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How to get into guidebook writing | Pitch calls | AMA with Jen Rose Smith
Steph and Lottie are back and looking at how to break into guidebook writing
We hope you found last month’s series about finances from the fantastic Qin Xie to be as helpful as we did. This month, Steph and Lottie are back and lifting the lid on how to get into various different styles of travel writing (see below; 🔒 indicates content for paid subscribers only).
Today: How to get into guidebook writing
🔒 August 9: How to get into long-form feature writing
🔒August 16: How to get into hotel reviews
🔒 August 23: How to get into freelance editing
🔒August 26: AMA with Jen Rose Smith
On Friday August 26, we’ll also be running our first ever AMA (Ask Me Anything) event with the Adventure and Lifestyle editor of Sierra magazine, Jen Rose Smith. With years of experience as a travel journalist, Jen has written about travel, adventure and remote places from a home base in Vermont's Green Mountains and her work has appeared in the Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN, BBC Travel, and many other outlets. You can read more about her and her work at www.jenrosesmith.com.
This AMA, which will only be available to paid subscribers, will take the form of a comment thread where you can pose questions to Jen about anything travel journalism and she’ll be checking in throughout the day to answer your questions. Make sure you’ve got a paid subscription to access what’s set to be a brilliant and informative event.
Breaking into guidebook writing — is it worth it?
I [Steph] had my initial forays into travel writing as a guidebook author. My first ever commission was Moon Chile, a guidebook about a country I’d spent the previous two years living in, quickly followed by a commission from Rough Guides to update the Rough Guide to Peru and the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget guidebooks. As everyone who can remember their first paid commission will know, it felt remarkable to actually be on the road, exploring a destination I loved and getting paid to do so.
But, it didn’t take long for the realities of guidebook writing to sink in: long hours, weeks on end away from home and, if you’re not careful, an inordinately small lump of cash at the end. I quickly learned that guidebook writing can begin to feel like more a lesson in how to work for below minimum wage than an actual means of earning a living.
However, guidebook writing is a way to truly get the measure of a country; I’ve probably visited more of Chile than the vast majority of Chileans, and that extensive, almost encyclopaedic knowledge has served me exceptionally well. I’ve become a destination expert, written for a wide range of publications about the country and founded a successful website on the topic, too. For me, it was a springboard to further work and, I believe the level of local knowledge I’ve acquired as a guidebook writer has made me a significantly better features writer, too.
My enjoyment of this aspect of my career has increased alongside the realisation that they are many different types of guidebook writing. While I’ve worked on many more typical guidebooks, such as Moon Chile, over the past year I’ve been making at least 10% of my income from guidebook commissions, all without actually having to leave my desk.
No, don’t @ me; this is for coffee table style guides for DK Eyewitness, rather than the logistics-heavy, requires-on-the-ground-experience guidebooks that I’ve worked on in the past. The best bit? Editors frequently drop into my inbox asking if I’ve got space to get involved in a project, allowing me to write about destinations I’ve either covered before (thus increasing my earnings off the back of a single trip) or those well-established places around which it can be difficult to spin a new angle. I’ve found being a destination expert (Latin America), rather than a generalist keeps me top of editors’ minds when it comes to these commissions, too.
Getting yourself into editors’ contact lists and publishers’ databases in the first place can be the hardest part about securing these types of assignments, but post-pandemic, they’re increasingly the types of books editors are looking to commission.
Top tips for breaking into guidebook writing
Whether you know your stuff on a particular destination or topic and you’re keen to get commissioned to write a full guidebook, or want to be top of the list when an editor’s hunting out writers for an existing coffee table series, here are some key ways to get on guidebook publishers’ radars.
Reach out to publishers to showcase your expertise in a given area. This can take the form of joining a database of writers:
Lonely Planet has a guidebook writer application form.
Email DK’s Editorial Assistant Lucy email@example.com with an outline of your destination experience and some writing samples in order to be added to their database. We covered more pitching tips from DK in this previous edition of the newsletter.
or pitching a full book idea:
Moon have a list of the destinations they’re currently seeking writers for, which also includes an extensive overview of how to pitch a new title.
Cicerone have a detailed pitching guide, with a downloadable proposal template to use when reaching out.
For Bradt, Claire Strange is the editor to contact with a pitch — just keep it targeted and succinct. Tell her why Bradt need a particular guide, why they should choose you, and show them what you’re capable of. Writing samples should be supplied as Word attachments to an email, rather than as a link. We covered more tips from Claire in this previous edition of the newsletter.
Pitch story ideas around your area of expertise to the websites of guidebook publishers. This is a great way of showcasing your work to editors and you can find pitching information for Lonely Planet, Rough Guides and Fodor’s.
Be persistent. There’s certainly less money in guidebook publishing than there used to be, and plenty of competition from others writers vying for that commission. Reach out to editors but always be looking to develop your writing skills and broaden your destination expertise. As budgets have tightened during the pandemic, there’s never been a better time to be a writer based in destination, so be sure to flag that up when approaching editors.
How to make guidebook writing pay
Landing your first guidebook commission is a moment worth celebrating. But, to avoid your experience from quickly turning sour, you’ll need to be aware of how to transform the experience from what can easily become 16-hour days at lower than minimum wage into a worthwhile profit.
Here are tips from a couple of the industry’s most experienced guidebook writers.
Travel journalist and guidebook author Shafik Meghji has co-authored more than 40 Rough Guides and DK Eyewitness Guides to countries and regions across South and Central America, Asia, North Africa, Europe and Oceania. His first book, Crossed Off the Map, was published by Latin America Bureau in October 2021.
For me, the key is using the research trips to gather material for other projects. Before heading out, I scour local newspapers for stories overlooked by the English-language/western media, speak to contacts, arrange interviews, and plan and pitch articles on politics, society, culture, history, the environment and other topics, as well as travel. In Latin America, in particular, I’ve found lots of opportunities because of the dearth of English-language reporters in the region.
On the road, I record interviews with as many interesting people as possible — these often feed into talks and podcasts, as well as articles — and of course take photos. Multiple trips to Bolivia allowed me to research my travelogue, Crossed Off the Map, while visits to countries like Nepal enabled me to carry out research for a human rights NGO. Sometimes material only comes in useful several years later — I’ve recently drawn on guidebook research from the mid-2010s for contributions to a book about migrations and a history-based TV series.
I write up as much as possible while travelling, rather than saving it all for when I return home. And I always aim to double-up my research — for example, updating the Rough Guide to Costa Rica and the Costa Rica chapter of the Rough Guide to Central America on a Budget on the same trip.
Rudolf Abraham is an award-winning travel writer, photographer and guidebook author specialising in Central and Eastern Europe, who’s worked on over a dozen titles for publishers including Bradt, Cicerone and National Geographic Traveler. His latest guidebook, Walking in the Salzkammergut, is published by Cicerone.
For me, making guidebook writing pay means getting enough articles, and images, off the back of a project that it becomes financially more viable. For example, I think I wrote around eight articles off the back of the trips I did for my Peaks of the Balkans guidebook. And I’m still selling images from guidebooks I wrote years ago.
Also, you have to consider how much of your travel and accommodation costs will be covered by local tourist offices. Can you get some commissions for hotel reviews off the back of it (you’ll be sleeping somewhere, so you may as well try to get commissions for a few of these as well if you can, providing it doesn’t skew the balance of accommodation listings in the guidebook)? Perhaps you can get a commission from a local tourist office to write some online content. Or perhaps it gives you the chance to do the travel, interviews or photography for an idea that you don’t yet have a commission for, or a commission that you haven’t managed to get supported as a press trip.
Tweet of the week
Who to follow
Ben Ross, formerly the Deputy Travel Editor at the Telegraph, has taken over from Claire Irvin at the helm of the newspaper’s travel desk.
Gastro Obscura are looking for Halloween stories from around the globe, including long-running events, superstitions and other food-related rituals; the food and drink of seasonal traditions that mark the end of the growing season and other holidays that fall around Halloween, such as Day of the Dead, All Soul’s Day and Samhain; and how Halloween is celebrated in unusual ways around the world. Pitch firstname.lastname@example.org by August 10.
Lucy Thackray at The Independent is looking to commission more Microguides to cool neighbourhoods in cities around the world.
Time Out’s James Manning is on the lookout for write-ups of hotels that are both ultra-sustainable and ultra-stylish for various countries around the world (including the UK).
This one’s a little dated, but Hannah from Travel + Leisure has said she’ll continue considering pitches. She’s seeking story ideas about culturally significant crafting techniques from anywhere in the world.
The Travel Media Awards 2022 finalists have been released, so huge congratulations to all the freelancers and editors who’ve made the cut. You can see the full list here.
Freelance travel writer and editor Sarah Lee’s debut novel, An Ocean Apart, is out in hardback on August 18 and paperback on September 29. It tells the story of the Windrush women who moved to Britain to help the fledgling NHS and is inspired by Sarah’s mother’s own experiences. Steph’s already ordered her copy!
This was the first in our August “How to” series. Next week we’ll be looking at how to write long-form features, followed by how to break into hotel reviews and how to become a freelance editor. That’s all available for paying subscribers, and it’s just £7 per month.