I can't remember how I came across Iain and Claire's travel blog Old World Wandering – but I was immediately impressed by the quality of the writing and the look and feel of the design. I love the fact that they are writing in-depth, thoughtful pieces of prose.
As I browsed around the site I spotted that they are trying to fund their next travel writing expedition – a trip from Shanghai to Cape Town - using Kickstarter. Basically they need a bunch of people to commit money to the venture. I have to admit I thought this was a brave thing to do – and like their blog, different. A constant theme on this blog is the challenge to make travel writing pay in this new world of the web – and here is an interesting new model. Which I have seen some people succeed with recently too.
So I asked if they’d like to talk some more about the project and the funding model. Here’s a really interesting guest post written by Iain.
"With only 10 days left to go, my Kickstarter project is still almost $30,000 away from its target. If I don’t raise the whole amount, I get nothing, and statistically my chances of success are slim. I’ll keep trying anyway, and I’ll also use Kickstarter again – if differently – because I believe it’s one part of a model that will eventually support writing of quality published online.
I've watched successful travel bloggers follow two paths: either they write to a narrow set of keywords and sell advertising or they build an audience around their personality, which leads to speaking engagements and endorsements. There is obviously overlap between the two, and there may be success stories I don't know about, but I believe that there is also a third business model slowly taking shape that will support long-form travel writing published independently.
I describe Old World Wandering, the travelogue I write with my partner, Claire, as an experiment. It began simply enough, in 2006, with updates for family and friends, but slowly – like a petulant child – our little travelogue has grown large and promising enough to take over our lives. That may sound familiar, and far from experimental, but 18 months ago, when we published Claire’s 3,500-word dispatch from Attukal Pongala, the largest gathering of women in the world, we started an experiment that has yet to produce a stable result. Claire’s article was picked up by The Browser, which curates “writing worth reading.” The traffic from that encouraged us to write even longer articles, like my three-part, 10,574-word epic about an Indian village cursed by tourism, and we were soon being featured by other curators of lengthy prose, like Longform and Longreads, which by collating links are also assembling a passionate community.
Claire and I write as well as we can, in as much detail as we can, but despite a measure of critical success and a growing list of subscribers, we're still a long way from making Old World Wandering financially sustainable. A 10,000-word article about a relatively abstract subject is going to see a lot less search-engine traffic than twenty highly specific 500-word articles, for a start. In-depth writing also takes time – 71 hours of carefully clocked work, in the case of the Chinese of Vientiane – and the growing long-form community is partly a response to established newspapers and magazines cutting their budgets for in-depth features, which tell stories that twenty 500-word articles just can’t.
In an interview, Graham Boynton – who was an editor at Conde Nast Traveler and travel editor of the Telegraph Group – described the problem succinctly:
I have no doubt that travel websites, blogs, and tweets are rapidly replacing conventional print travel journalism, but the problem is there is not enough money in it for the journalists to earn a decent living. If writers who want to specialise in travel lose the financial incentive to do so, then the gene pool of travel literature will be diminished. That, to my mind, is the greatest crisis facing travel writing – the dumbing down of the genre.
I think Kickstarter is a part of the solution to this crisis because it allows a relatively small group of passionate people to make something happen. Extremely successful campaigns often have surprisingly few backers: Matter – a journalism project we looked at closely – raised $140,202 from just 2,566 backers. It did that by emphasising a big issue – the low quality of science and technology reporting both on and offline – instead of speaking in too much detail about what Matter might actually do. We’ve tried to approach our campaign in the same way, by highlighting the importance of travel writing that connects past with present and community with place, instead of packaging destinations for visitors to consume, but we’ve also made too many mistakes. We haven’t spent enough time engaging with other travel writers, for instance. We worried that they might take our campaign as criticism of their own experiments, but what has actually happened is that other travel writers – who know how tricky all of this is – appreciate what we’re trying to achieve, and have given us genuine, unselfish support.
Our biggest mistake by far was underestimating how many people would see our campaign. We’ve worked hard at promoting it using social media, but no larger site has picked it up yet, and only 700 or so people have watched our video. Twenty two percent of them get through all four minutes, and almost exactly half of those people have backed us. If we can keep that ratio up, we only need to get 5,000 people to watch our video, and that helps me to believe that there is still enough time to save my Kickstarter project, and my travel writing experiment, with your support."
You can find out more and join up to back the project here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/oldworldwandering/old-world-wandering