10 travel writers tell of their first publication experiences


I’ll always remember the first time I was published (and was paid for it). It was for Matador and it was 2008. I had just moved to Melbourne, Australia after having traveled for eight months around Europe and China, and through Russia and Vietnam. I’d discovered Matador articles shortly before and had that thought, “I could do this.” So I did. I wrote something up and sent it over. Then I heard nothing. A month passed and I sent a follow-up email. I got a response back saying it had gotten lost in their inbox and that they would be publishing it. I was super excited the day I saw A traveler’s secret way to save gas money online, on a website that I didn’t own. I was even more excited to receive a few bucks for it.

It was my first step into the digital publishing world (besides my personal blog), and it’s what pushed me to leave a career in the corporate world behind for a more independent and fulfilling lifestyle. I put the question out to the Matador community (MatadorU students, Matador editors, Marketplace members) to find out what other first publication stories were out there. These were some of the responses I got.

Monica Williams (MatadorU student)

My first byline was in 1982, in my hometown newspaper the Detroit Free Press. I was a precocious 12-year-old who read the newspaper in its entirety each Sunday, back when newspapers had Books sections. The Free Press not only had a books section but kids could submit reviews for publication in a column called “Kids on Kids’ Books”. Week after week, I would see suburban kids my age being featured in the Free Press. I was a reader, too. Why not me? And where were the Detroiters?

So for a few months, I periodically wrote a review, enclosed a wallet-sized school photo, and waited for a telephone call. Finally, I received word that my review of “Honestly, Katie John!” by Mary Calhoun would be published on February 28! I had reviewed a 20-year-old book but that didn’t matter. I would be published in the paper—along with my photo. The review hung in the office of my Detroit Public School for a few months, proof that persistence pays. As a bonus, the Free Press paid me $5.

Debbie Gonzales Canada (Matador Editor)

My path to getting published was serendipitous and pretty unplanned. Since I love dancing and writing, I reached out to a dance magazine in Argentina with little expectations. I was only 22 then, and had zero experience in actual journalism. As far as I can tell, my English skills were crucial to getting that first opportunity: the magazine needed someone who could interview a foreign choreographer. I got paid close to $20 USD for the article, but truth is I didn’t do it for the money. I just wanted to start using my communication degree in the real world. What I remember the most about seeing my first piece published is that my mom kept several copies of the magazine.

Mary Sojourner (Lead Writing Faculty, MatadorU)

I sent out my first poem – in the style of the great NYC wit, Dorothy Parker – to the New Yorker in 1952 when I was twelve. They sent me a form rejection and I was thrilled. I was a real writer. My first short story, Delicate, was also my first submission as an adult writer. I was forty-six and sent it to a literary competition in Phoenix, Arizona. I won $500. When they called to tell me, my first thought was, “I knew it.” Since then, I’ve submitted hundreds of pieces of writing – roughly fifty per cent of them have been published. When I first began sending out work, I kept a submission journal – wrote down title, venue and date. When one was rejected, I drew a black line through it. When a piece was accepted, I highlighted it with a vivid marker. It was wonderful watching each page have more color than the ones before.

Cathy Brown (Matador Editor)

When I decided to become a travel writer, I figured I should make my niche luxury travel. Hitchhiking, couch surfing and pitching my tent in random places is my typical travel style, so I really had no business thinking I would make my mark on the luxury world. I think the irony and the ridiculousness of it is what attracted me – I had just divorced and don’t think I had $100 in my bank account.

With zero writing experience, I pitched the editor of a luxury travel site and he replied with a “thanks but no thanks.” I tried again a few weeks later, this got me a, “seriously, it’s still no.” I figured the third time might be a charm. As luck/coincidence/fate would have it, there were four hotel reviews he needed done and something came up with his family, making him unable to do them. To fix his scheduling problem (and probably to get me off his back), he gave me the assignments. Off to Buenos Aires I went to be pampered in Presidential Suites. I got paid $50 a review, but in one week I realistically racked up about $10,000 in comped stays and food and spa treatments. It took a while to process that I basically just got paid to drink great wine, sit in bubble baths and then write some words. Not a bad beginning to a travel writing career. I was hooked (although I still prefer my tent and the open road).

Kate Siobhan Mulligan (Lead Photography Faculty, MatadorU)

It wasn’t exactly paid but I managed to get a job with a local newspaper reviewing concerts by doing a review on spec and networking with their photographer at some shows. I went to dozens and dozens of concerts and music fairs – often with backstage passes, “free” drinks, or interviews with musicians included – in exchange for a quick write-up. Only problem is that I was barely 17 and had to use a fake ID to get into most of the concerts – using one name to claim my tickets under (my fake ID was someone else altogether) at will call, and my real name to publish under. No one noticed. Essentially it was working for free but I really thought I wanted to be a music writer, not to mention no one warned me how addictive it is to see your name in print. Now and then the paper would publish a travel piece when I came back from trips, which is when the tides were slowly turning for me. Having so many published articles I believe is the reason I got into my University’s coveted Creative Writing program, specifically the Non-Fiction genre, where I ended up with a paid book deal about the Beatles shortly after graduating when a certain Non-Fiction prof noticed all music-focused background. All this was going great as I really thought I wanted to be a music journalist – turns out, I ended up being a Travel Photographer. But that’s another story.

Colleen Blaine (MatadorU student)

The first time I was published (other than SEO type online articles that were more blurb that real travel writing) was by a magazine here in South Africa called Getaway International. It was my first pitch to them after returning from a solo trip to Mauritius, Singapore, Bali and Australia. The main reason I got the article was because I had the opportunity to pitch to them in person. I was writing (unpaid) for their blog to boost my experience as a first time writer and at a function I approached one of the editors and said, “hey I have a great idea for a story.” He listened and said it sounded great and that I should pop him an email. The very next day I sent him the pitch and he snatched it up and it was published 4 months later. It was called “Travel Like a local in Mauritius.” I was over the moon and the payment was a good amount as well. This was early 2012 after I had been pursuing my travel writing career for approximately 10 months already but hadn’t yet pitched to a print magazine at all.

Valerie Stimac (MatadorU student)

I was connected to a Lonely Planet editor on Twitter – one of my followers saw a tweet from another editor asking about Seattle experts, and tagged me into the thread. That person took my contact info and passed it to the person who would eventually be my editor, a third-degree connection in the Twittersphere! I consider myself rather lucky: I didn’t have to pitch Lonely Planet directly, and was offered a 10-piece contract that took place over the following six months. Here is the link to that very first piece that went live – my first ever ‘byline!’ It was the scariest and most exciting feeling I’ve had as a writer, seeing my name in print. The pay was really good, by my beginner standards, but based on the whole contract (and averaged out to about $75 per piece).

Nikki Vargas (MatadorU student)

My first big story was written for VICE Munchies on the topic of Cartagena’s wild, local Mercado de Bazurto where tourists rarely go. I was headed to Cartagena for a trip and had the idea to try and pitch a story to the editor of Munchies about this off-the-beaten-path market in hopes that it would prove unique enough to be written for the site. After a quick look at previous Colombia-related stories Munchies had published, I saw this market had yet to be written up and so hoped my pitch would snag the editor’s attention. I had tried a few times to send story ideas to VICE, but more often than not it seemed my emails disappeared into that Internet abyss. Much to my surprise, I heard back from the Munchies editor fairly quickly who was interested in my story but thought the angle needed some work. We went back and forth multiple times–each time tweaking my approach just so–until we landed on a story angle that would work for Munchies.

I would be meeting with a local, Michelin-star chef in Cartagena and accompany him to the Mercado Bazurto to follow his ingredients from the hands of the growers to the plates in his popular restaurant. My story would focus not only on the novelty of this local market but would also highlight the rise of Colombia’s food scene. It was perhaps one of the first times I felt like a true journalist as I walked alongside this chef asking questions about local Colombian fare and the marketplace. My story went on to be published in Munchies and, to this day, is one of my favorite pieces I’ve written so far.

Mike Cotton (MatadorU student)

The first time I got published, outside of my old ‘Regionalism’ job (rehashing press releases into a working article for piss-poor clickbait websites), was with Matador Network. The photo essay was about the flooding which hit Fernie, BC in the summer of 2013. I had spent the day filling sandbags and distributing them to where we thought the Elk River would breach her banks. I only had my old iPhone with me, but it allowed me to capture a sense of what was happening. The best part of the day, other than the river not breaching the dyke which protects Fernie, was the spirit, the way the community came together to help their neighbours. Many of us had moved from places far and wide, yet we felt a deep connection to ‘our town’ and wanted to pitch in. By the end of the day, the sandbagging took on a party atmosphere as businesses provided a BBQ and beers. My photography has improved dramatically since that day, but if I didn’t have my iPhone on hand, I wouldn’t have captured the day a community pulled together.

Feature photo: Stephen Edmonds


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