Veteran Lonely Planet travel writer Simon Sellars gives the lowdown on what it’s really like to work for the world’s biggest travel guidebook company and how to get your own break writing for them
Intro: Simon Sellars is a freelance writer and editor who has contributed to numerous Lonely Planet titles. Most recently Simon has travelled as a Lonely Planet writer in Micronesia, the Netherlands and Japan and co-edited Lonely Planet Micronations. He is based in Melbourne, Australia. You can also read my review of The Lonely Planet Story, Tony and Maureen Wheeler’s autobiography of how they created Lonely Planet.
On with the interview…
How often do people say to you “Wow, you’re a writer for Lonely Planet – that must be the best job in the world!”?
All the time. Travel writing still has this allure, doesn’t it? Yet there’s nothing glamorous about waiting in a queue at Heathrow for four hours to have your underwear swabbed for explosives. The sheer grind of travel these days – dodging security and surveillance and crowds – means that travelling so much as a writer is not as appealing as it once was. Plus there’s a real sense that there’s nowhere left to go – that the entire planet has been commodified and quantified via blanket media saturation – meaning it becomes increasingly harder to spin interesting angles.
Is it the best job in the world?
It’s a good job but let’s be realistic: it’s more a case of being paid to collect brochures and bus timetable info — and to crack the ice-cold nerve of concierges the world over. We are info dumps: much of the job is gathering facts and figures and updating perishable and non-perishable information. I can’t say it’s especially glamorous when you’re in Guam and you’re reviewing the umpteenth chain hotel for the day and wondering how on earth you’re going to differentiate between them in your write-up. Especially since a lot of Guamanian hotels seem to buy all their bedspreads from the same supplier, a company that would appear to specialise in blue-and-pink floral patterns that your grandmother wouldn’t let in the house.
I feel one of the biggest misconceptions about Lonely Planet is that the company pays its authors to swan around on holiday and then do a bit of writing as an afterthought. The reality is that you are on your feet for twelve hours a day, during torrential rain or baking heat or whatever testing conditions you’ve parachuted into: coups; insurgencies; dealing with the horror of warm beer in Britain. There’s very little time for actual sightseeing. It’s actually hard work.
How did you get your break to write for LP? How many years ago was that?
I started writing for them four years ago. I was an editor for the company and eventually became tired of correcting other people’s work, especially since I was writing freelance film reviews after hours. From there it was a matter of writing up a few sample reviews for the selection committee, which anyone can apply to do, incidentally. You don’t have to be working for the company.
Can you describe the preparations you make for doing an LP trip? How do you sketch out a schedule, estimate time to gather info etc?
The Internet makes everything easy and I also read as many books as I can about the place beforehand. I talk to other authors who’ve been to the destination and that helps in determining timeframes. But also, to be brutally honest, the amount of money that’s in the pot for a particular job determines how long you’ll be spending in the place. When I did Northern Honshu in Japan, for example, Japan is a black hole for money so my budget was very limited. With the commissioning editor, I worked out which places were absolutely necessary to visit, which places were essentially backwaters that could be dropped, and which places could maybe be updated by phone or via the Internet. LP pushes authors to visit every place in the guidebook, but it’s just not always possible to do that, so a place hundreds of kilometres away with limited bus services and few or no attractions would be a prime candidate for a phone update or deletion.
But some countries are easy to do, like the Netherlands: it’s tiny, you can get the trains everywhere, and you can check timetables on the Net beforehand and plan your itinerary to the letter. Planning for Micronesia, by contrast, was a nightmare. Some islands are 1,000 or 2,000km apart and I had to visit nine of them. My carbon footprint would have been bigger than a yeti’s, yet there was no choice but to fly. My travel agent had barely even heard of Micronesia, let alone booked trips to it. She and I must have spent a good three days trying to align the flights, as Continental is the only airline that does Micronesia and their timetables are notoriously inflexible. I found this out to my cost when I missed my flight from Saipan to Yap. I had to spend an extra four days waiting for the next plane. There’s not much to do on Saipan and I’d already seen the best of it in the two-and-a-half days prior, so the prospect of staying on was a test of patience, to say the least.
Is there a system or special handbook given to LP writers to help them organise themselves most efficiently? From your Honshu and Micronesia blogs it sounds very, very hectic
They have some electronic files that you can access but I’ve found the best way is to just dive in. And yes, it is very hectic. You do need nerves of steel. Miss a bus or train or spend too long in the pub and you might have 20 hotels to visit tomorrow instead of 10. But whatever you do, there will always be another brochure to collect or another hotel toilet to inspect.
Can you describe how a typical day might go in terms of researching a new town or city?
If you’re looking for tips, I’m probably not the best person to ask as I work instinctively. Obviously I look at the previous edition and roughly work out how many hotels or restaurants I can get to in a day. But I also like to walk around the city or town rather than ride a bike or hire a car as some authors do.
How do you find out about the Things To Do so quickly?
Internet, contacts, books, the previous guidebooks. A good pair of ears. I like to merge into the background and observe and listen to conversations as much as possible. I really enjoy listening to the sounds and ambience of an environment, reading the psychology of a place through close observation of its social interactions.
Do you ever get moments on the road when you think – why am I doing this? Does it become a grind?
Absolutely. As I mentioned before, reviewing chain hotels is a special form of torture and definitely a grind. But, also, I must stress again that time is always at a premium when doing guidebook work. Although I say I like to listen and observe, in reality financial constraints make it almost impossible to linger at leisure for days on end like some kind of bohemian flaneur, so you are really just crunching as much as possible into your day: visiting 10 hotels, dropping into 10 bars and restaurants (and not necessarily eating or drinking in them, either), visiting the tourist office, the bus station etc. If there’s a moment for quiet reflection then that’s a bonus and you seize on it and make the most of it.
Do you take trips where you’re not guidebook writing and feel a palpable difference?
Yes. I visited Tasmania recently on holiday and found myself having to fight the urge to collect every generic brochure I came across in shops and restaurants. Normally when I return from an LP trip I have a few kilos of paperwork to sort through for research. It’s just such a relief to be able to ‘follow your nose’ and instinctively uncover a city rather than hanging around the tourist office, or visiting a bar because you have to.
What are some of your most memorable experiences travelling as an LP writer?
Micronesia was the most memorable. Of the islands, I’d only ever heard of Guam, Tinian and Saipan, so the rest of it – Rota, Palau, Chuuk, Yap, Kosrae, Pohnpei – was a completely unknown quantity. I didn’t know what to expect and I ended up seeing a part of the world that is still relatively untouristed (save for Guam and Saipan, of course) and still relatively ‘traditional’. I was interested in that aspect, especially given, as I said before, there are very little places on the globe that you could say are untouristed in this day and age. In Pohnpei, after drinking sakau (a root similar to kava but really like a mud milkshake spiked with heroin), I was chased by wild dogs while caught in a torrential downpour: a terrifying and exhilarating experience. In Kosrae I saw the ruins that inspired some of Lovecraft’s stories. In Yap I saw giant stone money. On other islands I discovered WWII fighter planes submerged in lagoons and rusting tanks and US WWII headquarters in the jungle.
Northern Honshu was also memorable. The region has suffered economically and culturally in comparison with the south, but I discovered it to be a place with a pulse. Travel books tend to paint Northern Honshu in a particularly unpleasant light, but these are stereotypes that only exist when comparing the region with Japan’s more well-known prefectures. By approaching the place on its own terms, it was possible to uncover a hidden history. For example, instead of sneering at the region’s tradition of tales of the supernatural (it’s often been said that the region is ‘backward’ because they still have such a strong tradition of ghost stories), I looked at why these tales existed and what they said about a country still torn between soft-focus visions of the past and blinding visions of the technological future.
Although I didn’t work on the most recent edition of the Japan guidebook, I’m relieved to see they’ve retained many of the mini-features I wrote on Northern Honshu (‘boxed texts’, we call them). I’m also interested to see that the official Japanese tourist body is now promoting Northern Honshu and its peculiar quirks much more — a giant step forward for that particular Tokyo-centric organisation.
Similarly, in Guam, which has a reputation in travel books as basically an extended duty-free shopping mall for rich Japanese, I was able to uncover regions of unexpected beauty in the south, regions that are generally ignored in favour of lazy cultural stereotypes.
As far as other travel writing goes, although LP did not have the budget to send me to Sealand for the Micronations book I worked on, I ended up visiting it in May last year. I wrote an article about it for The Australian newspaper and I must say that journey was a highlight of my career.
How does LP calculate the money they give you to make the trip? Do they give you a big chunk and tell you to get on with it? What dire warnings do they put in place to stop you spending it all and not returning with a decent script?
Yes, they give you a lump sum. How much money you make from a job is dependent on how efficient you are with your budget and schedule. In a nutshell, you won’t be staying in top-end hotels. How do they calculate it? That’s literally the million-dollar question. I think a lot of authors would like to know that. Seriously, I don’t really know. They have a formula, and no, they don’t give you any dire warnings. We’re adults and professionals: if you spend it all and don’t do the work, you have to answer to the fact that you’ve signed a contract and haven’t delivered the goods. Same as anywhere.
The NY Times highlighted the downward trend for guidebook pay and suggested that writers were becoming fact gatherers who could be paid less and their copy shaped by editors back home – do you agree with this analysis? Is it true of LP?
Well, I’ve already spoken about the fact checking. Guidebooks have become a very streamlined business and there’s less and less chance to ‘stretch your wings’ as a writer these days. Again, this is also a consequence of the fact that there are far fewer untouristed places on the globe today compared to say 15-20 years ago, when the content of an individual guidebook could still be groundbreaking. I mentioned boxed texts earlier — these are a chance to write as much as 800-1000 words on a topic — but for the most part it is very much templated work, there’s no getting around that. As for the pay, agreed: it’s not an especially well-paid job, and as that NY Times article highlights, there will always be a pool of eager young writers who will do it for next to nothing — a highly attractive prospect for any employer with a tight budget and a year-round schedule.
Can you make a living working for LP?
I did make a good living as an LP writer for the first three years I was doing it and that was achieved by working on back-to-back projects. But back-to-back is backbreaking, and I burnt myself out so I’ve been taking a break from it for the last year and a bit. Instead I’ve been working with LP’s Trade and Reference department on travel-lit type titles such as Micronations and Bluelist, where there’s more a focus on writing than pure information gathering. But now the news just in is that Trade & Ref is being severely stripped back in favour of a sustained focus on guidebooks, so I’m not sure what the near future will hold.
How much do editors guide or dictate what you send back? Is there much conversation between you on the road?
We are in contact with the Commissioning Editor while we’re on the road. Then when we’ve submitted the text, the actual copy editors work with us to massage the text into these very stringent templates. The write up is very intensive because we also have to style text, in effect doubling as typesetters as well as writers, entering codes for headings and body text and so on. This is often the biggest shock for new authors: the amount of styling involved. It’s a full-on slog if you’re unprepared. Generally, text only gets sent back if it doesn’t conform to the style templates; it’s pretty rare that you’re asked to rewrite whole passages. The other factor that ups the intensity is the sheer amount of words. Take the Netherlands guide I co-authored: although much of the work is updating information, hotel reviews still need to be rewritten, introductions need to be reworked, new boxed texts need to be composed. Even though it’s not all composing new text, all up I still had to crunch through close to 100,000 words in a period of three or four months.
What do you think is the biggest hurdle for people who want to become LP writers?
As I mentioned you need to write some sample reviews and you also need to demonstrate a bit of flair in your writing, a bit of publishing experience and that you’ve travelled a bit — if you haven’t been outside your own country you’ll have no chance. Once you’re in, an insistence on wearing rose-coloured glasses will set you back. It’s a job and must be treated as such. You’re pretty much on your own and LP makes it clear they won’t hold anyone’s hand.
And the biggest misconception people have of the job?
That’s it’s romantic and that it’s easy.
What Lonely Planet guide will you be working on next?
Hopefully the next edition of South Pacific and Micronesia – I’d like to go back and see if the islands hold up a second time.
More info: www.simonsellars.com