January 31, 2007
Rick Steves, travel guidebook author
In 1980, Edmonds-based writer Rick Steves self-published his first guidebook to Europe. Today, he employs a staff of 70 that oversees annual guided tours, 30 guidebooks and numerous travel-related accessories and products. With his famed "Europe Through the Back Door" books, his public television series and his numerous appearances on radio and in newspapers, he's easily one of the world's most trusted travel authorities.
Q: How did you get started in travel writing?
A: I just love to travel; it's my favorite thing to do. I love to share what I'm passionate about that's what a travel writer does. I just love being people's globetrotting guinea pig: making mistakes and taking careful notes, losing my travelers' checks just to see what will happen, and then coming back home and reporting on that.
I've been doing this for 30 years and I don't know when I'm going to burn out, but there's no sign of it yet. What I have now is 70 people who work with me. I've been lucky to work now because I have all of this accessible technology that allows me to produce TV shows, radio shows, podcasts, Web site, the guidebooks and everything just out of my little corner in Edmonds. But I'm just doing the same thing I was doing back in the 1970s when I was a student at the University of Washington teaching at the Experimental College: helping people learn from my mistakes rather than their own so they can travel smoother. I just have a little more amplification and horsepower now.
"The passion for travel has to come first, and the passion for teaching comes next and the recognition that you're likely not going to make enough to live off has to come third."
Q: Did you have any idea when you published your first book that this would be your career?
A: No. In fact, I laugh at five-year plans! My staff always wants a five-year plan and there's just no way to predict (one). Just stay true to your mission; don't jump on every trend. I just like to turn people on to traveling.
Q: What advice would you have for someone who wanted to get into travel writing?
A: You need to really do what brings you energy and joy. I was just in Estonia, learning all about Tallinn and how exciting it is for these countries to get it together after they finally won their freedom. I can't fake that. If I don't like a place, I don't write about it. ... The basic ethic of a travel writer is that you're not a salesman, you're sharing stuff that you really believe in.
For me, I measure profit not in how much money I make but in how many trips I impact in a positive way. That's been my business code right from the start.
Q: And don't most travel writers not get paid well anyways?
A: ... I don't know how anyone could make a living travel writing. ... I make a living off of letting my travel writing be my Trojan horse of marketing. Then, people can go to my Web site and learn that I sell tours, and money belts, and bags, and guidebooks and DVDs. But the writing itself you don't make much money off. ...
You make more money as a guidebook writer than you do as a creative travel writer. People can hire you to make their guidebooks, and they pay you a good income and you're just a researcher or data checker. They used to give you royalties. Now it's just piecework: They'll give you some money and your expenses if you update a book.
The trends are not good for making money for travel writers, but the trends are very good for continued growing appetite for Americans to travel and explore the world. There are plenty of opportunities for someone to help people in that regard and if you're really good and really diligent over time you can make a living at it.
Q: Are there any parts of the world that need better travel writing?
A: As a writer you have to factor in what kind of congestion is there on the scene and how many people are actually going to use what you write. I'm not like the "National Geographic" photojournalist that goes where nobody else is going to go and reports on it. I need to go to Paris where everybody goes and sort through the superlatives and give people really practical information to help them out. I just had a meeting with all of my researchers a couple of days ago where I told them I don't want to hear that "the chocolate is to die for." I want to hear that the locals like this chocolateria or something like that. You have to turn down the volume on the superlatives.
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