Writing the World: Ten Tips to Breaking into the Guidebook Market
by Sean McLachlan

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A great change is taking place in how the developed world spends its money. Travel has recently become the biggest discretionary expenditure, and thus one of the biggest industries. Given the combination of cheap airline tickets, price wars among resorts and hotels, and a growing choice of destinations, this trend doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

And what does virtually every tourist have in his or her luggage? A guidebook! New guidebook titles appear every year, and the more established houses are constantly updating and expanding their lines, or adding new ones. Many writers dream of making a living from travel writing, and while it sounds too good to be true, it's possible to do just that. While you won't actually be on vacation (you still have to research and write, after all) travel writing is one of the most enjoyable types of writing.

The first thing to remember when working on a guidebook proposal is that writing a proposal is much like writing the book itself. You need to prove to the editor you can actually do the job. Here are ten tips for both steps along your path to guidebook publication.

1) Try to Get into an Update. All guidebooks need to be updated on a regular basis. This is one of the best reasons to have guidebooks as part of your portfolio, because it gives you the closest thing to job security any writer can reasonably expect. While most authors hang onto their titles like treasured children, openings to update existing guidebooks do appear. A previous author might have moved away, or be too busy with other projects. If a publisher says no to your proposal, ask them if there are any updates you could work on. You won't get paid as much, and you'll have to share a byline with the original author, but you'll get your foot in the door.

2:) Favor Local Businesses. Lots of tourists go to the same old chain stores when they're abroad. While it's comforting to know what to expect when you're far from home, it isn't really traveling. Encourage them to try unique local businesses they won't find anywhere else. These give local flavor and more personalized service. London, for example, has a popular chain of "Irish" pubs that all look alike and have very little in the way of atmosphere, Irish or otherwise. The smaller pubs, many of which have been open for two, three, or even four hundred years, have heaps of history and serve better beer. You'll also be happy in the knowledge that you're helping out independent businesses, and your readers will thank you for it.

3) Suspend Judgment (for the moment). Before you start writing reviews, wait until you've seen enough competing businesses to make a valid comparison. If you had a great meal at a Japanese restaurant, try some others before you write about how good it is. You might find their sushi and bentos aren't nearly as good as the next three places. Also keep in mind that this job can throw you some curveballs. While I was being given a tour of one of the first hotels I ever reviewed, I was shocked when the manager knocked on doors of occupied rooms and, finding nobody inside at the moment, led me in and showed me around! I vowed not to put a place with such bad management in my guidebook, only to discover it was common practice. I hereby apologize to the woman who left her underwear lying on the bed in that hotel in Phoenix.

4) Look for a Special Niche. While the market's main demand is for guidebooks giving a general overview of the destination, a writer with specialized knowledge or experience can land a contract with some unique lines. Are you an avid hiker? Several companies publish outdoors series. Do you shop until you drop? There are shopping guides as well. A history and architecture buff? Try to break into the Blue Guides. The range of guidebooks is almost limitless; Avalon Travel Publishing even has a series on traveling with your dog!

5) Get out and Walk! To properly write up a city, you need to know it like the back of your hand. The best way to achieve this is to see everything by walking around all the major areas of interest and exploring lesser-known places. While some cities, such as L.A., aren't conducive for this, and you certainly can't walk everywhere if you're writing a country guide, most cities are surprisingly pedestrian friendly. When doing my London guide I walked literally every street in the central part of the city. While this took ages and ruined my shoes, I stumbled upon many hidden gems I would have missed if I took the bus and Tube everywhere.

6) Be an Expert on Everything (or at least know one). Guidebooks have to please the widest possible readership. Sports fans want to know about the local teams. Outdoors types want to hear about hiking trails. The fashion conscious want you to point them to the chic boutiques.

You'll need to develop a working knowledge of a whole range of topics in order to inform your readers. This is the time to make contacts! Are you writing a guide to Canada and don't know anything about hockey? Watch the games in a sports bar where they can explain it all to you. This sort of networking will help you meet locals who can point the way to other attractions you might have missed and teach you about the culture.

7) Don't Rely on the Internet. With so much information online these days, it's tempting to save your advance and just write the guidebook from home. Unfortunately, I've seen guidebooks where it is quite obvious that this is exactly what the writer did. Don't do this! The Internet is a great tool for finding leads, but you must go to all the places yourself to check the information. Business people are busy, and updating their website is often the last thing on their mind. I can't count the number of times I've gone to a restaurant or shop and found the hours or prices had changed, but the old information was still on the Web. Also remember that websites are advertisements, so if a hotel has dingy floors or a grumpy desk clerk, it's doubtful you'll find this out by looking at their webpage.

8) Delve into the Past. A city or country is only the latest stage in a long development over time. To fully understand your subject, read up on its history. Get some good, recent books on the subject and visit the historical society. Many historical societies have excellent museums to explain the area's story, so you might want to add it to your list of attractions. Most guidebooks include a history chapter, and sprinkling historical anecdotes throughout the text will entertain and enlighten your readers.

9) Know When to be a Secret Agent. There are times to tell people you're a guidebook writer and times when you shouldn't. If, for example, you inform the staff at a restaurant that you're writing a review, you're sure to get great service and a carefully prepared meal, but this may not reflect the experience your readers will get. At other times you can tell them what you're up to. I always tell hotels, because that way I can see a variety of rooms and ask questions about seasonal rates, the number of rooms, etc. I also flash my business card at clubs, both to get in for free and so I can interview the manager. The point is that nightclubs and hotels aren't going to change because of your presence, but service can. I tend not to give advance notice, however, because I want to see how the staff deals with unexpected developments. I've even had a few places be rude to me! These don't get in the book. If they can't be polite to someone offering them free advertising, how do they treat their customers?

10) Push Your Boundaries. This is related to the "be an expert" advice above. Try everything your readers might try. Afraid of rollercoasters? How are you going to review an amusement park without trying one? Don't like hiking? How are you going to do the Outdoor Activities chapter? Live a little! The greatest part about travel writing is doing new things, and you can start right now. Find a market from those listed, and hunt among publishers for more, and then use the advice in this article to whip up a guidebook proposal that's sure to sell. Happy traveling!

Markets Mentioned in the Text

Avalon Travel Publishing: Publishers of Rick Steves, Moon Handbooks, Moon Metro, Moon Outdoors, Moon Living Abroad, and The Dog Lover's Companion. Their popular Moon Handbooks series of city and country guides is currently expanding into Western Europe, and most of their calls for submissions are for cities and countries there. Moon Metro covers cities in a brief format, while Moon Outdoors covers camping, hiking, fishing, and more. Moon Living Abroad covers how to live in a particular country. The Dog Lover's Companion covers dog-friendly trips in the U.S. To pitch a concept to any of these series, send a cover letter, resume, and up to five clips to the email given here. Full proposals should include an introduction, author credentials, competition analysis, outline, marketing plan, detailed manuscript description. Contact: Avalon Publishing Group, 1400 65th St., Suite 250, Emeryville, CA 94608. Email: acquisitions (at) avalonpub (dot) com. http://www.travelmatters.com. Rick Steves is looking for savvy writers to cover Europe for their Europe Through the Back Door series. Send a cover letter, resume, and description of your travel experience to Europe Through the Back Door, Dept. HR, P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA, 98020.

Globe Pequot: Publishers of the Insiders' Guide series, these books covering U.S. regions, states, and cities are both tourist guides and relocation guides, and so include chapters on health care, neighborhoods, and other information useful to new residents alongside coverage of tourist sights and restaurants. The series includes a few titles on national parks. Proposals should be well thought out, with a brief synopsis, clear outline, target audience, details on the competition, author credentials, and how the book will be unique. Some sample text or outline is also helpful. Residents of the state or city highly preferred, and any author must be very familiar with the place before pitching. Their imprint, Falcon, specializes in regional guides for every kind of outdoor activity and can be contacted at the same address. Contact: Submissions Editor - Travel, The Globe Pequot Press, 246 Goose Lane, P.O. Box 480, Guilford, CT, 06437. Phone: (203) 458-4500. http://www.globepequot.com

Lonely Planet: The most popular guide for young backpackers, Lonely Planet covers most countries in the world. They look for a young, savvy writing style that's not afraid to criticize where criticism is warranted. Specific regional experience and experience with budget travel with Lonely Planet titles a must. Make sure the title you propose isn't already in production. Check the website for current needs. Send a cover letter detailing your travel experience, resume, two clips (preferably travel), and what sort of book you are proposing to write or update. Potential candidates will then be contacted and given a writing test. Those who pass are added to the potential pool of authors, but may wait for some time before getting an assignment. Contact: Publishing Administrator, Lonely Planet Publications, Locked Bag 1, Footscray VIC, 3011, Australia. Email: recruitingauthors (at) lonelyplanet (dot) com (dot) au Website: http://www.lonelyplanet.com

Blue Guides: Informative guides focusing on history, art, and architecture, with small sections on accommodation and dining. Writers need to be thoroughly familiar with a country's artistic and historical traditions and be able to communicate that in an in-depth but straightforward manner. They also publish Visible Cities, cultural guides that are more about the people, while still including plenty about art, architecture, and history. Another series is art/shop/eat, short guides for weekend stays in major U.S. and European cities. Query with cover letter, clips, outline, and details about your qualifications. Contact: Blue Guides Limited, The Studio, 51 Causton St., London SW1P 4AT. Email: editorial (at) blueguides (dot) com. http://www.blueguides.net

Fodor's: One of the largest travel publishers, Fodor's has fourteen different lines covering all parts of the world. They have hundreds of titles, so make sure you aren't pitching something that's already been published. Writers should be thoroughly familiar with their subject and, ideally, live in the place they want to cover. To be put in the pool of potential travel writers, send resume, clips, and cover letter explaining your qualifications and areas of expertise to "Researcher Writer Positions" at the address given here. If you have a specific book proposal, send a detailed proposal and resume to "Editorial Director" at the same address. Contact: Fodor's Travel Publications, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY, 10019. Email: contact form on website is not to be used for submissions. http://www.fodors.com

Copyright © 2008 Sean McLachlan
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Sean McLachlan worked for ten years as an archaeologist before becoming a full-time writer specializing in history and travel. He is the author of Byzantium: An Illustrated History (Hippocrene, 2004), It Happened in Missouri (TwoDot, 2007), and Moon Handbooks London (Avalon, 2007), among others. Visit him online at http://www.midlistwriter.blogspot.com.

 

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