Why some authors are making the big bucks and some aren’t
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BY SHAWN PERICH
Every autumn I get royalty checks for books I’ve written over the years. As with most outdoor writers, my royalties are not enough to buy a second house or take a European vacation, but they are a welcome return for work completed years ago. What’s interesting is my best-selling books have nothing to do with hunting and fishing. One, a guide to tourist attractions on the north shore of Lake Superior, was published in 1991 and is still in print. Another, “Backroads of Minnesota,” a collaborative work with a nature photographer, was published in 2002 and reissued in a new format in 2011. Both have sold better than my fishing and hunting titles for one simple reason: they appeal to a much wider audience.
It’s easy for outdoor writers to get into a rut, especially if your main motivation for entering the business in the first place was a passion for fishing and hunting. It’s easy to write about your passion and even easier to convince yourself that your passion is shared by legions of readers. But as they say, reality bites. How many folks, for instance, really care to read about the smelliest catfish baits or how to grunt like a sex-crazed whitetail buck? More to the point, over the course of your career, how often do you want to write about the same, stale hook-and-bullet topics?
Minnesota, my home state, has a vibrant hunting and fishing culture. But even here, the writing is on the wall. Measured by license sales, fishing has been stagnant for more than a decade and participation in hunting other than for turkeys and deer is in a long-term decline. In short, hunters and anglers aren’t likely to disappear from Minnesota, but their numbers will diminish over time. Be that as it may, interest and participation in mainstream outdoor activities remains strong.
I live on Lake Superior’s North Shore, a prime outdoor destination for the Upper Midwest. Within an hour’s drive of my home are hundreds of lakes and trout streams, as well as hundreds of thousands of acres of public forests open to hunting. It ain’t a bad place to be if you like to hunt and fish. However, while hunting and fishing are popular with residents and area visitors, these activities represent a small slice of what people do outdoors on the North Shore. Activities ranging from canoe tripping and sea kayaking to hiking and plein air painting appeal to the mainstream. Many North Shore outdoor users prefer to spend a couple of hours doing something outside and then head to town to explore shops, galleries and restaurants.
Our publication for this market, Northern Wilds, reflects the outdoor mainstream. We’ve had photos of hikers, cross-country skiers, surfers and wildlife on the cover, but never hunters or anglers. We feature hunting and fishing stories, but devote more coverage to mainstream activities from visiting state parks to suggestions for easy day hikes. Both our readers and advertisers like our editorial mix.
Ok, so what does any of this have to do with traditional hook-and-bullet writing? Well, we’ve discovered that although we are always looking for outdoor-related stories, most traditional outdoor writers either don’t have the interest or the material to cover topics beyond hunting and fishing. We find it especially difficult to find local photos of people enjoying mainstream outdoor activities such as cross-country skiing, hiking or sea kayaking. (Note, we only use photos taken within our coverage area.) We know superb wildlife and landscape photographers — they just don’t take pictures of people having fun.
Northern Wilds is by no means the only media source looking for mainstream outdoor material. A wide range of publications publish outdoor features on topics other than hunting and fishing. Outdoor writers, by virtue of spending lots of time in the field, are uniquely suited to provide stories and photos about mainstream topics. Doing so is a great way to expand your base and broaden your appeal to editors and readers.
There’s just one catch. Collecting material for mainstream outdoor stories may cut into your hunting and fishing time, but just a little. Most hook-and-bullet writers are well acquainted with the parks, scenic routes and waterways in their neck of the woods. Most also have related outdoor interests, such as hiking, birding or cross-country skiing. Consider all of this “insider information” an enterprising writer can put to good use when working with mainstream editors.
While it won’t work for every market, pitch mainstream editors story ideas about outdoor activities anyone can do. Lots of folks want to know what you may take for granted: accessible locations to see wildlife, hiking trails suitable for all ages or the best parks to take kids camping. Shoot pictures of people participating in mainstream outdoor activities — you may find such photos are always in demand.
When writing for mainstream audiences, bear in mind your readers may have a casual interest in the outdoors. Keep your prose simple and easy to understand. I like to picture my reader as someone who knows nothing about the topic and is counting on me to explain it to them. If I pique the reader’s interest, perhaps they’ll try something they’ve never done before. If so, the community of outdoor users — and my readership — may grow by one. And that’s good for business — for all of us. ♦
—Shawn Perich, of Hovland, Minn., has been a member since 1985. In addition to his duties as editor and publisher of Northen Wilds Media, he is a columnist for Minnesota Outdoor News and a book author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.