Tim Leffel Interview: Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune

Tim Leffel, author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations, and editor of the Perceptive Travel took time out of his busy schedule to tell us about his new book, Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune: The Contrarian Traveler’s Guide to Getting More for Less. What I wanted to know was, what was it like putting the book together and getting it published. Especially since there are other travel authors out there trying to do the same thing.

JL: First of all, Congrats on the new book, Tim!

TL: Thanks, Jen.

JL: What kinds of steps did you have to go through to get this book published and how long did it take?

TL: I started putting the proposal together at the end of 2003 and shot it out to a few publishers in early 2004. I quickly realized I didn’t have the time or the patience to keep blindly doing that for months on end though, so I blasted out a query letter to a bunch of literary agents and got responses from five who wanted to represent me. Then proposals went out to more publishers through the agent and in June of last year I ended up working out a deal with Travelers’ Tales. I handed the first half of the book in last fall, the second half this past January. So all in all, it was over two and a half years from concept to finished product. This is not an endeavor for the impatient!

JL: Actually, 2,5 years to publish a book isn’t that long, give yourself credit for getting it done. I’ve heard of some authors who work on their books for 5-10 years before seeing it in print.

JL: I understand there are some guest appearances in there?

TL: Yes, I did something a bit different with this book to keep it from being just me blabbing on and on. I pulled in 12 guest writers to do short sections on something specific. So Rolf Potts is talking about the need to just let things happen in your travels, Susan Griffith writes about working abroad, Richard Sterling writes about why you should visit local markets for meals—things like that.

JL: How did your first book The World’s Cheapest Destinations do? Did that help you in getting this second one published?

TL: I put the first edition out myself as a print on demand title because I (rightfully) assumed no sizable publisher would think it was commercial enough and I didn’t have much of “a platform” as they say in the publishing world. I had written a zillion magazine articles, but that doesn’t mean anyone would buy a book from me. I knew there was a demand for a book like this though because I really could have used it when I was planning my first trip around the world. There was nothing out there to give you a rundown on costs for inexpensive destinations. But I didn’t know how many people would buy it really. I was going to be happy if it sold a few hundred copies.

Instead it ended up selling a few thousand copies—almost all through the Web—and I started getting regular interview requests from major media outlets like USA Today, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal–even travel magazines that had sent me rejection letters in the past! It definitely established me as a value travel expert and made this follow-up book feasible. Now there’s a new and improved second edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations that came out in March and it’s doing even better.

JL: Can you give us a hint as to what some of the most affordable destinations are? Maybe a tip that even veteran budget travelers might find useful?

TL: I just came back from Argentina and that is definitely one of the best values on the planet right now, no matter whether you are a shoestring backpacker or a wealthy traveler going first class all the way. What you get for your money in terms of food, wine, and culture is fantastic. Most of the best bargains around the world are clustered together: Southeast Asia, Central America, parts of South America, India/Nepal, and Eastern Europe/Turkey.




If you’re just going for a week or two on vacation, however, you have to take into account the airfare cost, so it maybe makes more sense to go to Latin America from the U.S. or Canada, or to Turkey or Eastern Europe from England. Even veteran travelers have to look at where their currency is in relation to others and how that has changed. Europeans can go almost anywhere right now and feel filthy rich because the euro is so strong. For Americans, with the dollar in the toilet as it is right now, a trip to western Europe is like a trip to Tiffany’s and even going to Eastern Europe is far more expensive than it was in the pre-Bush days.

JL: How did you get started in travel writing and what led to eventually becoming an author?

TL: I was a marketing manager for a major music label in Nashville and then New York and had done a lot of writing in that job. About a year before I left on my first round-the-world journey I boned up on how to become a travel writer, started sending out queries, and got a few small things published. So then I dispatched some articles from the road as I went along and kept doing that for years and years, gradually getting more into print, including some pieces on working abroad when I was teaching English. I’ve gotten things published from five continents, so I’ve always managed to find a few good angles in various places.

After I settled back down in the U.S. I ghostwrote a few business books for others and so it wasn’t that much of a leap to finally put out my own. As you well know, the PR and marketing aspects of being an author are as important as what’s in the book and I found that with my business background, I was pretty good at that part. So I’ve had more success than some I suppose, even though the first edition of my book was far sloppier than it should have been!

JL: Do you support yourself solely as a travel writer?

TL: No, the only time I’ve managed that is for short periods when I was traveling around cheap countries and had a few solid assignments in hand. Trying to make a real living at this—complete with a mortgage and a family—is way too masochistic for me. There are far easier ways to make a buck, unless you’re doing it from a foreign country with a very low cost of living.

TL: I would rather keep my other “day job” and not have to analyze the finances on every single project I accept. Some of the things I write and publish make no sense financially, but they’re worthwhile from a strategic standpoint: they make a trip I’ve wanted to do possible, they expose my books to people, or they just let me follow my curiousity and write about what interests me. You have to be more mercenary about it if it’s your sole source of income and I don’t see this getting any easier as the years go on—more and more content is moving to the web, where pay scales are probably never going to be fantastic.

JL: Do you know of any travel writers that make a living solely from travel writing?

TL: They are a rare breed, but I do know a few. Not counting staff editors, the ones who haven’t willingly taken a vow of poverty are either guidebook writers who have been at it a long time—and are earning decent royalties—or they are writers who are flagged in the Rolodex of major editors at the top three or four glossy travel magazines. Of course there are the pinnacle book authors like the ones profiled in Michael Shapiro’s A Sense of Place, but I’m not exactly moving in those circles…

JL: What’s next? Do you have any other book projects in the works?

TL: I need to work on marketing these two for a while, but in the fall I’ll start on a project with Rob Sangster, author of Traveler’s Tool Kit. It’s a Latin America trip planning guide that will hit in late 2007. That one came about through networking and knowing the right people, which goes to show it gets easier as time goes on for an author. No years of shopping a proposal around this time.

JL: Any advice for people who are trying to break into travel writing?

TL: I helped set up the Transitions Abroad Travel Writing Portal and I honestly believe it’s the best overall resource out there for learning the ropes and getting linked up to the right resources. It’s free too, though it directs you to some places where your money is well spent.

The main advice I can offer is to be a good writer, but also be a very curious and interested traveler who is dedicated to the actual task, not dreaming of glamor. Take good notes. Notice the details. Practice writing a lot. After that it’s the same advice you hear for an office job. Meet deadlines. Do what you promise. Understand who your customer is. Last, realize that it’s mostly about finding interesting angles and marketing your ideas; if you’re not good at those things then it’s going to be a really tough slog.

I would certainly recommend the Lonely Planet Guide to Travel Writing, though it doesn’t focus enough on the service side of travel writing (“how to” articles) and that’s where far more of the work is, especially for a beginner. There aren’t that many markets for long narrative travel writing features in the magazine and newspaper worlds these days, unfortunately.

JL: Speaking of that, I also happen to know that you’re spending a lot of time and energy on Perceptive Travel. Tell us about your new webzine for those that might’ve missed it.

TL: PerceptiveTravel.com is a site that features quality travel narratives, travel book reviews, and world music reviews, with everything written by published book authors. That’s my labor of love, started up at the beginning of this year. I didn’t actually have time to start up and run a web publication while I was trying to finish up two books and hold down a real job, but I was frustrated with the limited number of opportunities for travel authors to get their interesting and offbeat work out in front of people. A lot of magazines geared to independent travelers went under at the beginning of this decade and nothing has replaced them. So I took it upon myself to do something about the problem.

It only flirts with breaking even financially (yes, the writers get paid), but I’m really proud of the stories that have appeared in there so far as the traffic builds and it has allowed me to work with a lot of writers I admire. And some good homeless articles have now found a home.

JL: It must be hard to get fresh writing from published writers. Are you getting as many submissions as you’d like or are you having to shop for them on every issue?

It has been pretty painless actually. I hit up people I knew already for the first issue (thank you Jen!), but since then I’ve had plenty of submissions pour in. I’m always working an issue or two ahead. I did end up doing many of the music and book reviews myself at first though until I could rope some others into doing it.

Any book authors reading this are welcome to submit ideas.

JL: Ok, Tim. Big thanks and a hug to you for giving us your hard won insight. Good luck with sales and I hope that everyone puts Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune: The Contrarian Traveler’s Guide to Getting More for Less on their holiday gift list. It makes for a perfect stocking stuff for those that love to travel or think they can’t afford to!