So You Want to Be a Lonely Planet Author – Redux

(This is an amendment to the “So you want to be a Lonely Planet author” piece that I originally posted here in April of 2006. Whereas that piece was filled with personal details of my first, grueling LP guidebook gig, this one focuses on the mechanics and general pros and cons of work as a LP author.)

Lonely Planet author Leif PettersenThe topic of earning a living wage as a travel writer never really gets old (at least not at my house). And now, with TBEX looming and Pam Mandel’s recent, thought-provoking post “Why I’m Not a Full Time Travel Writer”, it seems like a good time to update my experiences and thoughts on Lonely Planet author work in anticipation of the inevitable conversations at TBEX.

What follows are merely my opinions. I know it may seem otherwise, but most years Lonely Planet author work only occupies about three cumulative months of my time. The remainder of the year is filled with all variety of freelance work – about 90% of which, for the time being, falls within the travel writing arena. Other Lonely Planet authors, particularly the ones that do guidebook work year-round, may feel differently, at least to some degree.

I should probably add that being a Lonely Planet author is strictly contract work. I am not, nor is any author, actually employed by Lonely Planet. Thus the opinions expressed here are my own and entirely subjective. Let’s begin.

At this stage, if you’re interested in guidebook author work and have done some research, you probably already know that the work isn’t remotely sexy. Well, not most of the time anyway. Guidebook writing is pretty much like any work: long intervals of drudgery, bookended by moments of satisfied elation. In other words, it’s a job. Now, is it a job that you’ll enjoy? That’s for you to decide.

Lonely Planet author research means enduring long hours (sometimes 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week while on the road – less, ideally but not necessarily, during write-up), extravagant jet lag and sleep debt, often undignified travel and sleeping conditions, and in many cases, resolve-testing solitude and loneliness both on the road and during write-up.

(NOTE: In the past few years, social media has partially cured the solitude issue. There’s a stronger sense of community with colleagues – I’m referring to all travel writers here, not just Lonely Planet authors – and an invigorating level of interaction, feedback, advice and welcomed chitchat with travelers and readers.)

A challenging and draining aspect of the job is the variety of hats one has to wear. Thorough researching, competent writing, anal retentive cartography and the fortitude to walk for six to eight hours a day are only the beginning. One also should have aptitude in (or at least not completely suck at) diplomacy, psychology, lie detection, time management, financial management, stress management, multilingual translating, pantomime, physical health, emotional health, regurgitation suppression, and coming to terms with the fact that far away people possessing critical information don’t understand or care about your personal hardships or project-threatening emergencies.

All of this is usually performed while operating completely alone. There are no sick days or comp time or back-up or reliable, in-person assistance, though in-house staff at LP are largely ready and willing to do what they can in terms of remote help and damage control.

As I shared in notebook-rending detail last year, things like car towage, cash machine malfunction, dehydration, bed bugs and bouts of booster rocket-caliber evacuation of bodily fluids are but a few of the potential obstacles waiting for guidebook authors. None of which relieve you from any responsibilities. If something goes pear-shaped, best case scenario you’re still able to finish your work and limp home. Worst case scenario you eat the expenses of extending your trip and risk possible reputation damage while trying to make deadline.

As a Lonely Planet author, one indisputably gets to see and experience many wonderful things, but is guidebook work (or any travel writing) like being paid to go on vacation? Not remotely. Nearly every research trip I take involves an encounter with a smug backpacker, sometimes holding a beer at noon, who’s under the impression that they’re doing exactly what I’m doing, except I’m getting paid.

Guidebook research is to vacationing as a restaurant sous chef is to a once-a-week diner. Sure, now and again the sous chef gets to sit down to a spectacular meal, but generally they’re stuck in the hottest parts of the kitchen for 10 hours a day, sustaining frequent cuts and burns, covered in fish scales.

Each destination has varying degrees of research obligations, including but not limited to visiting and plying hard information from tour offices, a wide assortment of hotels and restaurants, museums, churches, theaters, internet cafes, nightclubs, sports facilities, bus/train/ferry stations, transport agents, embassies, foreign councils and a potpourri of lesser sights, landmarks and oddities.

Depending on the destination, keep in mind that a fair number of the hotels, restaurants, clubs, internet cafes and tourism offices will have closed since the last author visit, or some have just turned to garbage, and you are now on the hook for finding quality replacements. It’s a grueling tempo to maintain, again, for 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week, for up to six weeks at a stretch.

Depending on the assignment, deadlines and the stamina of the author in question, it’s not uncommon to allot maybe three to four days for a very large city, one to two days for a medium-sized city and a mere two to four hours per small town/village. Why the suicidal pace? Well, for most of us, it’s the knowledge that every unnecessary day spent on the road is money that comes directly out of our pockets. Authors are paid in one, previously agreed upon lump sum. There’s no submitting receipts and getting compensated later. So, one feels compelled to maintain rabid productivity, without cutting corners or getting so exhausted that you get sloppy (and your car gets towed in eight minutes flat by the nimblest, mouth-breathing asshat in Brasov).

It should additionally be noted that guidebook work, at least for LP, isn’t all just racing from hotel, to restaurant, to bus station, to museum, to tourist office, to bar, to club, to bed, repeat ad infinitum. A substantial amount of time goes to tasks that aren’t normally associated with travel writing. The biggest of these tasks for LP authors is formatting their text for publication – the modern equivalent of typesetting and no less tedious.

The rules governing this text formatting, in the case of my most recent project, are bound in a manual that goes on for 144 pages. Every title, subtitle, paragraph, occasionally several words in each sentence, must be individually formatted to frequently changing, brain-damaging specifications. Obviously a long-suffering editor checks this work, but the bulk of the responsibility to get this formatting correct falls on the author. Depending on the gig, text formatting (or pouring over the manual to figure out the text formatting) can exceed the time one spends writing and fact-checking.

On the gripping subject of pay: it all depends. Anyone that’s taken 10 minutes to inform themselves will know that only a handful of people in recorded history have ever gotten rich in travel writing. Even at my age, with zero experience nor a hint of grace, I have a better chance at getting rich in extreme skateboarding than in travel writing. (And wouldn’t that be fun to watch?)

However, pay is one area where guidebook work stands out in the travel writing milieu. Even before freelance travel writing opportunities and pay started to shrivel after the recession, guidebook work was, and continues to be, one of the few gigs that reliably pay a living wage. That fact compounded with the long(er) term nature of guidebook projects means that, over the course of the year, there’s less late-night fretting about scrounging up the next gig and, more ominously, when the next substantial paycheck will arrive.

Most years, my approach has been to take on one large guidebook job, the fee from which would cover my meager mortgage and keep me from starving to death for a few months, and supplement that with a dozen or so smaller, non-guidebook projects during the remainder of the year, the cumulative income from which allows me to live in reasonable comfort.

Keep in mind, especially if you are single, ‘reasonable comfort’ does not include having kids, or a car, or decent health insurance, or extravagant hobbies, or even a densely populated fishbowl. As Pam mentioned, a lot of travel writers, including LP authors living in high cost-of-living areas, cannot survive without supplemental support from a more reliable second income, or inheritance, or a saintly, primary income-earning spouse, or having done exceedingly well in a previous profession.

Yet this caliber of pay is by no means a given. Not all publishers and guidebook gigs pay a living wage – or are even profitable. I’m speaking generally here, though this could theoretically apply to LP work in worst case scenarios. Innumerable factors can make a guidebook project unprofitable including workload, unplanned expenses, unforeseen obstacles, illness, inexperience, misunderstanding of the time commitment and the always lively exercise of fee negotiations.

To close on a positive note, during my first LP assignment, I was happy to report that the writing itself was fulfilling and this is still the case. Lonely Planet work has been one of the very few (paid) outlets where I’ve been able to freely write in my natural voice – or near enough to it – and boy is that fun.

Balls, boobies, fart.

So that, in wretched detail, is your intro to Lonely Planet guidebook work as it relates to the overall freelance writer hoedown. I know it’s been double the length of what’s considered to be an acceptable blog post word-count, but I also hope it’s been enlightening. If you need any clarification, just look for the single, childless, car-less, under-insured, pet-free, yet unusually contented wino skulking around TBEX.