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Monisha Rajesh divulges how she's made narrative travel writing work for her
Narrative travel books are the ultimate escapism. Packed with all those stories writers would never be allowed to insert into guidebooks these days, they promise a more in-depth and compelling account of the writer’s journey. To me (Lottie), the idea of writing a travel book — one that isn’t neatly divided into regions and contains hundreds of listings for hotels, museums and bars — is terrifying. I’ve never written anything longer than 3,000 words, let alone 30,000 or 60,000, even. Telling a story that runs over 200 pages or more requires a totally different level of skill, and landing a book deal is equally tricky. If you thought pitching articles was hard, try getting someone to pay you to write a narrative travel book.
Because neither Steph nor I have experience in this field, this week we’ve commissioned the excellent Monisha Rajesh — author of Around India In 80 Trains and Around The World In 80 Trains — for our opening op ed for this series. Monisha has just secured a six-figure deal for her next project, Midnight Express (Bloomsbury, 2024) and has made trains her niche through her deeply immersive books. Here, she lifts the curtain on how it works to secure a travel book deal, how much it pays and how much it can cost, too…
My first book made me poor, but it was worth it
In 2010 I set off to India armed with a 90-day rail pass, an outdated map, and hopeless naivety. My plan was to travel the length and breadth of the country via Indian Railways and write a first-person travelogue about the experience. At the time, I had just been made redundant from the copy desk at Time magazine’s London bureau and was considering a change in career to law. But I wanted to give journalism one final shot and decided to invest in myself.
Having scoured Amazon for travelogues on India’s railways I found nothing recent and sensed that I might have stumbled upon something. I emailed the Guardian Travel desk before I set off and asked if I could pop by for a coffee to discuss ideas, and left with two commissions, having never been in touch with them before. I had no agent, no publisher and no idea how to secure a book deal, but I focused on gathering the research with the aim of developing a book called Around India in 80 Trains. A friend set up a website, 80trains.com, where I blogged every week. Including the £400 return flight, the £350 rail pass — which included sleeper trains and most meals — and around £1,000 for hostels and backpacker dives, I completed four months of research having spent no more than around £2,000.
Towards the end of my journey, I was browsing a bookshop in Delhi when I got chatting to the owner who took a huge interest in my book, telling me he was also a literary agent, and overnight he produced a contract. Thrilled, but suspicious, I googled UK agents and found one who had a number of authors on his list who wrote about India. In awe of his clientele, I worked out his email address and sent an email attaching the contract, asking if he wouldn’t mind looking over it. Convinced he would never reply, I was astounded when I received a phone call while eating dumpling soup in the Himalayan foothills. A prim voice asked if I’d signed the contract, insisted that I didn’t, and asked me to meet him at his office when I got home.
The biggest shift was how the commissions began to flood my inbox.
In the interim he read my blogs which gave him a clear idea of how my chapters could flesh out. He had a solid idea of my style, the stories and the characters, and when we met he agreed to take me on. There is no set way to secure an agent: they can come on recommendation from friends; serendipitous meetings; or from cold pitching — but ultimately, as a new author, you need an idea that is fully fleshed out and ready to present as few publishers will take a punt on an unknown and stump up a whopping advance for a travel book. My agent sold the proposal in India first for £6,000, and after I’d finished writing it, which took 11 months, he sold it in the UK for £4,500, his fee being a 15% cut which he gets from all royalties too.
That writing year was the toughest of my career: I couldn’t live on that money (which comes in thirds) and had to freelance in between to pay rent and bills. Writing a book is isolating and exhausting: I’d write until 3am, missing friends’ 30th birthdays and weddings, and couldn’t go for dinners or nights out. I was so immersed in it, living and breathing it from morning to night, and in my head I’d already earned five times what the book cost me to research, so if it didn’t sell, it wouldn’t be the end of the world and I could put it down to experience.
But I also loved the writing process, reliving the journey and piecing it together like a jigsaw. As it happened the book went on to be translated in French and Polish which added an extra £4,000 to my earnings, and to date it has sold around 50,000 copies with steady royalties coming in every six months (around £1 a copy).
That one-year struggle was the best investment I made in my career
The biggest shift was how the commissions began to flood my inbox. This was a revelation: so used to pitching and chasing, I was now being asked to write about my journey, everything from favourite trains, and top-ten routes, to best spots for Mumbai street food, and reviews of hotels. Cemented as a railway writer, I then put my second book proposal together which sold within a week to Bloomsbury, bringing an advance that was more than five times what my first book sold for, and my third book has just sold for a six-figure advance.
That one-year struggle was the best investment I made in my career: I’ve had everyone from Vanity Fair to The New York Times asking me to write for them, which I could never have imagined ten years ago, and it’s made pitching much easier when editors know immediately that I’m an expert on my topic. Furthermore, I’m by no means restricted to writing about railways and often go off track, but I’ll always have that to fall back on.
TTW Christmas discount
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Pitch call outs
Tweet of the week
Who to follow
An organisation close to Steph’s heart, the Latin American Travel Association Foundation is a registered charity set up to funnel funds from the travel industry into social good projects throughout the region. Through their charitable projects they aim to help protect the environment, relieve poverty, create sustainable development and promote ethical and responsible travel business practice. They’ve supported midwives in Guatemala, helped set up dance schools for under privileged kids in Brazil and provided essential supplies and resources for vulnerable women and girls in Venezuela.
Right now, they’re aiming to raise £10,000 to help fund their various projects through a brand new Christmas gifting scheme. Know someone who might appreciate a charitable present this festive season? Do your shopping here:
This is an interesting read in the NYT on how Chinese tourists aren’t returning to their favoured destinations and how this might affect tourism everywhere from Vietnam to France.
Jeremy Bassetti runs travelwritingworld.com and has recorded a really interesting interview with Jason Wilson, the series editor of the annual anthology, The Best American Travel Writing, which has just published its final edition. Jeremy’s archives are full of fascinating travel author profiles so set aside an hour or two to indulge.
This is the free version of Talking Travel Writing. Want to know more about narrative travel book writing? Subscribe and you’ll receive the below:
14 Dec: we ask authors how to turn an idea into a book
21 Dec: editors of narrative travel books tell us how they decide what to commission
28 Dec: literary agents tell all about how to get your travel book deal signed
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