Nick Edwards has been writing guide books for 25 years. He’s seen a lot of changes since those early pioneer days. Recently he agreed to answer some questions about being a guide book author from the Itinerant Writers Group.
Aidan: Guide book writing is obviously a little different from writing travel articles in terms of content and the message you’re getting across, but do guidebook companies choose authors based on general travel writing ability and a portfolio of published articles, or is there a more specific way someone could try and get themselves “noticed” by a guidebook company as a contributor? Such as writing guide-style articles about your local area and sending them to publications covering that area?
Nick: Indeed guidebook writing is a very specific and in many ways limited discipline. I would say the first criterion publishers look for in new writers is knowledge of the destination above writing ability or experience. Most people start by just updating a chapter or two of a guide that might already have had a number of editions. That means there is often very little actual writing involved and much more changing practical information. You would also be surprised how often publishers are scrambling around at the last minute to find people to cover certain parts of a country. Your last sentence hits the nail on the head. RG usually ask people to write a couple of pages in RG style on somewhere they know well before taking them on. The best first move is to write to a selection of guide publishers, saying you are interested in writing for them and listing the destinations you are familiar with.
Bex: Is there a particular style that Guide Book editors look for in writers? It must take more than merely writing facts about a place?
And apart from competitions, how does one go about getting noticed?
Nick: Just about all guide book publishers have a very well established (some would say rigid) house style, which they expect writers to conform to. Being a chameleon in writing terms is thus an invaluable asset. Publishers provide an extensive style sheet (RG’s is about 40 pages long) of specific usages, spelling conventions etc. That is not to say you cannot express yourself at all. RGs have a reputation for being opinionated but your “voice” has to be filtered through their specific style. There are certain conventions that apply to all publishers. Flowery waffle and over-expansive prose is frowned upon and will just make the editor reach for his scalpel or return your text for rewriting. If there is one golden rule it is NEVER to use the first person. Guidebook writing is a world away from blogging.
Helen Moat: Do you prefer to have local people writing the guide – or at least writers who are temporarily living in the city/area/country being researched?
I live in the Peak District where I do a lot of walking. I have a great idea for a walking book: ‘Weird and Wonderful Walks in the Peak District’ that would have sections including ‘weird and wonderful’ watering holes, transport (trams, steam trains and cable cars), geological features and historical buildings/stories – with all the weird and wonderful features being part of the walks.
My idea is to combine the coffee table format with map/instruction cards that can be removed to take on the walks.
How do I go about approaching publishing houses? What should I do first?
Nick: Good question. As I replied to Aidan, intimate knowledge of the country/region concerned is important. Having said that, the majority of RG authors do not live in their destination and sometimes never have. I cover Greece (where I used to live), India (never lived there but time spent in the country adds up to 4 years) and the USA (lived in Pittsburgh for a few years but mainly cover northern California!). Occasionally an established writer is sent to a country he/she’s never even visited before. This happened with Greece last year, when one of RG’s Italy authors was drafted in to cover a couple of mainland chapters and a USA/France author was given another island group chapter. That was probably an exception because five of the seven previous authors had been dispensed with.
Your idea sounds great but would probably be hard to sell to one of the mainstream guide publishers, who like titles to fit into their own little boxes. Of course, self-publishing is a lot easier these days but you then run up against the problem of distribution and publicity.
Kris: Do you ever get sick of writing? What do you do about it? (I know it’s not fashionable to admit to it as travel writing is such a cool and sought after job but it must happen.)
How creative can you be with the writing? Can you make it your own?
Nick: I wouldn’t say I get sick of writing, though sometimes it can take a while to get into the rhythm of it, which of course tends to result in the classic writers’ syndrome of deadline panics. Sometimes the thought of a long stint on the road can also seem a little daunting but I soon get into the swing of it. What needs to be stressed is that writing guide books is not always as glamorous as it appears from the outside. Cycling round Hyderabad in 90% humidity amidst dreadful pollution to check out at least twenty hotels, restaurants and bars is not everyone’s idea of a picnic. Nor is it particularly well paid. Rough Guides have always provided the added bonus (unlike LP, DK, AA, Insight/Berlitz etc) of royalties but the changing way that people get info online (often free if not always reliable) has seriously impacted sales, so income from that source is declining fast. AA have already suspended all guidebooks and there is a serious debate going on as to whether the genre will survive much longer or, even if it does, whether only a couple of big players will remain viable. If that happens, LP and DK (also owned by Penguin/Pearson and with offices on the same floor as RG in the Strand) are the likely winners as they far outsell all other series. RG comes a rather poor third, I’m afraid.
As previously stated, you have to conform to certain guidebook conventions and to the house style of a particular publisher but within those constraints, you can still have your own voice come through.
Jean: What’s the best way of establishing yourself if you’re just starting out? How did you get started? Was there a series of steps you followed, or were you just lucky?
Nick: I was just in the right place at the right time. I was living in Athens teaching EFL in 1981 when an old uni friend who had come out to join me came back from hitching round the Peloponnese and said he’d met a really interesting bloke who had a great idea for a guidebook. That bloke was Mark Ellingham and the idea was the first ever Rough Guide. My friend Dicky and a couple of our other pals helped out in those early days and Mark used to come and stay at our flat. I didn’t get directly involved myself for some years until Mark asked me if I wanted to help out on one edition. So I was VERY lucky!
But as I said earlier, the best move if you’re starting from scratch and don’t happen to have a friend who’s founded a guidebook series is to be bold, bombard a few publishers with emails, saying what an experienced traveller and great writer you are and listing the places you know best.
Helen Watson: What is your take on writing for free? Is it a good idea to offer to contribute a short section (or box) to a guide book just to get some publicity?
Nick: Good question. I practice, it’s unlikely that a guidebook will ever print actual copy from anyone without paying a fee albeit small. However, there are definitely some people who have got a foot in the door by writing extensive notes on a guidebook they having been using on the road, with lots of good practical corrections, suggestions for alternative listings etc. All these letters (mostly emails these days, of course) do get filed and passed on to authors for the next update. I have received some invaluable info on my destinations through that channel. And they really do send free books to the best contributing readers. Contributing for free to travel websites is a whole other kettle of fish, of course. Much more common and can help build a portfolio.
Liz: On-line travel resources are mushrooming. There are plenty of websites to choose from, including newspapers, magazines, personal blogs, Tripadvisor, dedicated on-line travel magazines and more. Most are free and easy to access. Before I go anywhere I like to do plenty of research on the internet (in the old days it would have been a morning in the library and an afternoon in Stanfords). I might read a travel book or novel connected to the area and watch films and documentaries. I’ll upload lots of information onto my Kindle. But I always take a guide book, and I wonder if this is because I’m from the pre-internet generation. What place do travel guides have in these internet times? How are travel guide publishers tackling this threat? What is the future of the travel guidebook?
Nick: All good questions. There’s definitely a generation issue at play here and habits die hard of course. We “oldies” who grew up on guidebooks still tend to use them. Anyone under 30 (even older if the logged on in the early days of the Internet) is far more likely to be tuned into digital content and the concept of getting info for free or at very low cost. Many of the old established guidebook companies (and it’s funny for me to think of RG as part of the old establishment but they are) have not cottoned onto the new technology and how best to use it as fast or effectively as they should have. The future of guidebooks as we know them is certainly under threat and sales of printed guides are plummeting. The next year or two could be crucial for their survival as a real transition is clearly underway.