Britan’s Mike Gerrard is one of the world’s most prolific guidebook writers and has been one of the lucky few to have a steady career in travel writing. He was kind enough to grant Written Road an interview:
Written Road: How did you first become involved in travel writing?
Mike Gerrard: I had to go get my fading cutting out to check, but it was back in 1985 when I sent a travel story to London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. It was the first one I’d written, and I sent it in on spec, and they accepted it. Simple as that, really. I’d already been doing some regular journalism so I did know how to structure an article and make it readable. I also hit on an idea because it was 40 years since Lawrence Durrell’s book on Rhodes had been published, and I happened to be reading it on holiday in Rhodes – just a cheap package holiday – when I thought it might make a nice angle for a travel piece. I’d thought about doing travel, as many people do, but had always been told it was very hard to break into so I’d never bothered before.
WR: What was your first break? What has been the biggest help to your career?
MG:Selling that piece was obviously the first big break. The biggest help to my career was the then Travel Editor of the Daily Telegraph, Bernice Davison. She encouraged me, simply by responding to my ideas and my pieces, in a positive way, that you don’t seem to get these days.
Also, after I’d been writing for them for a year or two, the Telegraph got involved in doing a series of 6 guidebooks to different parts of Britain, and I got asked to do the one to the Yorkshire Dales. It was my first guidebook, and I enjoyed doing it – back then I was probably paid enough to be able to do the job properly, which is happening less and less these days. After that, I approached the AA to try to get some work. My letter got filed and quite some time afterwards an editor called Christopher Catling, who now is a good friend of mine, phoned me out of the blue and asked if I’d be interested in writing the Essential Guide to Mainland Greece, because I’d said I’d visited Greece a lot. And that was the start of working for the AA for almost twenty years now, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working for them.
WR:Who have been your biggest influences?
MG:The first travel book I read was probably one by David Attenborough when I was a kid – ZOO QUEST FOR A DRAGON. He went looking for the Komodo Dragon in Indonesia. I’d always loved wildlife, and watched wildlife programmes on TV, so I suppose that was what drew me to wanting to travel – reading people like him, and Gerald Durrell.
Later I read a book by Eric Newby, and loved it, and writers I enjoy include the wonderful Norman Lewis, Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Bill Bryson – the usual suspects, I suppose. I wouldn’t presume to say they’ve influenced me, but I think those early wildlife books certainly made me want to travel.
WR:How do you approach writing a new guidebook or updating one? What do you look for in sights, attractions, hotels, restaurants, etc?
MG:Big question! My wife’s always telling me off because when I get asked to do a guidebook, especially if it’s a destination I’m not too familiar with, I immediately go onto Amazon and spend a fortune on books about the place – other guidebooks, travel literature, non-fiction books about the destination, anything. I read as much as I can within the time available, jot down things that interest me, whether it be a hotel, a restaurant,a museum or some historical snippet. I go onto the internet and start Googling around.
I think you always want to make a guidebook your own, not merely a copy of other people’s. One problem with guidebooks is that they do tend to copy each other. It’s inevitable really. But I hate it when I see a restaurant that appears in all the guides. I almost deliberately go out of my way to avoid it and find a new one.
We recently spent three weeks in Nice, where my wife was researching a guide for the AA. I just went along for the ride, but I did sell some travel pieces from the trip. In the whole three weeks, I think we only had either two or three poor meals. And one of those was in a place near our hotel that was in all the guidebooks, highly recommended. We didnt know that till we went in. We just liked the look of it, but when we opened the menu we saw all this praise from the various main guidebooks. And the meal was absolute crap, the service was awful, and neither of us will recommend it to anyone anywhere. We did wonder how many of the guidebook writers who recommended it had actually eaten there.
It’s not really the fault of the writers, though. We’re all under pressure and you can’t eat in every restaurant or stay in every hotel. It’s just not possible. But you do your best – it’s just that some are a bit more conscientious than others, I think.
WR:What makes a great guidebook writer?
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MG:Probably a combination of being meticulous, curious, having a lot of stamina, and an ability to write. You don’t always get chance to show you can write, given the space limitations of guidebooks, but some people certainly show that they can’t write, in even the smallest space. I hope I have never in my life called somewhere a ‘best-kept secret’. I even saw that phrase on the cover of an inflight magazine the other week, when I was going to Athens. They called Thessaloniki ‘Greece’s best-kept secret.’ I mean, for ****’s sake, it’s the country’s second-biggest city!
WR:You have worked on a ton of guidebooks for an incredible number of publishers? What have been the ups and downs of working on these types of projects?
MG: The ups are that you do get to know a lot of places fairly well, even though you tend to get pigeon-holed into writing about a handful of places. I write about Greece a lot, and the more you go, the better you know it, so I’m happy to be asked, because I love it. But there is then a danger you can get either lazy, or you can know a place so well you’re no longer seeing it as the first-time visitor might see it.
I much prefer it when you get asked to do a guide to somewhere you’ve never been before. Or maybe been once or twice. That way, you work hard to make sure you don’t miss anything, as it would be pretty embarrassing if you missed one of the main tourist sights, or didn’t include some really important hotel or restaurant.
The ups are also when you occasionally get a pat on the back. Last week we were in Athens and talking guidebooks with a hotel PR. I told her I thought the Dorling Kindersley Top Ten Athens guide was pretty good. She then started praising the Top Ten Paris guide, saying she’d lived there for 4 years and it was one of the best guides she’d seen to the city. Ahem, my wife and I were able to say: we wrote it.
Downs are that of course you never have enough time or money to do the job you’d really like to do. Payment rates have not kept up with inflation, some publishers are now offering joke amounts of money. They expect people to do guidebooks for almost free, so they get a chance to go spend time somewhere they like. But researching and writing guidebooks is bloody hard work. We spent 3 weeks in Nice recently, without a single day off, and then we were home for 2 weeks and set off to Athens (at 1 in the morning), to spend 10 days tramping the streets in 95+ degrees of heat, and came back home again and got back to the house at 3.30am. It’s hardly a holiday, even though we do love being in the places.
WR:Do you have any new books, publications, or anything else we should look out for?
MG: The last book out was the Official Travel Guide to the 2007 Rugby World Cup, which we did a lot of the text for, and my wife did a lot of the photos. That occupied us for a lot of last year. Now I have to write Essential Spiral Athens, which will be out next March, while my wife writes the Citypacks Guide to Nice, which I imagine will be out about the same time.
WR:This is your chance to rant about anything you want. What really makes you angry about the travel writing industry today?
MG: Don’t get me started. I think the fact that it is an industry, and like all industries is run by accountants, whose aim is solely to make a profit. They squeeze writers as much as possible, and expect us to do more work for less pay each year that goes by. Guidebook writers are not meant to be able to pay their mortgages. I’m earning less now than I was 10 years ago. Yet I hope I do a better job – write better, I deliver on time, I do a thorough job. But more work now goes to wannabe writers who will do it for next-to-nothing, for the thrill of it, but who I know do not do as good a job as more experienced writers can do.
The travel pages in print have really dumbed down. They’re more superficial now. They use celebrities more. It’s the soundbite culture. I used to do some great trips to exotic places and could write about them at length. You used to be able to do 1500 words regularly, and you can really write in that space. Now it’s more often 700-800 words – it’s not enough to write something meaningful.
WR:Where to you see the travel publishing world going in the future?
MG: More and more on the internet, of course. Once we have handheld devices – the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or even just to Birmingham – you’ll be able to access anything instantly, check a restaurant, see if they’ve got a table, and use GPS to guide you there. I don’t think guidebooks, or books themselves, will ever die out. They’ve been around too long and people like them and they do have advantages. But I think more and more travel writing – or more probably information-compiling – will be online. It’s inevitable
WR:How are new forms of media helping travel writing evolve?
MG: I tend to think evolving means, like Darwin thought, change in a progressive way, where you improve and adapt. But travel writing is adapting rather than improving, I think. The internet demands a different kind of writing, and I’ve been learning how to do it. But it seldom demands long, travel essays. I wouldn’t mind if there was also a place for those, but the outlets seem to be shrinking. I can’t imagine Marco Polo’s blog would be quite the same.
WR:A lot of other travel writers look down on websites such as Suite101 or About.com. What has been your experience writing the Uk/Ireland travel page at Suite101?
MG: I’ve enjoyed learning the new skill of web-writing. And there is a lot to learn. It’s different. And if travel writing is going that way, and I want to keep traveling and writing, I have to adapt to it. The plus side is that it gives you more control over what you write. You can write about anything that interests you, without having to get an editor to agree that it’s a good story. If you know it is, you can do it. Obviously you have to be practical and produce stuff that people want to read, which you can tell by your Page Views. So in a way you’re also learning how to be your own editor. The down side, certainly on Suite101, is that anyone can post on the UK/Ireland page, and I’ve had to ask for some articles to be removed, as they were just plain inaccurate. One recent posting about travel in Ireland had the author spelling Guinness as ‘Guinniss’ throughout the piece. Another humdinger was advising people to visit the Waterford Crystal Factory in Limerick. It was in Waterford, the last time I went. Another writer posted a piece on Edinburgh which called Holyroodhouse Palace ‘Hollywod House’. It’s embarrassing. The thing is, everyone thinks they can be a travel writer. I wouldn’t dream of posting a piece on dentistry or health, but everyone believes it’s easy to write travel.
Overall, though, it’s been a very positive experience – which is why I’m still doing it, over a year later.
WR: Do you have any advice for young, blossoming travel writers out there? What is the best way to begin a career in travel writing?
MG: The bottom line is simply that you travel a lot, you write a lot, and you send your work in to anywhere you can find. If you’re any good, someone will notice.
WR: Favorite place?
WR: What is the one item you cannot travel without?
MG: A good book, I always take far more than I’ll ever have time to read.