London Writers' Salon

#001: Alastair Humphreys — Make a Living Writing About Your Life & Adventures

Episode Summary

Adventurer Alastair Humphreys (@Al_Humphreys) on making a living writing about your life & adventures, finding an audience for your writing beyond friends and family, the benefits of self-publishing and traditional publishing, moving past self-doubt and how to introduce adventure into everyday life.

Episode Notes

Alastair Humphreys has built an impressive career as a creator using a simple formula:

Step 1: Go on an adventure.

Step 2: Write a story about it.

Step 3: Earn money from it.

Step 4: Repeat.

Sounds Simple. But far from easy.

In this episode, we dive into Alastair’s creative process – from planning, adventuring, writing to publishing and eventually, getting paid. We’ll also discuss how Alastair has navigated hard times to persist as a creator for 15+ years, his journey from teaching to writing to filmmaking to children’s books to podcasting, balancing family life with adventuring and creating, and tips for writing stories about your personal experiences that readers will love and publishers will buy.


Alastair Humphreys is a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, podcaster, filmmaker, and author of 13 books. He spent over 4 years cycling around the world, a journey of 46,000 miles through 60 countries and 5 continents. More recently Alastair has walked across southern India, rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, run six marathons through the Sahara desert, completed a crossing of Iceland, and participated in an expedition in the Arctic.

In 2018, Alastair trekked over 350 miles across Spain in the footsteps of his adventurer-author hero Laurie Lee, feeding himself only with money he earned busking. He turned that story into the enthralling, raw memoir, My Midsummer Morning: Rediscovering a Life of Adventure.



[05:07] Alastair's rowing experience across the Atlantic Ocean

[07:06] How to push yourself in your path of adventure by starting small

[09:48] Big adventures and how to turn them into micro-adventures when life gets in the way

[12:10] Alastair’s coping mechanisms during the pandemic including climbing a tree, plus the importance of passive income

[15:49] How to find an audience for your writings that's beyond friends and family

[18:24] Alastair’s love for travel books and what inspired him to write

[19:13] About Alastair’s busking adventure in Spain and how this led to this book, My Midsummer Morning, and balancing adventuring life and home life

[28:31] Alastair’s journey from having a publisher to self-publishing his own books

[33:22] On trying new things and becoming an expert in your own niche

[37:04] How to get paid gigs with brands & and how to approach brands

[40:11] On self-doubt and how to get past it

[42:53] What would your eighty-year-old self tell you to do today?



“There's a blog post called, The Long Tail, which shows you graphically like, how many times you'll hug your parents again, how many times you'll swim in the ocean again, and if you see it graphically, there are so few. And if he'd been so inclined, he could probably have written on his little bar chart: here are the books you have time to write in your life. And I suspect once you see that, your eighty-year-old self would suggest that you begin.”


“If you're a writer and you compare yourself to Shakespeare, it's pointless. If you're going to play football in the park and you compare yourself to Lionel Messi, it’s pointless. But we spend all our lives measuring ourselves against people like this. It’s ridiculous. So call yourself a working whatever, and then get to work and try and find a thousand people who read your books and then repeat the process and try and get 2000 for the next one. And you'll probably be alright.” 



Connect with Alastair Humphreys:

Twitter: @Al_Humphreys

Instagram: @al_humphreys

Facebook: Al Humphreys Facebook Page


Wait but Why Blog by Tim Urban - The Long Tail



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Production by Victoria Spooner. Artwork by Emma Winterschladen

Episode Transcription

[Intro] Matt: Hello, writers, and welcome to our very first episode and season of the London writers salon podcast. I'm Matt and I'm Parul. And each week, we sit down with a writer that we admire to talk about the craft of writing and the art of building a successful and sustainable writing career. In our first episode, we interview adventure filmmaker and the author of 12 books, Alastair Humphreys.

Parul: Alastair is a pretty impressive guy. He spent four years cycling around the world. He wrote across the Atlantic ocean, he's run six marathons through the Sahara desert, and he makes a living by going on these adventures and then writing a book. Well, what really drew us to Alastair was the vulnerability of his writing. His dogged dedication to creative work and experimentation and his ability to support himself for over a decade doing what he loves: going on adventures. And here's what's really interesting. His adventures have evolved over the years. They've come closer and closer to home, and some of them are now literally on his doorstep. But the through-line is that he continues to write about his experiences. Two of the books that we discussed in the podcast were my Midsummer Morning, which is a story about his 350-mile trek busking across Spain, and his most recent book, The Doorstep Mile, which is all about living more adventurously every day.

Matt: And in this episode with Alastair, he spoke candidly to us about how he makes money from writing and adventuring, why he chose to self publish his book, The Doorstep Mile, his step-by-step process for transforming his adventures into books, his battle with self-doubt as a writer and how even in the middle of a pandemic, he brings adventuring into his everyday life.

We also dig into the importance of writing honestly in our work, Alastair’s struggle to balance home life and adventuring life, and why Alastair recommends that you set a date with yourself each and every month to climb a tree. 

Parul: I love that. Well, this conversation was recorded in front of a live audience online at the start of the pandemic back in March 2020.

And by the way, if you'd like to join us for these live interviews each week, you can sign up to become a member at forward slash pound membership. And what this means is you'll be part of our private post-interview Q and A's with the writers we bring to the salon and you'll have full access to our growing library of writing interviews and much, much more.

Matt: So, without further ado, we hope you enjoy our conversation with Alastair Humphreys.

Our guest tonight is Alastair Humphreys, National Geographic's Adventurer of the Year. You can tell because he has a poster of his own face. 

Alastair: And an injured hand. 

Matt: And an injury to his hand, we'll have to learn about that. 

Alastair: Can I just apologise immediately for the poster, Matt. Parul and I were talking about this earlier. Normally when I do Skype calls, I go like this because it feels completely ridiculous to have a six-foot post of myself, but they spotted it and asked me to keep it in. So there's a giant post of me looking much hunkier than the real me.

Parul: Could you show them the pillow as well? Because that is particularly attractive.

Alastair: Okay [...] I also have a pillow of myself. My defence of having a pillow of myself is that I made a film a few years ago called “Into the Empty Quarter” about, well, the empty courts, the desert, and someone in Saudi Arabia [who] likes the film and sent me a cushion of myself in a large box full of flower petals. Luckily to my publisher's address, not my home address. Yeah. I don't know what this says in Arabic, and then it has a cheeky picture of myself. So, yeah.

Matt: So that's what we all have to look forward to as writers one day. So, Alastair, I'm sure people know a bit about you already, but you're an adventurer. You're an author. You're also more recently a podcaster, filmmaker, author of 12 books. Some are about your adventures. Some are children's books, and your most recent two are My Midsummer Morning and The Doorstep Mile. And you've done things like track across Iceland, [Into the] Empty Quarter, like you said, you've also done more, maybe I would say, creative adventures of busking across Spain using only—feeding yourself with only the money you made from playing the violin, which you did so not that incredibly terribly, maybe. Yeah. We're really, really happy for you to join us here. So thanks so much for being here.

Alastair: Thank you for having me. I didn't have a lot else to do.

Matt: We're obviously in really unique times right now, and it's March 30th just to timestamp this, and we're in the middle of a lockdown with COVID-19. We'll talk a little bit about that, but promise that we wouldn't lead with a question about that. So where we'd like to start—

Parul: —is actually with chafed buttocks because I’ve just been reading The Doorstep Mile, and you talk about rowing and how much you didn't like the idea of rowing in the ocean, and you were invited to it. And you tell a little story about how having chafed buttocks is actually a good thing. Could you explain a little bit about that experience?

Alastair: Gosh, quite a while ago now. A few years back, I received an email from someone who I didn't know at all, saying, “Would you like to come and row across the Atlantic ocean?”

And at that point, I spent quite a few years doing expeditions and journeys and all sorts of different places. And I'm generally enthusiastic about pretty much any kind of adventure. But I'd also by then read quite a lot of books about people rowing across oceans. And from reading those books, I was very aware that it seemed to be simultaneously terrifying and gratuitous, and claustrophobic, and agoraphobic, and fairly relentless and monotonous and actually terrifying and something that I really did not want to do.

And so I'd read a few of these books, but it never ever appealed to me. And then suddenly, I get an email out of the blue saying, “Do you want to come and row the Atlantic?” The whole idea just served up on a plate essentially. My first thought for all of those reasons was, no, I do not want to do this, but my inclination as a person is I'm quite a pessimistic, negative, lazy, wimpish sort of [person], but I'm very much trying to train myself not to be those things. One of the ways I've found that helps train me not to be those things is by saying yes to things that I might naturally be tempted to say no to. I'm also very interested in—whenever some opportunity comes up—asking myself what the very old version of myself would recommend that I do.

And I think if I asked the 80-year-old version of myself, how should I reply to an invitation to go have a hell of an adventure [...]? And I should probably say, “Yes”. And it was as miserable and tedious and terrifying and horrible as I thought it would be. And now that I finished it, I'm very delighted that I did it. It was brilliant, in retrospect pleasurable.

Parul: And this leads me to another question for urban rats like me who have discomfort with discomfort. How do we push past that? Because I love what you talk about, and I wish I could do more of these. I wish I, too, could have chafed buttocks, but you know, how do I push myself in your path of adventure?

Alastair: It's one of those annoying things that is just done by doing, I think, in the same way, that a book gets done by sitting down and writing it. Of course, discomfort is an unpleasant thing, and hard things are hard. We sort of intrinsically know that the rewards are out there if you can persevere beyond it.

But trying to get from the theory to the reality is hard. Now, I look back on the young version of myself—the first version of myself that went on a first big adventure with real surprise that I did it. And with great gratitude that I did it because forcing myself out the door on the first big adventure and persevering through all the lows and bad things of that is something that, with hindsight, I'm very, very grateful for.

For many years on the adventures I've done, I've had this feeling that if I'm enjoying it at the time, then it's a holiday, not an adventure. And for it to be an adventure, I should be in some way, uncomfortable or ideally miserable and scared and crying and sad. And if all those things are happening, then that's great because that means I'm having an adventure, but that slightly weird brain only comes through repetitive experience, [and] having done it a lot of times and knowing that it's kind of good in the long run.

But to actually answer your question, I think the first time is very hard. The way to make yourself do it is [to] find something sufficiently small that you can overcome the fears and the barriers and the laziness and the procrastination in your mind, and actually commit to doing it.

And I think it's quite easy to say, “Oh, you should just go and do something big.” But the reality is, I think it's much better to just do something so tiny that you've got no excuse not to do it. Do that tiny thing. See how that makes you feel, and then do something a little bit bigger the next time. And then repeat and grow.

Parul: Yeah, that makes sense. And as, as I was saying to you earlier, like, I wouldn't have slept under the stars at Richmond Park had I not read your micro adventures book and actually, from what I see of you and what I've known of you, you're both an adventurer with a capital A.

You've done these massive trips, but you've also been an advocate for these smaller adventures. You know, the micro-adventure, the five to nine, and the doorstep mile. Can you talk to us a little bit about your philosophy of everyday adventuring and how we can bring this into our lives? Just for those who haven't read all your books yet.

Alastair: Yeah. So I spent a lot of years trying to do really big adventures, and I wanted to write books about really big adventures, but in the process of trying to grow an audience who are interested in adventures and might read what I wrote about that, I came to realise that whilst there are lots of people who liked the idea of big adventures, there aren't many people who are actually doing them. There are lots of reasons why everyone isn't out rowing across an ocean or cycling around the world. But two of the main ones are people don’t have enough time, or they don't have enough money, and just general, real-life kind of gets in the way of being an itinerant, vagabond bum. So I started trying to think, does it have to be either/or? Does it have to be adventure or being a boring accountant? Is there not some sort of overlap between these two worlds? Is it possible to get all the sort of spirits and fun and excitement and challenge and simplicity of adventure while still having a real life?

And so I started trying to get the stuff that I really liked [out of] big adventures and just make it smaller and simpler and cheaper and more local and distil it down and down and down and down until the ideas became so short and simple and local and affordable that they became much more accessible to more people.

I call these micro-adventures. So if you can't go and cycle across Africa for a year, the alternative doesn't have to be just sitting on your sofa and watching TV forever. You could go cycle for 50 kilometres somewhere this weekend and get the train home. It seems to me that doing a small little micro-adventure was better than doing nothing at all, and actually doing a small little [...] adventure.

If you do sufficient of them, [it] adds up to a general feeling of living an adventurous life without necessarily having to jack it all in and head for the sunset. So that's what I’ve been trying to do in my own life. I've got a family. I have to pay my bills. I've got all this normal stuff of real life, but I still have the urge to live adventurously, and trying to squeeze micro-adventures in around the margins of my daily life has been how I've been trying to do that.

Parul: I love it. I think it's such a great idea. 

Matt: Yeah. Which brings us maybe to the more topical topic of how are you coping with all of this? I mean, you make a living by being out of doors, and now we're on lockdown. I know you live, I think, down in the south. So you're surrounded by nature, but how are you dealing with this lockdown? How are you adapting [to] your working life around it?

Alastair: Well, it certainly reminded me of the importance of a writer to have some streams of passive income because every single thing in my diary or every single speaking engagement, every single thing I've worked—I work with brands on making films and promoting stuff.

Every single thing in my diary for the rest of the year has gone as it is for a lot of people. So I now have zero income except for what I can generate from sitting behind a computer screen and passive income. So in that sense, it's been a pretty big blow, but I've had this rule to myself ever since lockdown began and I started to go crazy, which every morning, I have to remind myself that I am luckier than 99.99% of people who are dealing with all of this right now. And then I carry on with the second part of my day, which is I go into the shower and I put it on freezing cold, and I press go, and my shower is quite a sadistic shower.

It goes [noises] blast with freezing cold water. And then I figured that everything in the rest of my day is going to be better than that. And then I carry on. I'm homeschooling my two kids and essentially doing no work except later nights at the moment.

Parul: What about trying to climb trees? Cause I read that you like to do that.

Alastair: If you don't have time to climb trees, then you'd need particularly to go and find the time to climb a tree, I think. So yeah, last year I started climbing a tree once a month. So I schedule it into my Google calendar for the first Wednesday of the month. It goes ding!, and I have to heed that call, turn off my computer, go to the tree—It's not that far away from my house—climb this tree. And I climb at the same point every month, the same branch.

To my surprise, I came to find last year that I was really, really looking forward to these brief climbs up a tree, partly because I really enjoy being out in nature. But last year, I really, really paid attention by being up this tree every month. I noticed how nature was changing, how the universe was marching on.

And I think now is a better time than ever to remember that the universe is still, by law, is working quite happily. You climb the tree, notice what's happened, have a little think about what I've done in the last month of work, imagine what I might get done in my writing in the next month, usually have a cup of tea up the tree, climb back down the tree, back to my computer, back to the emails or the work. Boom. But squeeze this natural wilderness adventurous experience into 30 minutes in my lunch break.

And I loved it so much that I did it all last year. I'm carrying on this year as well. So on Wednesday, Coronavirus be damned, I should be out climbing my tree.

Parul: I love it. I'm going to do that from now on. And if anyone else in this group does, please tag us. I want to see more tree climbers.

Alastair: I'm trying. It's a very, very small niche hashtag of monthly tree climb on Instagram, but I'm enjoying the small gathering of people. But there's someone who's doing monthly tree climbs who also [can] add the hashtag pensioner tree climbing. He’s some guy in his seventies who is doing it every month, which makes me extremely happy.

Matt: That's great. Now we maybe go to the writing side of things and how you started writing. We often hear about bloggers, or is it more novice, adventurous who wants to find an audience. Where do you normally suggest people start? How do you go beyond the friends and family reading your work?

Alastair: I’m not sure I have, really. It always astonishes me to find someone who doesn't have my surname who’s read one of my books. Wowwww, I've hit the big time now. Someone who's not directly related to me has read a book of mine. How would you go beyond your friends and family? Well, in the specifics of my world, the adventure thing, I would essentially say that the first thing to do is go off and have a big adventure. Don't worry about anything else. Don't worry about getting sponsors or publishers or anything like that until you actually have the thing you're going to write about.

I wrote a blog post years ago, which I keep—often coming back to, which was called “Nobody Should Blog On Their First Expedition”. I'm not entirely sure I mean that, but what I meant by it was you should go do the journey because you want to do the journey. Go do the adventure because it feels important to you. Live it as deeply and fully as you can and do it for all the reasons that it's good to go do a big adventure. Not because you want to get a career or you want to get famous or whatever. Just go do it because it feels important to you. And if you do all of those things, then when you come home, you will hopefully actually have much more interesting stories to tell. And then you can begin the process of writing it and telling it to the world.

So I partly believe that but on the other hand, also, there's an interesting new world of adventure [that] overlaps with [the] internet, which means you can tell stories whilst you're actually out on your journeys. And I think there's a very valid argument for both the storytelling as you go and building little by little versus the “Ignore everyone. Go off to the north pole for five years. And then come home and write your book.” I think both of those are valid, but the key thing to both of them is I think that adventure has to be the core of it. The adventure needs to come first. And I think when you do things purely to try and grow an audience, they're a bit like planting on shallow soil.

I think you get quick brief bursts, but I'm not sure you necessarily get the longevity of it. But on the other hand, perhaps I'm just a grumpy old man who's thinking about the good old days of when I first did adventures without Instagram. 

Matt: Yeah. When you first did your first adventure that you wrote about, did you intend to write for a bigger audience, or were you just writing for friends and for [the] family to say this is an adventure I've been on, or did you have bigger aspirations to share?

Alastair: So one of the reasons I began travelling was because I loved reading travel books. So the books inspired me out the front door to go on my adventures. So the books were always linked to the trips that I did. And therefore, I always had this romantic fantasy that I'd love to be a travel writer. I thought that would be so cool.

And while I was cycling around the world then, I was taking notes and writing diaries with this daydream that one day I'd love to get a book out of it. But it was very much a—I always thought I'd write something, and I hoped or dreamed of being a writer, but it wasn't a serious career plan. I still assumed that when I came home from that trip, I'd go and become a biology teacher, which is what my other life was destining me for.

Matt: You've written quite a few books since, and one of your most recent ones, My Midsummer Morning, I feel like we got to see a little bit of a different side of Alastair. Not just the adventurer, but also the conflicted family guy, husband, father balancing adventuring life with home life. I guess I was just curious how, you know, having read that book and really loved it.

What was it like writing that book, and was it—did it feel different than writing any of the other books?

Alastair: Yeah, it felt very different. I've been doing adventures and trying to make it my job for gosh, well over a decade now, and I've been married for—I should know—12, 13 years. My kids are ten and eight, but in all that time, I've been very fanatical about separating my adventure life and my writing life, and my work life from my real life.

If you'd asked me that question a year ago, I wouldn't have told you about those—married, my kids…who have total and utter separation in my life. In a different situation, we give thought for an entire hour about just that topic alone, but in terms of what the issues for tonight, the challenge for me was that the trip I did, playing my violin through Spain, on the one hand, was just a good old fashioned adventure story [and] was following in the footsteps of a travel book I'd loved. I was living a simple life, being a very bad musician, trying to earn money, and write a travel book. 

But the other side of the story was that I was a deeply frustrated person trying to be both an adventurer and writer, but also a good dad and a good husband. And the tug of those two had made me feel for many years—I was doing all aspects of my life very badly, and it was all getting a bit disastrous. So that was another part of the reality of my trip. But when I came home, I started to just write the travel stuff. So I wrote about busking through Spain adventure. And I sent it to my publishers, and they wrote back and said, now we're not going to publish this. It's a bit one-dimensional. It's not actually very interesting. I said to them, I agree. It was all right, but it wasn't that good.

And so I decided then that if the book was to be worth writing, then I had to write really, really, honestly. At the same time, I was also starting to feel increasingly disingenuous about paddling this internet life about “Isn't [a] life of adventure great. Look at me. I climb trees. Woo.” Whilst at the same time, I was really struggling to live adventurously because I was trying to take my kids to school and things. And it was starting to feel fraudulent and just not right, but I'd built up this huge barrier of adventure life versus personal life. 

So trying to write it, just to write it fully, honestly was difficult, but I kind of thought that if you're going to go for something, you might as well go full-on. So I just poured it all out and wrote the most honest book that [...] and I showed it to my wife. She read. Quietly. And she handed it back to me and said, “You can publish whatever you like.” We kind of went from there, but it felt like a very cathartic experience all around, really. And it's certainly very different from anything I've ever written. A lot of people, I know you're one of the few people not called Humphreys who have some of my other books. I know it would—it was quite a shock or surprise to people who read it. It was very different, but actually having poured out everything, as honestly as I was able and dared myself to be as honest as possible, I feel…it's very cathartic. And I also feel really proud of the finished product.

It was a nice book. So I finished writing it, and I thought this book is about as good as I can write at the moment. It's not Hemingway or Annie Dillard. I never will be, but I just felt this book is pretty much as good as I can do right now. Maybe in five years, I could do better but this—I'm really pleased with this book.

And that was a really unusual, satisfying feeling just then. I've done my best. And I think this is my best now on the page. So yeah, I was pleased. 

Matt: Yeah, I can, as a reader—

Alastair: I was very nervous putting it out into the world. My parents are pretty old-school Yorkshire, and they've strongly not mentioned a single word about anything of the book, which really shows to me that they've read it. But despite having been public about my life for so long to go really honest on something, was it a different level? But once I did, it actually just felt like a relief. And I got so many emails from people basically saying, yeah, I feel the same way. This is the same as my life [and it] has been quite a relief.

Parul: Pretty interesting because it brings us back to that concept of, like, heart-led and authenticity. Now we're talking about how, when you go on your first adventure, really, it's making sure that you're doing it for the right reasons. You're authentic with yourself.

Matt: Did you have to hold back at all? What was that line between am I being too revealing or not enough? I mean, I guess when we're thinking about writing about our own experiences, what do we include? What don't we include? Who do we talk about? Are we going to insult people? How did you draw that line? 

Alastair: Well, it’s hard. I've been really, really frustrated ever since I've been a father because I don't know how many of you guys listening are parents, but it's really hard. And it's often deeply irritating and deeply tedious and hugely, hugely, hugely gets in the way of my—me and my adventure dreams. And that's a very selfish thing to say, but I found that incredibly frustrating. So, therefore I've been fairly resentful, but hopefully only internally, but fairly often resentful.

So my first drop, I just poured it out. It was really angry, and I was reading it thinking, “Wow, you're not a nice person”, but I just really just wrote. And then the dialling back that I had to do was to make two things extremely clear: one, I love my children and my wife more than I love adventure.

So I had to really make sure that that was clear, and I had to really make it clear in the book that none of this was my kid's fault. They're still too young to read it, but that was—any dialling back I did on anything was to clarify that at some point, if they read that, they wouldn't blame themselves that their dad's a grumpy old man.

So I did that sort of dialling back, and then I sent it to more people than I've ever sent a book to before. It was something that I felt too close to to be able to get a broad perspective on. I wrote one of the books quite a few years ago, which is probably my most personal book until that. [It] is about walking across India.

And I did that in a totally different style. I self-published it, I wrote it, I edited it, I proofread it. I wanted no one to see the entire book until it was available for sale on the theory that if that was good, then I'd done it. If it was bad in any way, that was entirely my fault. So I wanted to just fully own whatever happened to that.

But for this Spain book, I wanted lots of people to read it, to get a much broader opinion. And in particular, I really wanted to get as many women as possible to read it cause I really worried reading the book that I've just sounded like an obnoxious man, who's moaning away about the things that every single mom in the universe deals with every single day.

So I wanted to get women to read it too, who were so distanced from the relationship who could give me a bit more of an honest perspective on it.

Parul: Yeah, I think that's the technique you've used—just using a sort of essentially beta readers is one that you can—I've definitely seen applied to blog posts and articles, or even if you're writing fiction. Sometimes it's good to get that perspective.

Alastair: One of the things that I've come to love very much in recent years is asking questions on social media. So just asking people's opinions, asking advice. And I love Google forms, especially now everyone is so bored at home. You can basically put up a Google form saying, “Hey, do you mind answering these five questions about, I don’t know, what would be a more interesting book? Love, teabags, chicken, or whatever”, and just gradually sort of asking the audience's advice on so many things.

I do that so often now, and it always amazes me how many people answer these things. People love having their opinions heard. I think I've moved on now from my indie book, which is so close. There's a lot of people out there who are interested in stuff. Why not ask them? 

Parul: Yeah, absolutely. And it's a great way to engage with people quite early on in an idea. I'm really curious about your experience with publishing when you've published quite a number of books. How has there been anything—

Matt: Some self-published and some traditional too.

Parul: Right. Maybe you can talk a little bit about things that were unexpected or things that went well or didn't go well in the publishing process.

Alastair: I mentioned it when I set off to cycle around the world, I had this loose daydream of, “Oh, wouldn't it be great to write a book?” And I love the theory of it and I'd cycle along, down Africa daydreaming about my book, but I was also at the time doing occasional blog posts and one of them—which is going to gradually grow in list of friends, family, friends of friends, and slowly spreading, but very, very small, I mean, a few hundred people max, but somehow on that list, a literary agent read some of my blogs.

And when I got to South Africa…so a year into my bicycle journey, she emailed me saying, “Well, I like what you're writing. When you get home, get in touch.” And I was just—I remember that so clearly—I just thought I've made it, I've hit the big time. An agent likes me, which is as you'll know, such a hard thing to do.

So I kept on cycling for another three years and when I got home, I met this agent. I wrote some sample chapters. She sent it off to all the publishers. I was so excited about how rich I was going to be. And then she phoned me up, said, “Nobody’s interested.” Lance Armstrong's already written a book about bicycles and Bill Bryson's sewed up the travel market. So you're done.” And she dumped me. I just laid down on my bed, cried my eyes out. Oh, that's all over. So the upshot of that was I [had] basically written one book. No one wanted it. And a friend of mine persuaded me that rather [than] just crying in the bed or giving up—that it was better to self-publish it rather than doing nothing at all.

So I turned my whole cycling around the world book—I decided to chop it in half to save a bit of material. And then the first bit, England, South Africa, I self-published it. I just put it out to the world, self-publishing it. And on the back of that, a very small little publisher got hold of it and they liked it and they signed me up for my second book.

I was so excited. Yeah, I've got a publisher. I signed whatever they gave me, which I now realize was just an astonishingly bad contract, which I'm still stuck in. I didn't really care because I just—I told them…my book out there. So they published them, the next several books of mine for a few years, and then I started doing micro-adventures.

And with that idea, I managed to find an agent and HarperCollins. So I've done three books there with a big publisher. Microadventures, Grand Adventures and my Spain book. 

Parul: Did you actually send a proposal out to find an agent? Did they come to you? 

Alastair: So this is 2014. By then I'd started to film my adventure. So I started to film things and put films on YouTube and I started to make films for brands. So actually the original reason the agent found me was because they were interested in me from a brand point of view. So working with brands do stuff and get massive posters of yourself. So I got an agent and then, because I had the agent, I got with HarperCollins. I've done three books with them.

I then went to a different publisher—a kid's publisher to do a big illustrator kids book. And then my most recent, I decided to go back to the very beginning and I self-published The Doorstep Mile for reasons, which I could talk about if you're interested but I went—yeah, I decided to get back to self-publishing.

Matt: Actually, I would be curious, what was that decision like for you? Why self publish again? 

Alastair: So I originally self-published because no one wanted me. To be honest [it] is the reason most people self-publish at first. So no one wanted to do me. I went back to self-publishing because I've now got a decent enough sized audience. I still [...] a lot of social media stuff. Most publishers try and pretend that the internet does not yet exist.

So I do social media type stuff so much better than publishers do, which isn't boastful. It just means that I'm not a Victorian. Yeah, they're terrible. You get much bigger royalty by self-publishing it. 70% versus 10%. HarperCollins still get very excited if you get an article printed in the Daily Telegraph. And they don't really care if you get on a blog or a YouTube video that's seen by a million people. 

So it just seems really dated and unnecessary to give away 60% of your rights. And also it's so slow. I'm quite impatient. I like to just get things done. If you enter a publisher tomorrow, they'd be looking to publish your book in probably about 2022.

Whereas if you sat down tomorrow and decided to write your book and self-publish it, you could be out by Christmas. It was March last year, I thought—decided to do a book and my mission was to get it out by Christmas, and I did that by self-publishing it. And I did it actually. So this could be another conversation. I did it by turning an email newsletter into a book. 

I don't know whether we talk about that at some point but—so then my short answer is there are increasingly few reasons to go with a publisher. So with my self-published book, now I paid an editor to edit it. I paid a designer to design the front cover. I paid someone to record the audio stuff to go on audible. 

So you do involve paying these sort of people, but once you’ve paid them, then you just keep the 70% of 50 pounds for the rest of your life.

Parul: Yeah, it makes sense. And I think that when you do stuff on—so much on social media, it makes absolute sense that you get to keep the effort that comes out of them. 

Matt: Yeah. You're obviously naturally adventurous. You're also naturally entrepreneurial, I would say, you know. So you're kind of a “screw it, let's do it” approach. You want to start a podcast and then you do it. You want to do video blogs and then you do it. You want to publish a book and then you do it. I guess for those of us who might be less entrepreneurial, are there any tips, advice? Would it be the same advice you give to someone who wants to start adventuring? Just start shit or—anything that you've learned.

Alastair: Oh, well, first of all, when you described me as an entrepreneurial, that just sort of sent alarm bells in my head thinking, “Whaaat. That's a ridiculous thing to say” in the, I do not think of myself in that way at all. And yet, on the other hand, I have been self-employed for 12 years. And I have got my fingers in all sorts of different pies in ways of doing that, which I have got increasing numbers of books like Seth Godin and Tim Ferriss, those sorts of books. I do accept the overlap there, but it's not my natural inclination. I'm not the Richard Branson guy who was the geezer in the playground selling chocolate that he got in the market.

So it's not a natural thing for me. I think the way it grew for me was I decided I wanted to try it. Right. I decided I want to get my stories out into the world. At some point, you have to swallow the embarrassing pill of thinking, I need to stop talking about myself. I need to tell the world about myself. Unless your JD Salinger, pretty much all the rest of us have to do a lot of shouting about ourselves and distasteful though that might be. And I made—I remember it clearly actually. It was in 2009. I made a conscious decision. No one knows who I am. I'm going to start being a blogger. And so I decided to treat blogging as a half-time job. So 50% of my working week, I was going to start writing blogs about the kind of stuff that I do, my kind of world.

I decided that I was going to try and become an expert in my little niche on the internet. And I was going to write blogs about it and comment on forums about this and just become the expert about my little world of adventure. So I spent several years just writing. Well, I've got over 2000 blog posts on my website now, just, gosh, what's the guy called…Darren Rowse, [a] pro blogger back in the days of blogs, 10 years ago, did this thing called the 30-day to be a blogger challenge, which is 30 days of tasks.

And I used to just do those 30 days every three months and just repeat the 30 and just build up content gradually over time. Just try and become an expert in my niche. So I did that for three years and then I just started to diversify a bit into making some films, trying to get better at photography. Just get better [at] all the different things I needed to do to try and turn writing into a viable way of life.

And even now I've written 12 books. I still make most of my money from stuff that spins off from the writing rather than the actual books. Do you want me to talk about money? So I've been fully earning my living from this stuff since 2008. [For] most of those years, 90% of my money came from speaking, which in the early days we were just doing hundreds of talks at schools about adventures. Little village schools, secondary schools.

So, but it was about 90% speaking temps and writing for many years. And then I started to make films—my adventures. Initially just because I loved it, but then I saw it—YouTube as a brilliant new way of telling stories. So I started to do more and more videos on YouTube and get better at them. And from that, I started to be able to work with brands to essentially fill the adventures and advertise their stuff. 

So now my percentage has now changed about 45% brand stuff, filming or ambassador things, 45% speaking and still 10% writing. Just last year I started a podcast and my podcast has a sponsor. So that's now a chunk of a percentage.

Parul: I think it's really interesting to hear the breakdown of that. I'm curious about your paid gigs with brands. Did you approach them? did you take time out to research who might be suitable for you to work with? Or did they reach out to you?

Alastair: Yes, when I first started doing that, I was trying to reach brands because I needed their stuff. So someone like, say, The North Face. I needed—then I needed tents and sleeping bags and expensive equipment like bicycles and stuff.

So in the early days, I was reaching out to brands saying, “Please give me a tent and I'll film it on my trip.” So I was getting free stuff. And then eventually I ended up with a garage full of tents, but still not much money. So then I needed to move to get some money from it. And I'm so rubbish at that sort of stuff.

So that's why I was delighted that this agent appeared in my life to do all those conversations for me. I in return just have to be willing to accept that she gets 20% of that for sometimes working really hard, sometimes it seems like doing very, very little whilst I go to slug my guts out for a year, but that's their deal of an agent. I guess the same with a book agent.

When you get into bed with an agent you have to accept that that's part of it. So what I wanted my agent to do was to go out to brands—random brands, and say, “Hey, I've got this guy. He's amazing. Give him loads of money.” The reality is that that never happens. And really brands see the stuff I've written or put out in the world and then gets in touch with me from that.

So it all goes back to just producing loads of really, really, really good stuff. And if it's good enough and there's a niche for it, then the other things come on top of that. One thing I would say is that the times when I've thought strategically about, ‘Oh, if I do this project, then I'll definitely get loads of money and I'll be really famous.”

They've never really worked very well at all. And the times that I've thought, oh, I'm just going to do the thing I really want to do. Well, my first big adventure, cycling around the world for four years before I'd even written a word about was, in some ways, not very efficient, but I just thought, oh, that’s what I want to do. And then starting micro-adventures, these tiny adventures seemed like a ridiculous thing to do when I started to do big things and then playing my violin across Spain just seemed a bit random and neither hardcore nor micro-adventure.

And the times I'd just done what I really wanted to do, they've led to results [that’s] been obviously passionate and me really putting my heart into it, and I suppose a bit more quirky and original. On the back of that, those weird little random things, it earned me way more money than the times that I've actually tried to chase money.

Parul: That's very interesting. So this goes back to heart led. Heart led creative content.

Alastair: My second book [that] I did for HarperCollins was called Grand Adventures. It's a nice looking book. It's about how you can go off and do big adventures. It’s based on interviews with people. I enjoyed doing it, and it's quite a nice book. I did that, but very much just a sort of strategic mission type book and basically no one's ever bought it so.

Matt: A beautiful book. 

Alastair: It's a nice book. And I guess it works for some people, but it's been noticeably less well received and the quirky things I've done.

Matt: One of the things that I think many people struggle with is self-doubt and you know, is this good enough? Who am I to write this stuff? You come off as someone who seems to get past that pretty easily. Is there something that we're not seeing? Like, do you have self-doubt in your head and how have you learned to try and surpass it. Or do you just—you've kind of battered it away long ago. What does that look like for you?

Alastair: I think I've got to the point where I didn't really care, but I suspect that it's just with the onset of middle-age rather than anything else.

If I meet someone and they say, what do you do? I never say I'm a writer. I've written 12 books now. I've made my living for over a decade out of writing and spinoffs from it. But I really, really don't feel like a proper writer. So I don't think that ever goes away. And if ever I meet like a proper writer, somebody who's written really good books, then I would just be bowing down.

So I tell you what I feel like myself as. I feel that I am a working writer or a working adventurer. I heard this phrase on [the] radio four years ago. I remember exactly where I was in the car when they talked about someone being a working artist. It just hit me. If you can make your work out of your arts, then it's not—it's just such a privilege and a joy and a triumph.

And my books haven't sold a million copies. They're not nearly as good as Shakespeare, and I'm fine with that now. I make my living out of trying the best I can with writing stuff. I've banned myself from looking at Amazon reviews. I might just try and write the best things I can because I think they're useful, and because I enjoy doing them, and in a weird spinoff of ways, they pay the bills. So I think through those methods, I've battered down the imposter syndrome, but the phrase, the working rights or the working adventure or whatever is really useful. Because if you're an artist and you're comparing yourself to Van Gogh, it’s pointless.

If you're a writer and you compare yourself to Shakespeare, it's pointless. If you're going to play football in the park and you compare yourself to Lionel Messi, it’s pointless. But we spend all our lives measuring ourselves against people like this. It’s ridiculous. So call yourself a working whatever, and then get to work and try and find a thousand people who read your books and then repeat the process and try and get 2000 for the next one. And you'll probably be alright.

Matt: Thank you.

Parul: It's interesting to me to hear you talk about your work in the way you do because I haven't written your five-star review yet, but I absolutely will. So I've been reading The Doorstep Mile and I was just sitting on the sofa making so many notes of your work. Like so many things that I was like, “Oh my God, why did I not read this years ago?” And there's one thing that stuck out to me. It said, it's this idea of thinking about your eighty-year-old self and you mentioned it in the beginning, the quote is “Heed some encouragements and caveats from your eighty-year-old self. Write a letter from future you to current you. What will they tell you to do with your life? What will they think about where you are right now? What would they plead with you to change?” 

With that in mind, is there anything that your eighty-year-old self would tell you to do differently? I'm really curious.

Alastair: I think firstly, my eighty-year-old self would answer that—Matt's previous question about being an impostor very well because an eighty-year-old me would say, “Just why on earth are you wondering about what other people think. You've got a book you need to get written, you've got whatever you need to do before you’re 80 to get on with it? None of us when we're 80 will not regret having written whatever it is we’re daydreaming about writing.

And that really should be the critic who counts, really. My eighty-year-old self has a whole host of advice for me about life in a family. I think that's the most direction in my eighty-year-old self. Advice, which essentially tells me to enjoy my kids and go and climb more trees. And in terms of the writing stuff. Wait, But Why. Do you know the website, Wait, But Why?

Parul and Matt: Yes.

Alastair: There's a blog post called, The Long Tail, which shows you graphically like, how many times you'll hug your parents again, how many times you'll swim in the ocean again, and if you see it graphically, there are so few. And if he'd been so inclined, he could probably written on his little bar chart: here are the books you have time to write in your life. And I suspect once you see that, your eighty-year-old self would suggest that you begin. 

Parul: That's useful. Yeah. 

Matt: On that note, a wonderful note to end. Alistair Humphreys, thank you so much for your time today. This has been a pleasure. So yeah.

Alastair: Thank you for having me. I've enjoyed it. And if there is any good—and that I think there is a lot of good to come out of this crazy world ruin. One of the good things is that none of us has an excuse to not get on and write our books at the moment. 

Matt: That's right.

Parul: Very true. 

Matt: Yeah. If people want to connect with you, do you have any asks—of us or anything you want us to check out or follow you on?

Alastair: Oh gosh. Well, I've spent far too much time putting myself on the internet so you can probably find me wherever you hang out on the internet. Of course, I'd like you to read a book. My podcast—the new thing I'm enjoying very much—called Living Adventurously if you're into podcasts. And I've actually just started a new newsletter, which might then become a book called The Working Adventurer, which is answering people's questions about the realities of life. So perhaps if you have any other questions, you could sign up for The Working Adventurer and ask me on that. 

Matt: Great. And that's live. 

Alastair: Yeah, that's up and running. Thank you, everyone.

Matt: Thank you so much. Thank you all. Have a great rest of your night. No excuses. 

Alastair: Thank you.


Parul: Thank you for tuning into the London Writers’ Salon podcast. If you'd like to join these weekly interviews live for the chance to ask our guests, right, is your burning questions? Well, you can become a member at forward slash pound membership. You'll get access to our library of salon interviews and workshops, our private online community, where you'll find world-class resources on the craft of writing and find creative friends.

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Matt: And if you're a writer struggling to find time to write like so many of us, you're welcome to join our free virtual hour-long, silent writing sprints called The Writers’ Hour. We hold them four times every Monday to Friday. And all you need is something to write with, a hot drink to cheers us with, and the desire to write. We think it's the world's best virtual co-writing space for writers, creatives, and frankly, anyone who just needs to get something done you can sign up for free at and we hope to see you there until we write again.

Cheers, everyone.