Why I Became a Guidebook Author

Responding to Lonely Planet author Celeste Brash’s #lpmemories hashtag, a reader reminded me of why I became a guidebook author.

I became a Lonely Planet author in 2002, worked on over two dozen titles since, was the ‘Author Liaison Manager’ for a spell in 2006 (imagine a den mother for unruly guidebook authors), and I have heard every variation of, “Ooooh, you’re so lucky!” or “You have the best job in the world!” or “I wish I could do that!” Mick Jagger has said if he wasn’t a rock star, he would want our job. The best I was ever paid by Lonely Planet was to co-lead the two ‘Bluelist’ competitions in 2006 and 2007. The prize? Winning the chance to do our job for a week.

Alex Leviton on the road
Lost. Again. Researching Lonely Planet Tuscany & Umbria for the third time.

It’s true. We get paid to travel. We’re our own bosses. We work in our pajamas, whatever hours we want, and the million+ characters required for the average assignment magically jump into our computers while we’re lying on a beach in Bora Bora, mai tai in hand.

And yes, you’re right: that view of the job is absolutely correct (well, more or less). We do have those mai tai moments. However (and contrary to surprisingly popular opinion), we don’t have them without an absolute unbelievable amount of work. As another LP author friend also puts it, “we have bad travel experiences so you don’t have to.” Unlike the newer generation of travel bloggers, we aim to fade into the background, our work taking the limelight.

Yes, we stay in castles and monasteries, befriend Franciscan friars and aforementioned rock stars, and we visit far-flung locations and the behind-the-scenes world that few travelers see: police stations, bus depots, far too many laundromats.

And we’ve had more moments of being lost than any sane human could ever imagine. More moments of loneliness, confusion, and panic than most any normal job.

Among our ranks, many of us have ended up in the hospital for our jobs (me, twice). We’ve also had deaths. And brain injuries. And malaria, beatings, and robberies. And incredibly long, boring, lonely days in front of computer screens, frustrated by technology and unbearable deadlines and tourist boards.

A few hours after Lonely Planet announced it had cut almost a quarter of its staff (and most of the editorial and publishing departments of the Melbourne and Oakland offices), I saw this exchange on the Travel Bloggers Facebook group:

  • (Blogger #1): I’d say the best thing about working for Lonely Planet is that it looks damn good on a cv. And making a living out of travelling is of course great, but it just pays better elsewhere.
  • (Second blogger to first blogger): Sigh. Yes, I have read the accounts of how hard LP authors work. Though I do have to confess that once upon a time, long before I was a travel blogger, and had read those accounts, I did envy those who wrote the guides. 2 hours ago · Like
If you’ve ever written a guidebook, you would understand why I had to respond.
  • Alex Leviton: How it looks on my CV was about … 6.2% of it. Nice side effect, but if I did it for that, I would have quit sooner than Sarah Palin. If you really want to know why we do it: We love information. Passionately and somewhat obsessively. One LP author speaks, I kid you not, at least 12 languages. We get to know the history of a place better than almost anyone, and we get to meet and interview hundreds of locals. Our Haiti author moved to Port-au-Prince for fun, b/c he felt so passionately about the culture. Often we travel undercover so we can bring you the most unbiased info possible, unless it serves our readers not to. I once spent four hours touring the St. Francis of Assisi Basilica with a Zambian Franciscan friar, delving into every artistic and religious detail from an insider. For most LP authors, no amount of money or glamor can beat those kinds of experiences.

To be a guidebook author, you need to be a little nuts. I’m sure most of us would admit we have a slight masochistic streak. In another time, I think many of my colleagues would have become explorers or warriors.

A decade or so ago, I got a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. I had dreams of working at a magazine, or maybe for UNHCR. I applied to the local newspaper, to write for Koko the signing gorilla, to teach journalism in Ethiopia. I wanted to fight the good fight and Share Important Information with the world.

And then I became a travel writer.

Mostly, I fell into it by accident, meeting LP folks at a journalism job fair. I’d traveled fairly extensively by then, helped start two magazines, but certainly didn’t have the master’s in African Studies or blog dedicated to Afghanistan like other authors. I could be an editor, sure. But I realized a) travel writing had changed my life and perspective on the world way more than any newspaper or magazine article ever had and b) I wasn’t ever going to be a great reporter. Other people are way, way better at reporting health news or writing award-winning pieces about Alzheimer’s patients. I’m good at connecting — and helping others connect — with people all over the world.

Thirteen years later, I’ve contributed to about two dozen books. Every single time, I said it was the hardest thing I’d ever done and I wouldn’t put myself through another project. Parts of my life invariably fell apart while I was working these 100-hour weeks. How could they not? I regularly worked around the clock, once for 34 straight hours. Relationships ended. Friends had babies and lost siblings when I was on the road. From my hostel, I would send them congratulatory emails or call with my condolences.

I’d arrive home, only to have my normal life close enough to tease me with its full nights of sleep and downtime that felt Sisyphusianly far. I’d surround myself with as much as I could from my journeys — coconut milk if I was writing about the Caribbean, gelato if I’d been researching Italy.

My life has become more deeply enriched because of my experiences, but also quite a bit harder. To read this tweet about the Italian mime made my day. I spent countless hours combing small towns like Ascoli Piceno, looking for anything that would bring our readers these kinds of experiences. I was with my best friend Len in Ascoli when we found the note on the door of a yoga studio. It looked promising. We called, visited, and knew readers would fall in love with this family.

And that has made it all worth it.

8 thoughts on “Why I Became a Guidebook Author

      1. Laurel- Capturing la Vita says:

        I write mostly about Tuscany, which is where my work is. I’m currently in process of writing a family guide to Tuscany and a book about the experiences of the people of Giglio Island and the Costa Concordia shipwreck. This is my site- http://www.capturinglavita.com

        It’s true, for every hour we spend in a beautiful and exotic place, we spend 10 hours on the computer. There is so much in the planning, researching, interviewing, writing, and networking.

        No matter where I go and what I see, it is the people and the relationships that make it what it is!


  1. Jocelyn Harewood says:

    Hi, my new book, Vanuatu Adventures : Kava and Chaos in the Sth Pacific, is a glorious romp, totally true, about my times researching for LP. Download it from HarewoodBooks.com.au or email me and I’ll send you a copy. Jocelyn


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s