Sunday, September 5, 2004
Lonely Planet Veteran on Travel Guidebook Writing
San Diego on Fire
Home Truths From Abroad
BBC2's Foot In The Door series gives eager recruits the chance to get started in their dream job. On Thursday the assignment is travel guidebook writing. Mark Honan, a Lonely Planet veteran with 10 years' experience on four continents, gives the inside story on his job - no time to see friends, no time to laze around on the beach. And people say it's a life of glamour...
Sunday June 18, 2000
So you want to be a travel guidebook writer? Most people do. 'You lucky so-and-so,' I've been told countless times. 'Fancy being paid to be on holiday. What a great job.'
Think of the benefits, these travellers tell me. Eating in fancy restaurants. Bedding down in the top hotels. Spending arduous ('ha-ha') days researching the best beaches for sunbathing and swimming. Being treated like royalty because everybody wants a favourable mention in my guidebook.
That's the theory. The reality is there are plenty of hassles too.
Far from being treated like royalty, guidebook writers are an anonymous bunch. Most of us don't declare who we are when we check out places: we want to find out what sort of a deal an ordinary traveller would be offered. In hotels, we invent an excuse to see a selection of rooms. 'I'll be returning in a few weeks with my parents, uncle, long-lost half-cousin and their disabled cat.' That sort of thing.
If we do have to reveal ourselves, the red carpet is rarely rolled out. In Europe proprietors are often suspicious. 'What sort of book? I don't want to pay to be in a book,' they say aggressively. Even when they learn they don't have to pay - in fact, they can't pay - their attitude doesn't soften.
In Germany once, a hotel receptionist refused to let me view any of his empty rooms. 'Show your editor that picture instead,' he said dismissively, throwing me a brochure. In Switzerland, a proprietor was too lazy to tell me the full range of room prices. 'Fine,' I shot back, 'in that case I'm taking you out of the book.' My reward was to be chased down the stairs and out on to the street by a furious, swearing hotel owner.
In Asia, where Lonely Planet is recognised as the market leader, people do tend to fawn over you a little more, provided they manage to discover who you are. (Somehow, in India, everyone seemed to know I was writing for Lonely Planet, despite my denials.) But the odd free beer is usually as far as it gets. Accepting freebies is frowned upon, as we must be scrupulously objective in our write-ups. Accepting payments or discounts in return for positive coverage would mean the immediate termination of any research contract with Lonely Planet.
Guidebook writers have only moderate status within a large publisher. We can rarely keep copyright of our own words. It's the publisher's name that sells the books - the author's name is often relegated to an inside page, or perhaps even omitted altogether (not so in Lonely Planet books: we even get a blurb and a photograph). Rumours circulate that publishers consider authors a necessary evil - specifically 'Lower than a snake's arse,' according to some choice recent gossip.
In the early days of guidebook publishing there was more opportunity for diversity and creativity, especially with a cutting-edge publisher. Nowadays, the market is much bigger and more competitive. Travel books are a standardised 'product'. Each book within an imprint must have the same look, approach and useability. Authors have to adhere to a rigid 'house style'. It's the McDonaldisation of travel destinations. As a writer you can't help but feel disenfranchised.
This has increased the status of editors. They will ruthlessly police our words, dispensing swift justice to anything that fails to conform. Imperious decrees will be issued, containing copious demands for clarifications or background information. Authors must respond to these swiftly, no matter what other commitments they have. Once I arrived in the Solomon Islands, but had to wrench my mind back to Switzerland to deal with a thick wedge of editorial queries and proofs.
Don't count on making your fortune writing guidebooks. Newcomers want to do this job so much that they will do it for virtually nothing, at least at the beginning.
They will endure countless hardships to eke out their meagre budget and track down the information they need. They'll visit plush hotels, test the sweetest-sprung divans, then end up sleeping on hardboard bunks in cardboard shacks. They'll study poetic menus in gourmet restaurants, linger longingly to ask a few patrons how they enjoyed their multi-course feasts, then dine in the meanest roadside slop-shops. They'll check prices for first-class rail and club-class jets, then breathe deep on the clouds of smoke seeping from broken exhausts in battered buses. They'll do it because they enjoy it. Rather, they'll enjoy the first three days of their three-month trip, because it's new and fresh. After that it becomes a grind. We've all been through this rite of passage.
These new writers have quickly found that the so-called glamour has disappeared. They'll console themselves with the thought that once they've got this first book under their belt, they will have their foot in the door. Then they can start making some real money for their next book.
What they soon realise, as they're attempting to negotiate their new project, is that the next batch of wannabe writers is clamouring to write that same book for next to no money, their own 'isn't this cool' rose-tinted glasses as yet unshattered. Thus the one-contract veteran will have to settle for slimmer fees. Another bugbear is the deadlines which are as tight as an ageing swinger's belt. The reason for this is that publishers need to get books on the shelves before they are out of date. I would love to spend four months researching three chapters of India, even at the cost of earning less money per day. One day chilling out on the beach, the next day researching, and so on.
No chance. If it can be researched in two months, I will be given two months minus one week. I will have to work almost every waking hour, seven days a week: researching throughout the day, writing up or organising my notes at night. Travel becomes a joyless logistical exercise, conducted at a relentless pace. I will have to steam into town, check out everything in the guide and line up a few new entries. As soon as this is done I must ship out to the next place, casting wistful glances at the relaxed, time-rich travellers pondering where to have a leisurely beer. I will have nightmares about having my research notes being stolen. My dreams will be invaded by endless investigations of imaginary hotels, restaurants and train stations.
I will return home exhausted, with a backpack bulging with brochures, timetables and price schedules. I will have to forget I have friends I haven't seen for ages. Instead I will retreat to my office until the writing-up is complete. During that time I will fail to recognise the concept of a weekend or office hours. As the deadline approaches my stress levels mount. Every hour I am awake and not working, I will be trying to suppress the nagging thought: 'I could be working right now.'
At last the job will be finished - if I'm lucky, within deadline. I can afford a cou ple of days off now (unpaid, of course), before I start worrying about where my next contract is coming from. Before long I'm back on the road again, wrenching apart the strands that hold my life together in England.
Which heralds the next problem for the career guidebook writer. Taking two- or three-month research trips abroad is great in your carefree early twenties. As you get older and collect more commitments, this gets harder to organise. I am married now and our first child, a daughter, was born last month. Sadly, I know that important stages in her development will happen while I am somewhere else. The career of a guidebook writer tends to be a short one. Within Lonely Planet it is said that writers usually suffer 'burn-out' within five years.
All of this begs the question: if this dream job is so terrible, why am I still doing it?
Because, naturally, it does have its good points too. It's nice that people think I've got a cool job, even if I don't always think it's so cool myself. The research can be exhausting, but there's a genuine satisfaction in finding a place that stands out, and then describing it accurately and evocatively. It's good to be working out there in the real world, instead of being locked up in an office. Then there's the thrill you get when you see your guidebook in print for the first time. And I still love to travel, even if it's for the sake of work rather than for the sake of travel itself.
Perhaps this last point is the key message for wannabe guidebook writers and everybody else. We're out there on the road to do a job, and we can never be deflected from that. Writers who go out there and treat it like being on holiday will end up with just that - an overlong holiday. Plus a blown deadline, withheld fees and no chance of being offered another research contract. Ever.
Lonely Planet Veteran on Travel Guidebook Writing