The Harsh Realities Of Life As A Lonely Planet Travel-Writer


Dreaming to write for the Lonely Planet is often where your inspiration to become a travel-writer comes from. I remember I frequently used to spend time in a book shop reading and taking down notes from the biographies of the writers of each LP edition: what their background was, what they aspired to, and if they had a personal website. Then I would go home and look them up, read about them and go “WOOAAW, they are such cool people and they have the best job in the whole world”.

Here’s a chat with Simon Sellers, freelance writer / editor who has traveled to Micronesia, Netherlands and Japan for Lonely Planet, giving us his take on life as an LP travel-writer.

These are my highlights from the interview:
-“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.”

-“…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.”

-“…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.” Ouch.

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On being paid as an LP writer: “…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.”
You’d think they’d give you a service / writing fee over and above a lump sum for travel and accommodation; sucks that they don’t. So basically, the more you squeeze yourself on costs, the more money you make. Sigh.

-“Guidebooks have become a very streamlined business and there’s less and less chance to ’stretch your wings’ as a writer these days.”

-“…for the most part it [guidebook writing] is very much templated work, there’s no getting around that. As for the pay, agreed: it’s not an especially well-paid job…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.”

Answering the eternal question: 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.” Sigh.

-“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.”

-“…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.” Holy moly.

On what you need to be an LP writer: “…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 traveled 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-colored 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.”

So there’s the low down for all of you aspiring travel guidebook writers. It’s always good to read honest, no-fluff pieces on being a travel-writer. Not fooling yourself with false hopes in your aim towards becoming what you want is fundamental right from day one.