Just in time for Holiday travel, Write On! Online talks to Dan Eldridge (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Philadelphia-based journalist whose writing specialties include independent travel, alternative sex and relationships, and creative entrepreneurship. He’s the author of Moon Handbooks Pittsburgh (Avalon Travel), and he’s the co-author of four Lonely Planet guidebooks: Turkey, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, and the upcoming Philippines and New England Trips. Dan is currently in the process of launching Young Pioneers, a bi-monthly magazine about creative entrepreneurs; the premiere issue will be available by the end of February 2009.
How did you get started?
Strange as it seems to me now, I got started in the writing business when I was still in high school. I had a pen pal at the time who, unbeknownst to me when we first started corresponding, was the publisher and editor of a relatively influential punk-rock magazine called Jersey Beat. Incidentally … the editorial team just celebrated the magazine’s 25th anniversary!
I wrote album reviews for Jersey Beat during my last couple years of high school, and at the time, that was a really big deal for me. I had some serious self-esteem issues when I was a kid, and I can still remember how incredible it felt when a friend or a classmate found out I was a music critic and a published magazine writer. The look in their eyes was almost always the same: It was a mixture of respect and genuine curiosity, and I absolutely developed a taste for that sensation of low-level fame so many writers secretly fantasize about. In fact, I think I’ve been chasing it ever since.
At some point during my college career, I stopped writing for Jersey Beat and starting writing for the A&E section of the university newspaper. From there, I suppose I followed a fairly traditional path: A few internships and some occasional freelancing. I eventually ended up in Seattle, where I started writing for a glossy music and culture magazine. There was no pay involved, but the magazine was really well-designed, which probably made many of my writing samples seem much more impressive than they actually were. At any rate, I managed to round up quite a bit of work by showing them to other newspaper and magazine editors, especially after I moved back to Pittsburgh, where I finally decided to try my hand at freelancing full-time.
I was very careful about how I maintained those new editorial relationships, and at one point I was offered a position as a music editor at one of the alt-weekly newspapers I’d been writing for regularly.
How did you go from music to travel writing?
I’d never had a staff job at a publication before, so the music editor position was very much the pinnacle of my career at the time. There were two substantial problems, though: the first being that I’m just not suited for the 9-to-5 type of office job. The second problem was that after about a year in that position, I found myself becoming somewhat burnt-out on music journalism. After all, at that point I’d been writing about music for close to a decade, on and off. I realized, of course, that it wouldn’t be smart to simply quit my job without first using my leverage as an editor to secure some sort of project or position for myself first, and since travel writing had always been a big interest of mine, that’s where I began to look.
Thankfully for me, it just so happened that right when I started seriously thinking about leaving the newspaper, a co-worker … found a help-wanted ad online, and sent it my way. Avalon Travel Publishing … apparently [was] looking for a Pittsburgh-based author to write the first edition of Moon Handbooks Pittsburgh, a city guidebook. The application process literally took months, and I even had to write a complete book proposal, but eventually I was offered the contract.
Right around the same time, I had also been applying to become a guidebook writer for Lonely Planet, and that was another process that literally took months. And as it happened, I got the thumbs-up from the commissioning editor at Avalon Travel—and an invitation to join the Lonely Planet team—during the exact same week. Naturally, I handed in my resignation at the end of that week, and for the next few years, I was pretty much ensconced in the universe of travel writing.
Why travel writing?
I suppose I have more or less the same story as just about every other guy my age with a serious travel bug: I discovered Jack Kerouac in high school; I tore through On the Road in about two days straight; and I never again looked at life in the same way. I realize that’s a slightly embarrassing suburban-kid cliché. But going through a Beat phase in high school or college is also something of a rite of passage for serious travelers, and I’m very glad to have discovered and studied that chapter of American history.
But while Kerouac and the Beats did inspire me to travel, I wouldn’t necessarily say they inspired me to become a travel writer. That honor would probably go to a writing instructor of mine from college, a journalist by the name of Bruce Dobler, who was always talking about how freelance writers led such incredible lives, and about how they had permission to go anywhere, and to do anything—under the guise of “research,” of course. He was always telling us stories about his own freelance writing adventures—floating over the city in a hot-air balloon or hitching a ride on a helicopter—and I can still remember sitting in a college classroom in Pittsburgh, and dreaming about how amazing it would be to literally write my way around the world. Of course, that wasn’t so much a fantasy about guidebook writing as it was about freelance foreign correspondence, which is something I’ve only done a few times. I suppose that’s something I should probably push to the top of my Life List!
What’s the process for contributing to travel books?
Every publishing company has its own process, although for me, the initial experience of approaching a guidebook publishing company is essentially the same experience as approaching a new editor at a new magazine or newspaper: I’ll send an email explaining who I am, what sort of work I’m interested in doing, and what my qualifications are. That’s how I initially made contact with Avalon Travel, although I eventually had to put together an entire book proposal for the guide I was interested in writing. This is something every potential author of an Avalon Travel guidebook is required to do, by the way: Once the acquisitions editor has decided that you’re a good potential author for a particular title, you’re then asked to write and submit a book proposal. I personally think that’s a smart vetting process on Avalon’s part, because the potential authors aren’t told how many other potential authors are writing book proposals for the same book at the same time. In other words, if you aren’t 100 percent committed to winning the contract, you’re probably not going to be willing to put a huge amount of work into the research and writing of the proposal — and it does require a huge amount of work.
The Lonely Planet process is completely different, but equally clever: If an acquisitions editor is impressed with a particular writer’s resume and writing samples, that person will then be asked to write a “sample chapter” in the style of a Lonely Planet guidebook. The chapter has to be written on a relatively tight deadline, and of course you have to stick to a specific word count, and you’re required to prepare your own maps. It’s the perfect test for a potential Lonely Planet author, because the experience of researching and writing and fact-checking is very similar to the actual authoring experience. I believe that sample test is graded by two or three LP employees, and if the writer scores high enough, he or she is then invited to join the pool of LP authors, and can then start pitching for work assignments on specific guidebooks.
I would imagine the other major guidebook publishers—Rough Guides, DK, Bradt, Globe Pequot, Frommers, Fodors, etc.—all have their own separate processes and guidelines for potential contributors.
What’s your favorite part of the process?
By a long shot, the on-the-ground research stage is much, much more exciting than the unbelievably long work days that await guidebook writers once they return home. But don’t get me wrong: The possibility for work satisfaction—and even fun—does exist during the writing stage. But due to the cycles of the publishing industry, deadlines for producing guidebook content are often much shorter than they should be. Work satisfaction tends to go right out the window when you’re in a situation of having to work upwards of 14 hours a day, for seven days a week, and for many weeks in a row. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of being a guidebook writer in a supply-and-demand economy. Because for every author who decides they’ll no longer work 100-hour weeks for what is often very low pay, there are dozens of semi-qualified college grads ready and willing to do the same job for less. And in this unfortunate economy, they’ll probably do so with a big smile on their faces.
How important is research in your specialty?
I guess that depends on how familiar you are with the area you’ve been assigned to cover. When I sat down to write the first edition of Moon Handbooks Pittsburgh, for instance, I found that I didn’t have to do much on-the-ground research of places like cafes and bars, because I’d been living in Pittsburgh for years and years at the time, and I’d been to just about every interesting site more than once. Then again, when it came time to research the history of the city, I ended up in the library, where I read reference and history books for hours and hours on end.
For each of the international guidebooks I’ve worked on for Lonely Planet, the research experience has been a bit different each time. I’m usually not writing much about the actual history of a place, and because Lonely Planet generally assigns a number of different authors to update a single title, we’re very rarely responsible for covering an entire country. But with that said, it’s very possible that we’ll be going into a particular region we’re not necessarily familiar with, which makes the pre-trip research process all the more important. Generally, my rule of thumb is to read as much as I possibly can before actually landing in-country, but to make sure the reading is diverse: news, blogs, non-fiction books, etc. The bottom line, I think, is that you can’t really over-prepare for an on-the-ground reporting assignment. I realize not all travel journalists necessarily share that particular opinion. But I’ve always found the level of my confidence on an overseas research trip to be directly related to the amount of relevant research I’ve done beforehand.