When I tell people I write guidebooks for a living, they usually tell me that I have a dream job. I’ll admit that in many ways, I have to agree. Guidebook writing is fun, fulfilling, and gives me opportunities to see things I’d never otherwise be exposed to. However, it’s certainly not all it’s cracked up to be. Here are a few common misconceptions about guidebook writing, debunked.
1. It’s well-paid
The golden rule of guidebook writing is to never try to calculate your hourly wages. Contrary to popular belief, guidebook writing is not a lucrative career path, especially if you are living or working in a developed country. Most guidebook writers either get an advance from their publisher or are paid a flat fee for their work. Writers then use part of their advances or fees to cover the costs of their research, leaving them with very little, if any, profit.
2. It’s easy work
Let me be upfront that I don’t believe there’s such a thing as easy work. Sorting kidney beans looks easy, but ask someone who is blind and hunchbacked from a life of doing such work and she’ll likely tell you the opposite. The same goes for guidebook writing. Guidebook writers spend months on their feet visiting sites, hotels and eateries, often for 12+ hours/day, 7 days/week. This is followed by months of writing, fact-checking and editing. While it’s definitely rewarding to see the fruits of your labor in book form, it takes a lot more energy than most people realise to get it there.
3. It’s glamorous
Guidebook writing is about as glamorous as a dank, bed-bug infested hotel room with rotting carpet and no room service. Sure, you might get an occasional junket from a 5-star hotel, but there’s a lot more to guidebook writing than sipping pina coladas at beachfront resorts. Unless you are working for a series whose main target audience is the elusive 1%, then you’ll probably need to suss out the full gamut of accommodation options, including ultra-cheap backpacker digs.
4. Hotels and restaurants bribe writers for coverage
Depending on who you’re writing for, you may or may not be allowed to accept (or solicit) offers of free room and board from hotels and restaurants. However, guidebook writers who accept freebies generally make it very clear that they will not trade a free stay or meal for publicity. If you stay in a sub-par hotel that you would never recommend to your friends and family, then it’s completely reasonable to keep it out of your book, even if they gave you a free stay. Doing otherwise defeats the entire point of reviewing.
5. You get paid to go on vacation
I wish. Guidebook writers don’t get paid to travel, they get paid to produce a book. Anyone who has been on a business trip knows that it’s not at all the same thing as a vacation. Guidebook writing is no different. Although seeing the sites is part of your job, you’ll usually end up spending much more time checking out hotels (this gets monotonous after a while) and collecting material from tourist offices. This leaves very little time for relaxing.
Indeed, guidebook writing is not all it’s cracked up to be, but there are still few things I find rewarding. If you love writing, enjoy meeting people from all walks of life, and thrive off of being constantly on the go, then it may very well be your dream job. Just don’t expect it to be lucrative–or easy. For me, the most rewarding aspects of being a guidebook writer have been the opportunity to learn about the travel industry, spend lots of time getting to know cities intimately. I’ve also been fortunate to work with incredibly talented editors, cartographers, photographers and publishers. Plus, it’s always a kick to see your name in print. So as long as you are willing to put in lots of hard hours, and don’t expect to earn a fortune or spend your life on vacation, then it may very well be the job for you!
Here are a few tips on how to get started, if you’re still interested:
1. Get to know a destination really well. This could be a place you’ve lived in, a place you travel to regularly, or your own home town. Many guidebook publishers look for local experts for both first editions and updates.
2. Build a portfolio to build your credibility. Pitch stories to magazines and newspapers. Take up reviewing and mystery shopper gigs. Start a travel blog or online city guide. Show the world how well you know your destination.
3. Make a list of all the major guidebook publishers and check their acquisitions processes. If this information is not on their websites, then send a brief introduction email and take it from there. Don’t despair if you don’t hear back; follow up once and then wait, but don’t barrage editors and publishers with long emails.
4. Keep travelling and keep writing!
All photos by Rajat Deep Rana