Travelling the world and writing down its best bits - is being a guidebook writer the perfect job? We sift the facts from the fantasy...
Close your eyes and picture the scene: it’s 5pm and a bikini-clad travel guidebook author is relaxing at a seaside bar. That morning she had a late breakfast, checked out a museum and a church and spent the afternoon 'researching' recreational opportunities at the local beach.
When you’re a guidebook author, you get paid to be on holiday, right?
Wrong. A guidebook author provides detailed, practical travel information that needs to be researched accurately and quickly. You work long days, trawling the streets, checking out restaurants, pacing out maps and trying to find the best places in town in the shortest time. Time for relaxing on the beach? Think again.
What does the job involve?
On the road you should be working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, collecting information in five main areas: transport; accommodation; eating and drinking; things to see and do; and entertainment. In addition you will be expected to track down everything from laundries to internet cafés – but you’ll barely have time to wash your socks or email pals. The clock is always ticking. There’s so much to cover and so little time because everything you research today will be old tomorrow.
As a guidebook author you are responsible not only for updating the words but the maps as well. Everything in the text must be marked on the map and vice versa. You need to pace the streets checking the position of everything on the city plans, ensuring that every bar, bank or bus station is located on the correct side of the correct street, and that the scale also makes sense.
Research trips last anything from two to 20 weeks but most are around eight. During this time you can fill 20 notebooks with information and collect hundreds of business cards, menus and timetables. Some authors research with their laptops and write or transcribe as they go, but most come home to write up their notes. As a rule, you spend two days writing for every day on the road. Space is at a premium in a guidebook and you will always return from researching with too much stuff. One of the most difficult parts of the job is deciding what not to put in your guidebook.
Everything in the travel-guidebook world has a tight deadline, including your manuscript delivery date. Writing up always takes longer than you think; most authors work late nights and weekends to get everything finished on time. As a guidebook author it is your job to deliver a well-researched book, written with colour and flair, to length and on time.
Where to start
Details on how to become an author are included on most guidebook publishers’ websites. Requirements are fairly similar – you usually need to give details of your experience and expertise, send in examples of your published work and, if you look promising, you will be asked to complete a writing task.
However, there is a back door route. Office staff at guidebook publishers are often given the chance to update a guidebook or two, and a good number end up ‘jumping the fence’ to become full-time guidebook writers.
What’s in it for you?
If you love to write and travel then this is your ideal job. Life is never dull as you are always either just off to a new destination or just back from one. Your day-to-day working life is as varied as it comes and you’re always discovering or learning something new.
However, there are downsides. Writing travel guidebooks can be a lonely profession as it is difficult to keep relationships going at home (because you’re never there). Also, the constant deadlines and fast pace of research and writing often mean that guidebook writers burn out after five years or so.
How to get that job
Study the market. No two travel guidebook publishers are the same: all have different products and markets. Approach the publisher that most resembles your style of travel. Get completely up-to-date with all their products and services.
Hone your writing skills: authoring guidebooks is as much about the writing as it is about the travelling. Become good at your craft: write as much as you can, get your work critiqued, take some writing courses.
Gain some professional writing experience. It is rare for guidebook publishers to hire authors who have never had anything published. Try to get something in print.
Flaunt your specialist knowledge. You’re more valuable to a guidebook publisher if you have insider knowledge of a particular city, country or region, or if you are fluent in a language – particularly one that few other Westerners speak, such as Mandarin or Swahili.
Show flexibility. be prepared to revise rather than create. More writing opportunities exist to update current books than to write new ones.
Use your travel experience. Extensive travel won’t get you the job but you can’t assess what a country has to offer if you don’t know how it compares with other parts of the world.
Meet the guidebook writers The expert: Donald Greig Donald has been an international travel writer and publisher for the past 25 years. He has written for many guidebook companies, and was managing director of Bradt Travel Guides for 7 years. Now based in Scotland, he is currently working on a new guide to Dumfries and Galloway to be published as part of the Bradt Slow Travel series.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left university, but the decision was made for me when I answered an advert on the English department notice board. ‘Would you like to be a travel writer?’ ‘Well, yes,’ I thought. After all, I was studying English so could theoretically write, and thanks to expatriate parents I had spent a lot of my life travelling. I figured I might be in with a chance.
A sample piece was written, I was invited for interview, and before I knew it I was researching pieces to be published in a new book of travel experiences. And so my career started. In addition to researching and writing, I also took on freelance proofreading for other local publishers in Scotland (where I was based), before deciding after a couple of years to approach directly some of the big travel publishers in London.
A commission from Cadogan guides followed, and then one from Rough Guides. Scotland on Sunday then published a piece I had written on sustainable tourism (an angle that very few others were writing about then) and after that I started up the first travel page for The List magazine, Scotland’s equivalent of Time Out. Building up a portfolio of published work took time, but it was the key to getting my name known and establishing my credibility.
Any regrets? No. Would I do it again? You bet.”
The first-timer: Helen Moat
Helen is writing the Slow Guide to the Peak District, which will be published by Bradt. She also blogs regularly for Wanderlust, travelling the world by bike for our Freewheeling series.
I started entering travel writing competitions a few years ago and was having a bit of success. I entered the Bradt Independent Travel Writing Competition, and although I wasn’t short-listed in this particular comp, the piece impressed Bradt enough for them to ask me to write a chapter for Bus Pass Britain Rides Again. The chapter for Bus Pass Britain, as it turned out, was my lucky break.
I’d read that guide book publishers will only employ ‘newbies’ to write a chapter or update a publication, but I’ve always had a ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ attitude to my writing. I’d read that success in travel writing is a numbers game. If you keep pitching or submitting, eventually someone will say yes - hopefully. Of course, the writing has to be good as well. So I did my research and sent off my pitch, and to my surprise and delight, it was accepted.
Rachel Fielding, the commissioning editor at Bradt, offered some guidance along the way. She stressed the importance of having an idea that would make the book stand out from the competition. When pitching, it’s essential that you understand the market you’re up against. Having something unique – and selling it – is everything.
Having a travel website/blog helps too. Apart from the pieces I write for my blog, I also list my publications and writing awards on it. If you don’t have a track record in publishing, it’s a place commissioning editors can go to check out your portfolio.
I was chatting to friends at the weekend, describing some of the fantastic places I’d uncovered recently. They were saying what a great job I have, spending the day hunting out these wonderful hidden places; then writing about them. And it’s true.
Of course, there is the more laborious side to guide book writing: the online research and the checking, and double checking of facts. But at the end of the day, I love exploring places and writing about them. From that point of view, it has to be the perfect job.
A day in the life of a guidebook writer
David Else is a guidebook writer for Bradt and Lonely Planet. In a previous life, he was a volunteer teacher and tour leader in Africa. His experience and excellent knowledge of this continent got David his first job as a travel guidebook writer.
David has written or updated 20 books on Africa although, due to a growing family, he now specialises in guidebooks closer to home. Whether it is Cairo or Crewe, this is how a typical day’s research goes: 6am
I wake to the sound of – depending on location – cockerels, muezzins, church-bells, or a cacophony of taxi hooters and rickshaw bells drifting up from the road outside the hotel window. 6.30am
First place to check: long-distance bus station. In the developing world especially, they’re always busiest early in the morning. Also a good place to get a coffee. 7.30am
Back to the city centre. Search out cafés offering breakfast. Take notes on the best ones – menu, prices, cleanliness etc. 9am
Leave hotel, move to another nearby. Of course, guidebook writers can’t stay in every place, but must sample as many as possible. 10am
A ‘places of interest’ morning. Go to city art gallery, the palace and a perhaps a couple of museums. Note the prices, opening hours and days, as well as contents. 12 noon
Lunch on the run. Visit several cafés and restaurants. I have a starter in one, main course in another, coffee and cake in a third. Note ambience, service, choice. Take note of what other diners are eating. 3pm
Afternoon is a quiet time for hotel staff, so the best time for guidebook writers. Pretend to be a potential guest. Check doubles and singles, cheap rooms or penthouse suites – depending on location and book’s readership. 7pm
Evening meal research. Once again, check menus and prices. Radar on for ambience and quality. Talk to locals and other tourists – which do they think are the best restaurants in town? 10pm til ?
Maybe a quiet evening in the hotel room, reviewing notes. Or maybe out again, to check late-night cafés, bars and nightclubs. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it…
Image: Close Up of a Woman Writing. Photo from Shutterstock.