Unusually Clever People

Garden and Travel Writers: Part II

Any assignments you’ve refused to do, or editorial changes you’ve refused to
make?  Or regrets along those lines?

As I wrote in the book, I’d write an
oral history of jock itch if someone paid me enough to do it. I regret some
changes to my copy that were made without my knowledge—nothing worse than seeing
a horrible edit for the first time in the magazine you just picked off the shelf
at Safeway—but, you know, that’s part of the racket. You write, you get paid for
it, the magazine owns it and gets to do what they want with it. It took me a
couple years, but I eventually learned that almost no one gives a shit about
bylines and no one cares about your copy as much as you do. What looks like the
most horrific injustice to your writing will be off the shelves in a week or two
and no one will ever remember it existed. Unless you’re Norman Mailer or someone
of equal talent, if you make too much trouble about edits, they’ll stop hiring
you because no one will want to work with you anymore.

I have refused
some stories either because they seemed excessively seedy or I just didn’t want
to write them. A magazine editor once asked me if I’d be willing to interview
the parents of the kids involved in the Columbine tragedy. Can you imagine
trying to line up that interview, explaining what it was you wanted? I said no
thanks.

You write that "one of the best parts about being a traveler is
complaining about the parts you don’t like–hating the Dallas Cowboys not only
doesn’t make me any less a football fan, it probably makes me a more avid one. 
This is a concept the travel industry has never embraced."  The same is true in
the garden industry.  You would never see a magazine article called "Plants I
Hate" or a critical piece about how awful a botanical garden is.  Is it possible
that the travel industry (and the garden industry) doesn’t really care about
diehard fans, figuring they’re going to travel/garden no matter what?

I don’t think it’s a matter of not caring about them as it is just
not even thinking about them. Big corporations don’t think about their customers
in individual terms. They can’t. It wouldn’t be cost effective. For an airline
dealing with a few million enplanements a year, there’s no time to worry about
who’s a diehard and who’s not. And that’s where once again you wind up resorting
to the lowest common denominator. Don’t offend anyone ("After your negative
review of Malaysian orchids, I have just three words: Cancel my subscription!")
and no one gets in trouble.

We’re always ranting about what’s wrong
with garden magazines and you actually had a chance to do something about the sorry state of
travel magazines during your short-lived gig as editor of Travelocity magazine. 
Even though the suits claimed they wanted a travel magazine that broke all the
rules–a travel magazine for people who don’t like travel magazines–inevitably
it turned out that they really wanted more of the same to sell to advertisers.
You took some risks, including sending Dan Savage to Vegas, hiring Joe Queenan
to write about the SkyMall catalog, and, to the publisher’s horror, opening a
story on cruise ships with a two-page spread of a fat white guy from Oregon in a
swimsuit.   But—do you still think there’s a place for the kind of travel
magazine you envisioned?  Is anyone else doing it?  Have you ever found a
magazine on another subject and said, "Why can’t we do that, only about travel?"

Every couple years a new
travel magazine comes along with lofty ambitions for recreating the travel-mag
template in an edgier, more honest, more contemporary way. And every time, they
fail. Just as I was helping launch Travelocity magazine, an excellent Santa
Monica-based travel magazine called Escape was going out of business after seven
years of scraping by financially. Escape was kind of a Lonely Planet of
magazines, and I’d written and taken pictures for them for several years and was
quite sad to see them bite the dust. But, though they’d earned a large and rabid
readership, they just couldn’t make it financially.

I used to believe
fringe magazines could succeed financially, but now I see that the publishing
economic model doesn’t really work for them. Advertisers, not readers, keep
magazines afloat. Yes, you need readers to attract advertisers, but it’s ad
dollars, not subscriptions or newsstand sales, that pay the bills and staff
salaries. In the end, you simply can’t expect advertisers to put up with
attacks, even small ones, on their own system. And I don’t blame the
advertisers, either. Why should they pay to support ingrates who take pot shots
at them? But we have the Internet and sites like gardenrant, so there’s still
room for subversive journalism.

How have your editors &
colleagues responded to your book?  What are you working on now?

It’s
been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve gotten a lot of, "This is the book every
travel writer wants to write." People in the business seem energized by it. I’m
doing another book for Henry Holt, a travel book that will take me to places
I’ve heretofore been intimidated by: Sub-Saharan Africa, India, Mexico City, and
Disney World.

Posted by on December 27, 2007 at 5:57 am, in the category Unusually Clever People.
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3 responses to “Garden and Travel Writers: Part II”

  1. Kathy says:

    As I said here (http://www.coldclimategardening.com/2007/12/24/the-garden-blog-presentation-at-the-gwa-symposium/), this is what we tried to get across to garden writers at the GWA symposium in our garden blog panel discussion, that blogging was a way for them to tell the story (the back story, if you will) about the garden topic in front of them, where they can indulge in “subversive journalism,” or other means of communicating in non-traditional ways.

  2. Of course, some of the most successful magazines manage to be scorchingly critical in tone. Vanity Fair and New York leap to mind. However, they draw from a broad base of advertisers–and their content is not so tied to their advertisers’ wares. Maybe specialty magazines need a different economic model. Maybe what gardening readers really need is a nice gardening-mad billionaire to keep a good magazine afloat. Steve Jobs, where are you? We know about that Palo Alto vegetable garden.

  3. Giant South African Earthwork taking shape

    Almost every country in the world has one; an ancient or contemporary man made Earthwork representing deep spiritual feelings or as an Art form, etc.

    Our ‘Mama Africa’ is dedicated to the African Continent and its people.

    At this very moment we work together in the finishing of the shape and the planting of around 500 succulent indigenous Antima creepers which will cover the 3 metres high, 7 metres wide and 16 metres long object in one to two years.

    Hopefully ‘mama’ is going to make history in Africa.

    More info and updated pictures: info@soekershof.co.za
    http://soekershof.com

    Enjoy Life,

    Herman & Yvonne

    About Soekershof:
    Soekershof; Private Mazes & Botanical Gardens in South Africa may locally be less known but overseas highly acclaimed by botanists/horticulturists of fame. BBC-TV garden program presentor and famous Irish landscaper Diarmuid Gavin described Soekershof as his favorite South African garden in The Sunday Times UK (January 2008) and the Swiss based International Botanists Association recommends its South Africa visiting members Soekershof as one of the four ‘must visit gardens’ in this country (next to Cape Town, Durban and J’burg botanical gardens).

    What is so special about Soekershof?

    Soekershof, as it is today, draws on the wealth of local history and story-telling folklore. In Soekershof – whose name means Seekers Court – you can explore the original succulent garden of Marthinus Malherbe, who is buried there, and see the oldest cactus in South Africa, which dates from 1910. The succulent gardens of Soekershof houses the largest outdoor succulent plant collection in South Africa (almost 2500 different registered species from all continents); from cute tiny ‘living stones’ to a giant Pachycereus weberii cactus of more than 10 metres high. It’s not a quick stroll through the garden but an interactive exploration in the company of people who want to provide visitors with and enjoyable and inspirational experience. The total surface of the succulent gardens is over 11,000 square metres excluding the own nursery.

    The quest in the Klaas Voogds Maze (>4 kilometres path length) starts with a stone age movie in a stone age cinema after which visitors have to unraffle the mysteries of a cycling Dutchman and a womanising German. It’s not a maze in the traditional perception; this is a maze of life walking from one story to the other visualised by orietating beacons above the hedges.

    Soekershof is not designated for mass tourism but focusses itself on the personal experience of each individual visitor. This too makes this venue fairly unique in a world where tourism attractions increasingly go for the numbers. Soekershof is also certified by Fair Trade in Tourism in South Africa

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