The Harvard Business School could use freelance journalism as a case study of a buyers' market. Leaving aside a handful of periodicals that value distinctive writing, extensively reported dispatches, and unusual or challenging perspectives, what magazines want is clean and inoffensive copy that fits their magazine's format and fills the space between pictures and ads. There has always been an overabundance of people eager and able to provide this, even if they are treated lousy. Therefore, they are usually treated lousy. Various attempts to form writers unions have failed because everyone knows that if any such organization called a job action against a publication or, God forbid, the entire magazine industry, other adequate writers would immediately step forward to fill the void.

The culture of magazines also seemed different in '78, when I hung out my shingle for the first time. I'm fairly certain I'm not mythologizing when I say that some of the Olympian moments in magazine journalism—the moments when Gay Talese freelanced "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," when Tom Wolfe wrote his profile of Junior Johnson and Michael Herr the pieces that became Dispatches—still retrospectively glowed. The understanding was that good writing was actually a marketable commodity. More: By publishing the right piece at the right time in the right magazine, you could initiate a cultural event.

Today, most freelancers I know aren't even looking to make that kind of splash: They'd just like to pursue stories that are interesting for their own sakes and that allow for distinctive writing. This is a fairly modest wish, but in today's magazine world, it's not a realistic one. Modern titles, formatted to within an inch of their lives, require freelancers to shape experience into small, breezy portions that extol the lifestyle or consumer culture the magazine and its advertisers are looking to promote. The ultimate upside isn't the creation of a cultural event, but the creation of buzz.

Finally, there's the dignity factor. A friend of mine, who never got published in The New Yorker, still treasures the bunch of hand-typed and personal rejection letters he got in the late '70s and early '80s from William Shawn. That's so 20th century. These days, you're lucky to get a form letter. The pocket veto—that is, the unreturned e-mail, letter, or phone call—has become an accepted way of turning down ideas and submissions, even from longtime contributors. A couple of months ago, I sent, through my literary agent, a detailed query letter to a magazine editor he had worked with before. We followed it up a couple of times. No yes, no no, no nothing.

I'm done.

Yo, Uma! Next time the blini's on me.

Slate Link

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Bill Bryson Interview

Posted by Chika On 3:30 PM 0 comments

Bill Bryson

The Washington Post has published an interview with Bill Bryson, one of the world's most highly regarded travel writers.

You traffic in British-American cultural differences. Has the humor of it all become strained, with the tension over the war in Iraq?

No, although it's very easy when you live abroad to get that impression, because the British press portrays America as this kind of mad country that is war-mongering. And you have to stop and say, wait a minute, I know lots of [Americans] who are not completely pro-war and are, from my point of view, a lot more rational. Not everybody [in the United States] is as crazy as they come across in the British press sometimes.

I read that you'd like to get out of the travel-writing biz.

I never really tried to get into it. I stumbled into it by accident. The first book I did -- the first successful book -- was a kind of a travel book, and publishers in Britain encouraged me to do more. And I still enjoy traveling a lot. I mean, it amazes me that I still get excited in hotel rooms just to see what kind of shampoo they've left me.

I still want to go places, but don't want to just write travel. . . . I've mined those veins. I sometimes think I cannot write another passage about a disappointing meal ever again, because I've done it so many times.

What are you working on now?

I'm doing a book which is a kind of travel book, except that it's a memoir about growing up in the '50s in Iowa. My feeling is that it was quite a magical time to grow up. The pattern of life was a lot more sensible and more appealing. And if we'd built on that, if we'd kept the downtowns vibrant places, instead of the way we did go . . .

What's Des Moines like now?

Des Moines is like your typical American city; it's just these concentric circles of malls, built outward from the city. The population of the city is the same as when I was growing up, but its footprint is at least five or six times what it was. The downtown is completely dead.

Who are your favorite travel writers?

I really admire the writing of Jonathan Raban. He wrote a book called "Old Glory," which is about traveling down the Mississippi, and he just described the texture of the water, over and over again. God, I wish I could do that. Paul Theroux I like a lot. I also really like an English writer called Redmond O'Hanlon.

Me too. He reminds me of you.

That's a huge compliment. I wish I could be more like him, because he's very funny, but he's also just so knowledgeable. And he's comfortably knowledgeable, he's not showing off.

I also very much like Tim Cahill. He does the brave stuff, which I admire because I couldn't do that. I'd much rather read about it than try and do it myself.

Any advice for all the would-be Bill Brysons and Paul Therouxes out there?

I always tell people there's only one trick to writing: You have to write something that people are willing to pay money to read. It doesn't have to be very good, necessarily, but somebody, somewhere, has got to be willing to pay money for it.

Washington Post Interview with Bill Bryson

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Rory MacLean Remembers Paris

Posted by Chika On 4:13 PM 0 comments

Alice and the Mad Hatter

Rory MacLean is one of those exceptionally talented travel writers who lives in England but has traveled widely across the Continent during his entire adult life. A few weeks ago he was in Paris to give a lecture at a writers conference, and then returned home to pen this remembrance of his time in Paris, and reveal some of the inner workings of Shakespeare and Co.

Rory MacLean
Newsletter No. 15
Summer 2005


I'm just home from France. I was invited to Paris to give a reading at Shakespeare and Company, the tumbledown American bookshop on the Left Bank. I say 'at' Shakespeare and Company. 'Outside' would be more accurate. On rue de la Bucherie, surrounded by about sixty book lovers and bemused tourists, between the peels of Notre Dame's bells and the heckling of passing down-and-outs, I read aloud from Falling for Icarus.

Shakespeare and Company opened its doors in 1921. From here Europe first heard of new American writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and ­ after the war ­ Ginsberg and the Beats. Its owner Sylvia Beach published Joyce's Ulysses when no one else would take the risk. Fifty-five years ago George Whitman, an east coast vagabond-cum-bibliophile, bought this 'little rag-and-bone shop of the heart'. Since then, as well as selling millions of English-language books, he has given home to some 50,000 poets, novelists and students.

Over the last twenty years I've dropped by the shop dozens of times. But it wasn't until I started researching my new book Magic Bus and met George that I was invited to spend the night.

Every midnight after the shop closes, sleeping platforms fold down from behind the stacks. Beds are made up between the shelves. Twenty or thirty young ­ or young-at-heart -- travellers tuck themselves in for the night. In return for their accommodation student residents are required to stand in for an hour or two behind the till. Writers and painters get to stay for free, their work cluttering the writers' cubicles and spare wall space.

George has put me up three or four times now, usually in a top floor bunk under a clothing rail, next to a filing cabinet stuffed with letters from Ezra Pound and Graham Greene. Ginsberg may have slept in the same bed, perhaps even under the same blanket. He certainly read from his work on the same esplanade outside the shop.

Henry Miller called Shakespeare and Company 'a wonderland of books'. Lawrence Durrell said it's 'a unique institution with an exceptional bookman at the helm'. Anais Nin wrote that Whitman 'created a house of gentle warmth with walls of books, tea ceremonies, a hearth of humour and friendship'. For me the value of this remarkable bookshop was summed up in the story of a young Scottish novelist who I met during my first sleep-over.

In 2003 Damien Macdonald was travelling around Europe 'desperate and scared, a disorientated cowboy without a horse'. He saw the shop, stopped in and within minutes Sylvia Whitman ­ George's 24-year-old daughter ­ invited him to stay. Damien told me, 'She gave me the keys and I came into this room. My room. I saw the mirror and saw myself reflected in it. At that moment I knew I had to pull myself together. So I sat down and started to write, with cockroaches running over my notebook..' He went on, 'Shakespeare and Company saved me. I found a place where I could write.'

On the wall of his bookshop George has painted the words, 'Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest They be Angels in Disguise'. I feel privileged in having touched -- and been touched by -- a little of the history of the 'little rag-and-bone shop of the heart'.

yours ever

Rory

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