Do Guidebook Writers Go to Hell (and Back)?

Do Guidebook Writers Go to Hell (and Back)?

Lonely Planet author Des Hannigan paints an honest picture of the difference between travel writing and guidebook writing.

Everyone wants to be a travel writer. And so do you… But ask me if I am a travel writer and I will happily demote to being a guidebook writer.

Spot the difference…

Travel writers write travel narratives. They ‘pen’ travelogues. They do not need to scratch around checking updated prices on Greek ferries or room rates in budget hotels in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Travel writers are clever, well-connected, telegenic metro-bunnies.

They never sleep in fleapits or bus stations, because they always have well-favoured friends who own micro palaces in every corner of the world, from Bognor to Biarritz to Bulawayo.

They have time to craft entire chapters from reading Cafavy over coffee in a café with views of the Bosphorus. Personal tours of the decaying mountain palaces of Baltistan morph into literary symphonies. They are all Michael Palins without camera and sound crew.

Bill Bryson is Godfather of the breed; everyone’s favourite travel writer. I’ll bet he can hardly believe his luck. But Bryson got where he is because he had form (his early stylebook, Troublesome Words is never far from my keystroke). His connections are always of the highest pedigree. The ‘legendary’ Bill Bryson has immeasurable talent and immeasurable success. All guidebook writers hate Bull Bison.

There are no ‘legendary’ guidebook writers because no guidebook has much of a shelf life before the next edition wipes it out.

The names of great travel writers such as Robert Byron, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Eric Newby and Bruce Chatwin shine effortlessly in the firmament long after the demise of the writers themselves. They write travel literature. They bask under the usually benign and often idolatrous gaze of critics and academics.

Guidebook writers are the forced labour of travel publishing forever on a treadmill of revision as the world turns and the perishable contents of guidebooks decay.

Regular updates are the life-blood of guidebooks, even though a print guidebook begins to die on its feet between the moment the updater jots down next year’s prices for a budget hotel and a week later when the owner sells the hotel as a working brothel.

Updating guidebooks is gruelling work, especially at the write-up stage.

Guidebook writers graft in seclusion, always at least two weeks behind deadline. They fear the arrival of harping editorial emails demanding immediate delivery of manuscript and maps; their brains sizzle with frantic last-minute scrabbles through incomprehensible notes, mountains of brochures, business cards, menus, maps, and ferry/bus/train timetables.

Their backs and knees ache from yet another fifteen-hour shift on the ergonomic office chair that their teenage offspring rendered unadjustable years ago; their ears hiss with computer-induced tinnitus; their eyes shimmer with retinal migraine of such scintillating intensity that they can’t see what they’re typing unless they stand on their heads.

All of this makes for a lonely life, part of which may be spent beneath tropic skies, on pristine Caribbean beaches or amidst Byzantine glories and bar top dancers.

But when the long drawn out write-up is in full swing, those sunny carefree days of research seem like fantasies – which, of course, they are, given the headlong work schedule of guidebook research.

I once covered thirty-six Greek islands in barely three months and made it to every one of them. Think of the numbers as you swoon with envy. Three months equals 90 days. Ninety days divided by 36 islands equals 2.5 days per island. No problem, if road bridges linked every island. But we are talking about early season Greek ferry schedules, which often don’t exist, even when advertised.

The prospect of being marooned for a week on one of the smaller Cycladic Islands until the next ferry calls, may sound like paradise; but when you only have half-a-day’s work to do on your desert island, time is of the essence because guidebook writers are paid fixed fees. And, the pay is rubbish; wage-slavin’ rather than tax haven.

All this apart, however, there is another currency: the multi-layered rewards of poking your nose into every corner of Andalucía, the Greek Islands, the Canadian Rockies, Copenhagen, and even the manageable corners of the Hindu Kush – while being paid to do so.

Writing guidebooks may not result in famous travel writers’ tales, but the thousand vivid memories, gleaned from trudging into every corner of your target venue, stay with you forever – and not in the form of selfies.

And all the time you promise yourself that one of these days you’ll write the world’s best travelogue and be up there with Bison and the other Gods of travel literature (rather than lists).

Still want to be a travel writer?

Or even a guidebook writer?

Of course you do…

by © Des Hannigan 2018