Karen McCann didn’t set out to become a successful expat author.
Her journey started much more prosaically.
In the year 2000, “Friends invited us to visit them in Marbella [Spain], and we were surprised at how much we loved it. Spain hadn’t been on our agenda at all.”
The timing was fortuitous. Her husband, Rich, had just taken early retirement, and Karen had a flexible schedule. They found themselves spending more time in Spain every year, and fell in love with Seville. Then they decided to stay for a year to learn the language.
Six months into that year, they decided to become residents. They sold their house in Ohio, and eventually bought a cottage in California near family. Now they spend about eight months out of the year in Spain, and enjoy California summers.
Becoming an Author
During their time abroad, Karen has developed a portable income as an author. Her first book, Dancing in the Fountain, came about accidentally.
Whenever she emailed or sent Christmas letters home, friends and family would tell her she ought to write about their life in Spain.
Then Rich gave her Bill Bryson’s book, At Home, for Christmas. It wasn’t organized chronologically like the usual travel/adventure book, and something about it sparked Karen’s thinking. Writing a book went “from a vague idea to a blinding flash,” she told me. “I started writing the next day.”
She followed that book with three others, Adventures of a Railway Nomad, Pack Light, and 101 Ways to Enjoy Living Abroad. (All of them are available at Amazon.com, and you can read my review of Dancing in the Fountain here.)
Karen never planned on developing a portable income as an author.
After Rich retired, she was doing a bit of corporate writing and Rich did some occasional consulting. Mostly, though, they focused on volunteering. They worked together “to help tiny companies get back on their feet in third-world or recovering nations.” Some of the projects they worked on were fascinating, and Rich, who’d been accustomed to multi-million dollar budgets in his professional career, “was entranced with the challenge of leveraging almost nothing into a viable business.”
Then came the book.
Social Media and Blogging
To help with marketing it, in 2011 Karen started her blog and jumped onto Facebook and Twitter.
“I love doing a blog,” Karen announced. “It’s expanded my social life, my writing life, and I’ve really loved that. The blog itself has been a treasure for me.” Six years later, she feels like her blog is a community.
Through the blog and her social media accounts, Karen attracts visitors and readers who might end up buying her books. She doesn’t monetize the blog itself in any way.
She explained to me that, “part of my brand is being a pure, non-commercial site. I grew up in the journalism era where you drew a firm line between editorial and commercial content.”
She also admits that, if she had to rely on the books and blog for a full-time income, she would probably make different choices. For now, though, “I like being able to write what I want without owing anybody a mention or losing advertisers.”
Readers of Karen’s books and blog span every age range, but most are in their late 40s to early 60s, the age “where retirement is on the horizon and they’re thinking about how that’s going to look,” she explained. “They start to consider options about moving abroad, maybe for the first time.”
Generally, her readers have also traveled and they seek the enrichment of settling down in another culture.
Her outreach efforts all happen on social media. She prefers Facebook, and uses it and Twitter to direct readers to her blog.
Recently on the blog, Karen started posting about how the US Resistance movement is taking shape overseas. I asked her whether she worries about angering or alienating readers by taking political sides in this era of divisiveness.
“Some [readers] have written with thoughtful and respectful disagreements,” she told me. “Some people have been nasty. My readers often respond to the nasty ones and it’s interesting to see what comes out of it. I thought a lot about it before I did it. I’m altering my brand and I didn’t undertake that lightly.”
“It’s a tough time in the world and in our country,” she continued. “Sometimes you have to walk in the direction of your fear. In the long run it may damage my brand, but also opens new doors for me. I don’t know what it will do to my writing career, but for me as a human being it’s done nothing but good.”
Karen believes her newly political approach (she’s highlighting the women of the Resistance) is a natural outgrowth of her travels. After our conversation, she elaborated for me in an email:
“When you visit places where great evil has been done, where tyranny has been fought to a standstill and vanquished, where people have stepped up even though it could cost their lives and freedom — all that gives you a real sense of what the stakes are, and why it is necessary to act on our beliefs. It can be very, very scary not knowing whether we’ll succeed. But as one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King puts it, ‘Faith is taking the first step when you don’t see the whole staircase.’ And the only reason we take those first, difficult steps, and the thousands of hard steps that follow, is because we have a pretty good idea what will happen if we don’t.”
Another unexpected benefit Karen’s experienced from the blog is feeling more grounded, no matter where she is.
“Before I started writing the book and blog, I’d feel adrift when I came back to the US. Now I bring my work with me. I blog from wherever I am. That gives a continuity to my life that I had not thought possible. To share experiences as they happen, not weeks later, is wonderful. It makes me feel at home wherever I am. Everything is integrated in a way I never expected, feel like I’m the same person wherever I go.”
Karen believes that being able to earn a living online, wherever you are, “is one of the most astonishing and delightful things that modern technology can offer.”
Author of two bestselling travel memoirs, Karen McCann is an American writer who moved to Seville, Spain in 2004 “for a year” and has been living there ever since. Her travel tips and adventure stories have appeared in Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times, and Lonely Planet. She’s visited more than 60 countries including developing and post-war nations. “Living abroad,” she says, “is the best opportunity to reinvent yourself outside of the witness protection program. You get to hit the reset button on your life.”
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