Lyn Hughes and her late husband, Paul Morrison, hatched the idea for Wanderlust magazine during a flight to South America in 1992. The first edition was launched from their flat later that year. Twenty years on, and many awards later, it is read by enthusiastic travellers all over the world, and its website is one of the biggest on-line resources for travellers. In 2007 and 2008 Lyn was Highly Commended as Publisher of the Year. A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, she has also been lauded by the The Times as one of the “50 Most Influential People in Travel.” In the last year Lyn has added Unique Honeymoons and Take Better Travel Photos to the Wanderlust stable.
This month Lyn kindly agreed to take time out of her incredibly busy schedule as editor-in-chief to answer a few questions from the Itinerant Writers Club.
What are the key elements of successful magazine travel writing?
It should be well enough written that someone will read and enjoy it, regardless of whether they have any interest in that destination or activity. It has to be accurate. The article will be read even more avidly by people who have been there, than by those who are thinking of going. And, increasingly, it may be read by people who actually live there, including people you met.
How has the style of the articles you publish changed since you started Wanderlust?
It hasn’t changed much at all!
Do you prefer to receive a pitch, or are you open to reading finished travel features from writers?
I prefer a pitch, as most editors do. However, I will look at a finished feature – but it has to grip from the opening line, and be clearly aimed at the Wanderlust reader. Unfortunately, the speculative pieces we receive have usually been written without any thought to what type of piece we use.
Sending a finished piece can work if it is in the style of a regular department in a magazine. For instance, a few months ago we received a finished article from a freelancer who’d been trying to get a foot in the door. He’d written it in the style of one of our Pocket Guide short break pieces, and it was spot-on in subject, tone, word length etc. We took it! And we then commissioned him to do something else.
How often do you accept pitches from unknown writers?
Only occasionally. We run fewer than 45 features a year. I’m talking about main features of 1,800 words or more. Of those, several are written by Wanderlust staff, several are Trip Planner or Guide-type pieces that are written by guidebook authors or other experts. So, that leaves 35 features at most to source over a year. We have several tried and trusted award-winning writers who are continually pitching to us. We have an outer ring of occasional writers, some of whom specialise in certain parts of the world or certain activities. We have tourist boards and tour companies continually trying to get us to cover them (and will want it to be someone known to them). So, it’s not surprising that opportunities are limited.
And of course, it’s not just about being reactive. We’ll have our own ideas about topics or destinations we want to cover, but will go to the person we think is most suitable for that job to cover it. It’s a bit like you needing some work done on your house, boat or car. Would you use the stranger who has sent you a speculative flyer or the trusted person who did such a great job last time you used them?
I hope this doesn’t sound discouraging. We do want to find fresh talent. But a combination of a limited number of slots, and getting inundated with thousands of proposals, means someone really has to stand out from the crowd.
On the occasions when you have accepted a pitch from an unknown writer, how has their pitch persuaded you to use their idea?
They’ve usually really thought about it and about Wanderlust, and given a reason why we should use them and/or their idea.
For instance, we used to get dozens of pitches about the Inca Trail. But then a tour leader who had done the trail a dozen or so times sent in a really compelling pitch about how her groups had a 100% success rate in completing the trail, and without any serious illness or injury. So, we went for her proposal on how to Succeed on the Inca Trail
Someone else had been pitching us unsuccessfully for a couple of years. But then she spotted that we have introduced a new Great British Escape feature. She sent in three ideas for UK features; all of which had a reason why we should cover them (eg a special anniversary). She sent the ideas in by post, along with a humorous hand-drawn cartoon strip to catch our eye. Which it did. We immediately commissioned one of her ideas – it’s in next issue!
Must a writer also be a photographer for their travel writing to be accepted by a magazine editor? Do you ever pair writers and photographers together?
It’s almost impossible for someone to be a good writer and a good photographer. But, it really helps if they can take at least some of their own pics. If it’s an obscure part of the world, or a specific event, we need to know we can still source good photos.
Sending a photographer with a writer generally works very well (as long as the weather behaves!)but tourist boards and tour companies will usually baulk at sending two people. In these challenging times, airlines are less likely than ever to provide flights for two people.
How exactly do you structure a pitch, and what content should go in?
Keep it to a paragraph or two. You should be able to sum up the angle and content in a couple of sentences. And give us a reason to cover it. An example may be:
“Siena did very well in your Travel Awards this year, and yet I don’t believe you have ever covered it in Wanderlust? I know Siena well, having just visited for the third time, and with a good friend living there. As well as covering the main sights and events, I can reveal some insider secrets that only the locals know about (example, example)… I can cover it either as a short break feature in your standard format, or as a full-length feature blah blah”
One top tip: if sending by email, give a lot of thought to the subject line. We get a couple of dozen proposals a day… and that’s on top of the other 300 emails I get. So give us a reason to open it. Which would you be more tempted to read: “Wanderlust Proposal” or “Beyond Mandalay – off the beaten track Burma”. It also means that, even if we can’t open it straightaway, we’re more likely to go back to it later on.
Does the writer need to foresee the next hot destination in order for a magazine editor to be interested?
No! If you can find a fresh insight or way of covering an icon, such as the Taj Mahal, that will be just as marketable as a cutting-edge destination.
You should be thinking about hooks and angles. Give the editor a reason to run your piece. Look ahead to the next year. What are the events and anniversaries that you may be able to build a pitch around? Are new flight, ferry or rail routes going to make somewhere more easily accessible? Where are the specialist tour companies putting on new or extra trips to? Are there any new national parks or long distance trails opening?
What destinations, activities or themes would make you sit up and take notice of a pitch right now?
Anything and anywhere I don’t know about always appeals. If I am surprised, then the readers hopefully would be too.
If you accept a pitch, how much help do you give writers/photographers in terms of expenses? If a writer has a fantastic idea, but has to travel half way round the world to cover it, will the magazine cover the cost?
Our budgets are teeny. Times are really tough for nearly all magazines and newspapers. We don’t generally pay any expenses, only the standard word rate. If we are arranging the trip, we look for the accommodation and travel costs to be provided, eg by a tourist board, a tour company or the individual hotels
Much travel writing can be similar, in that it tries to sell the place it’s writing about. Often the place becomes over-romanticised to the point where you think it impossible to go anywhere without something ‘magical’ happening. What room is there for the less glossy, more real interpretation of travel writing in magazine publishing?
It’s a good point. We take a lot of care when commissioning a writer to go somewhere. If using a tour company it has to be one that has a satisfaction rating of more than 80% from our readers. We try and use the best guides, and try out the best experiences. So, it’s not surprising if the trips go really well!
Not that it always goes to plan. Years ago, we had a writer go on a challenging husky-sledding trip and she had a miserable time. The MD of the company running the trip knew she’d hated it, so tried to get me to can the article, saying he’d pull his advertising for ever if I ran it. She wrote a really humorous article, taking the mickey out of herself. I ran it. He stopped his advertising. Hey ho.
I’m not averse to more gritty pieces, but we’d have to be comfortable that people actually wanted to read them. It’s like people want to see blue sky photos, rather than those taken on dreary, overcast days. When writers have put something negative about a place or experience in an article we always hear from readers who are disappointed by the author’s comments because they have positive memories of the same place.
Would you consider a piece that is non-fiction but which perhaps blurs the lines between travel writing and other literary techniques, e.g. Gonzo journalism.
Probably not. Endless reader panels and readers surveys have shown that the most popular features are those that are straight-forward narrative pieces that the readers can identify with.
Many online travel magazines seem to like to utilise people’s travel experiences for free. How can writers move across to become paid by a magazine like Wanderlust?
All the things I’ve said above about hooks and angles, mixed with persistence. Meanwhile, writing for online sites will help you hone your skills and will give you examples of your work that you can link to in a pitch.
What place do physical magazines have now that on-line magazines are so freely available? (How important is Wanderlust’s own on-line presence?)
Ah, the million dollar question and the subject of countless seminars I get invited to! I think there will always be a place for trusted and carefully-curated content, regardless of whether that is a paper or a digital product.
These are challenging but exciting times in the publishing industry. Advertising revenues are well down, while print and postage are more expensive than ever. But tablets, especially the iPad, are proving to be a great way to read a magazine. Hence Apple setting up Newsstand (an app store for magazines). Wanderlust finally got accepted on there a few weeks ago, and the sales are going very well.
Meanwhile, the website is continually growing – traffic is 240% up since we redeveloped a couple of years ago. Not everyone who uses it reads the actual magazine, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. It’s interesting times.
Do travel magazines ever consider publishing travel memoirs serially? I’ve heard of some people going on to launch successful writing careers with their books initially published in this manner.
We’ve never done it but would possibly consider it. We’d have to be convinced about it.
There was an interesting discussion that arose on the MyWanderlust forum after your team photo-shopped clothes onto two women in a photograph of Petra (front cover, March edition). To what extent do you see the promotion of ethical tourism as being part of Wanderlust’s role?
It’s always been part of our DNA; something that underpins everything we do.
Do you have a check-list of which ethical tourism issues are particularly relevant for your magazines and web presence? Does the editorial team verify that a piece of writing you receive takes the “correct” stance on particular issues?
We don’t have a check-list; perhaps we should. The occasional thing slips through, although they’re not usually too serious. The editorial team tend to have a feel for such issues and will run something by each other and by me if unsure.
I’d sum up our stance as being about Respect for the Planet and its People.