questions i've been asked
about writing guidebooks
How'd you get that job? In 1998, I joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to a beautiful tropical country just beginning to emerge from an intense period of gritty, vibrant history. Nicaragua still conjured up images of the civil war in most of the world's mind, but the strife had been over for years and things were muy tranquilo. Word was out in backpacker circles and beyond, and my fellow volunteers and I noticed a trickle of curious gringos and surfers along the border with Costa Rica; we more or less witnessed the birth of tourism in Nicaragua – with no decent guidebook in sight.
So ... after completing our Peace Corps service, Randy Wood and I began writing the most comprehensive, longest, bestest-ever travel guide to Nicaragua. We created an 80-page proposal, complete with chapter outline and samples, pitched it to Moon, and they bought it. A year later we were holed up in the La Pyramide, a surreal Managua apartment complex, cranking away toward our first big deadline.
What is Moon Handbooks? Why did you choose to work for them ? Moon Handbooks is a guidebook series produced by Avalon Travel Publishing (ATP), an imprint of Perseus Books Group. Randy and I approached Moon because the depth and quality of their books matched our vision of what we wanted to do in Nicaragua. The book was an important personal project for each of us, one that sometimes seemed an extension of our Peace Corps service. It was an excuse to remain in Nicaragua and an opportunity to pay tribute to a country that had generously taken us in. We wanted a publisher that would allow us to write in our own style in order to properly portray our passion for the place. Moon encourages its authors to do that (other guidebook companies discourage personal voice). With ATP we own the copyright to our text and have royalty-based contracts.
How long does it take to write or update a guidebook? Writing the first edition of Nicaragua took two of us six months – working every day, every night, and every weekend. When I updated and rewrote Belize in 2003–2004, I spent four straight months scouring the country’s resorts, restaurants, ridges, and reefs, writing it up as I went along, without a single day off. Randy and I once made a pact never to calculate our hourly pay.
How often do you update your books? Each one gets updated every three years. Latin America and Caribbean titles are always released in the fall, when folks are planning their winter vacations. That means a book being released in November is based on research done during the previous December–February.
Do you pay attention to your reader mail? I read every single piece of correspondence I receive. The first thing I do when updating a new edition is go through the accumulated mail and press releases, filing them into folders based on the chapters of the book. Moon readers are generally thoughtful, observant, and articulate, and I appreciate reading their observations and experiences. People e-mail me either directly (jberman AT gmail DOT com) or through my publisher (firstname.lastname@example.org).
How can I get my business listed in one of your books? Inclusion is based on merit and accessibility, both of which are determined by the authors. Build the quality of your service, earn a good reputation, and I (or my co-author) will seek you out (Belize and Nicaragua are not large countries). If you're worried about getting mistakenly passed over (it happens), tell me where you are, what you offer, and why travelers should be told about your establishment.
What's a typical day for you? How do you spend your time? During a pre-deadline research run, I am charging around the country (usually alone), sometimes walking the streets and lurking around bus stations, and often holed up in some hotel (from fleabag hospedaje to $800-a-night suites), slamming local coffee and lost in my laptop. There usually isn't much (if any) time for boat tours, diving, or long hikes (I only went diving once in four months in Belize!). But, when asked by a new tour provider in León to help test a new product like "volcano surfing," I try to oblige.
I’d break my time down like this: (1) one third is spent researching on the road. This means not only visiting as many tourism-related businesses and destinations as possible, but also making phone calls, interviewing government employees and taxi drivers, and bribing Peace Corps Volunteers with alcohol in exchange for local knowledge. (2) The second third of my time is spent typing it all up, transferring volumes of notebook scratchings into my iBook, and then turning it all into publishable text. (3) The other third is spent staying organized, keeping track of hundreds of word documents, digital images, slides, hotel brochures, bus schedules, maps . . . basically, this is the part that sucks.
When you’re researching, do you tell people who you are or do you travel incognito? I stay incognito when I'm in a rush or when I'm traveling in an area that is so new to tourism that it doesn't matter that I'm a guidebook writer (this accounted for much of my territory). When things slow down however, and I have time for the extended hotel tour (or when my neglected ego needs a boost in some beachside backpacker bar), I'll show people the book I'm working on and explain my mission. Doing so qualms hotel owners' fears when this strange gringo storms in and begins taking photos and writing in a little notebook; it also leads to contacts, access, and recommendations which, when my goal is to learn as much about an area in as little time as possible, are indispensable. Does revealing my identity occasionally lead to preferential treatment? Yes, but since I don't write reviews, per se, I don't see a conflict. Businesses that deserve to be in the book get in there; those that deserve a few extra glowing adjectives, they get those too. If a restaurant smells like socks and has horrible service, they don't go in the book—whether they gave me a free dogmeat enchilada or not. I have a longterm reputation to protect, and I won't do that by misleading my readers.
Does it get lonely? There is an anonymous quote in my Outward Bound readings: “The difference between loneliness and solitude is your perception of who you are alone with and who made the choice.” But yeah, sometimes, when I’m curled up with fever and shaking in the bottom of a hammock, sweating blood out of my scalp with no one to take care of me, it can be lonely. Usually however, traveling solo is pretty cool. Adam Katz describes it well.
Can you make a living writing guidebooks? A handful of guidebook writers have figured out a way to do this, but not me. I'm trying to work on other types of writing and, in general, guidebook writing is too much work for too little pay. My book advances are enough to cover the expenses of research trips, but not much more (there is no expense account, only a lump sum to do the work). In between editions, quarterly royalty check range from zero to a couple grand, and are often only working to earn out my advances. I try to use my newfound "expertise" and book credits to sell magazine articles, but this is difficult, even for a published author, and I have never had a steady stream of income from freelancing. To make ends meet, I often take seasonal jobs like leading international service trips or fighting fires.
How can I become a travel writer? First, you’ve got to be a writer. That means you’ve got to write. Lots. The traveling part will happen itself as you live your life. Travel can be driving from your house to the grocery, or it can be sailing around the world. It’s the writing that’s important, so crack open a fresh journal and answer the call of those cool, white pages. Lots more on this in the links above.
A 'DAY IN THE LIFE' VIDEO I MADE IN BELIZE: