WRITING GUIDEBOOKS: HOW TO GET STARTED AND WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT TO GET PAID An Interview with guidebook writer, Andrew Sanger
LA: How do you get started writing guide books? Can anyone write them?
AS: Generally, you need to have a track record as a travel journalist with a specialty to land your first guidebook commission.
If you’ve never had a published article, you might start small. Try writing for your local newspaper or magazine. Find an online travel publication that’ll publish articles about your hometown.
If you already have a few published clips under your belt — write to the commissioning editors of major publishers (or better still, meet them at press lunches and book launches) and let them know your subject. If you want to discuss your great idea for a book or a series, be sure to put it in writing.
LA: Writing an entire travel guide seems daunting to me. How do you plan (and pay) for your travels?
AS: A small expenses fee may be offered, or included in the payment for a book. To get the free trips that make travel writing so worthwhile, and earn a little extra cash into the bargain, see if you can write some articles as spin-offs from the book research.
Before making a research trip, think carefully what you need to find out. Traveling takes time, so plan an efficient itinerary. Make a checklist of facts you want for each site or attraction.
The most important thing is simply to have seen something with your own eyes. Make careful notes: much of the text in my own guides comes straight out of notebooks. Details like when a castle or monastery was built and how much it costs to visit are usually printed on a leaflet or readily available from staff or from a local tourist office.
You’ll need to be just as meticulous when it’s time to sit down and type. Divide up the workload into manageable sections. I like to mark the completed pages on the book’s flatplan (a large sheet of paper like a grid showing all the pages and what will be on them) at the end of every day.
LA: Who takes the photographs? Do you provide photos or does your publisher hire a photographer?
AS: Although I take photographs to remind myself where I’ve been and what I’ve seen, they are not usually good enough for publication. In any case, publishers generally prefer to buy high-quality pictures from photo libraries, or sometimes commission a photographer to illustrate your book.
LA: I don’t think I’d know where to start. Can you offer any advice about turning your notes into a book?
AS: These days, most guidebooks – whether slender pocket guides or weighty tomes too heavy to carry comfortably – are part of a series in which every book must be more or less identical. While this perhaps makes for less rewarding writing (and reading), it does mean the author’s work requires few difficult decisions.
Incidentally, I never start at the beginning. It’s better to complete the middle of a book and then write both ends, to conceal any changes in writing style as the work progresses.
LA: What about the money? Can you make a decent living writing guide books?
AS: It’s often said that guide-writing is not well paid. That depends how fast you write them and how well you know the subject. Books in series, published by high-volume publishers, are usually paid with a flat fee divided into half “on signature” (i.e. of the contract) and half at the end “on completion” or “on acceptance.” Guidebooks written for royalties are becoming scarce, and likely to be produced by smaller companies.
However, don’t scorn the idea of working for a flat fee. Most of my recent books have been written for fees of around US$250 per thousand words. OK, that’s no fortune, but it looks pretty good when the checks arrive. And you don’t have to worry how the books are selling because you’ve already been paid.
More important, while newspaper or magazine articles end up in the wastepaper bin after a day or two, books have a more permanent existence and tend to enhance your long-term reputation – leading to more work, often for better-known publications. They look good on your bookshelves, too.
[Andrew Sanger is the author of around 25 travel books and guides, mostly on France, but also Ireland, Israel, the Canary Islands and guides for vegetarians. You can visit his website at: www.andrewsanger.com]
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]