The Life of a Guide Book Writer

We interview guide book author and past Travel Writing Scholarship mentor Simon Richmond about the his globe-trotting lifestyle and what it takes to make it in the industry.

Photo © Philipp Kämmerer

Like many young boys, I had a fantasy about becoming James Bond when I grew up. Well, that didn’t happen, but I did get to become the next best thing: a travel writer. When I come to think of it, the job has plenty of Bond-ian elements not least of which are travelling to exotic destinations, meeting interesting people, and staying under the radar while spying out the next accommodation find or hot spot to party in. 

Sounds like your idea of a dream occupation? Read on to see if you might make the grade.

How do you get started?

One way is by entering a contest like this. Alternatively, writing up feature ideas and presenting them to newspapers and magazines, or contacting guidebook companies and doing initial test pieces for them. I was a journalist in London, Japan, and on the road for a decade and had had many travel pieces published before writing my first guidebook.

What's the working environment like?

You're not in an office – you're on your own and have to be comfortable with that. Although it can be something of a solitary profession, you also need to be fairly gregarious and happy to approach complete strangers. It’s a pleasure being able to make up your own schedule, but you also need to be mindful of deadlines. And you need to be prepared to get the work done no matter what – it’s no fun trudging around a town checking details in the pouring rain, or struggling through a day when you’re ill, but that’s all a regular part of the job.

What talents do the best travel writers have?

Having a way with words and the ability to craft evocative prose goes without saying. But you are not going to get very far unless you’re also organised and self-disciplined – there are budgets to be balanced, and you need to be capable of delivering accurate, engaging work on deadline – which can be stressful. If you get your facts muddled and leave readers puzzling over a wrong phone number or a misplaced item on a map, it doesn’t matter how wonderful your insights are.

Do most writers freelance or work for a specific company?

Practically everyone I know in this field is freelance, although some do work more consistently for one company than others. 

How does being constantly on the road affect your personal life?

You need either to be single or have an understanding, flexible partner (thankfully, I do!). Although it can be a help, it's not always ideal having them travel along with you – it's a job you're on, not a holiday, and they need to understand that and pitch in, or just be cool with what you need to do. Similarly when you're back at base, you're going to need the space and time to write.

How much time do you spend on the road?

I typically spend anything between 4-6 months of each year travelling – some people do more than this, some less - depends on the type of assignments you get sent on and a person’s tolerance for long trips. If you're serious about making a living as a travel writer I'd be looking at least 4 months travel a year.

What about the vibe of the people in the industry? Is it friendly or competitive? 

It is a competitive industry – there are lots of people out there who think they can do the job and, under current economic circumstances, not a great deal of well paid work going. I say well-paid because it's will almost always be possible to find jobs if you're willing to work for very little or indeed nothing – but then that's not a sustainable career for anyone, and the better travel publishers do pay fairly for a job – they want a quality product after all.

About Simon Richmond

Writer and photographer, Simon Richmond honed his skills as a young journalist with the UK consumer magazine Which? before heading east to Tokyo in 1991. He spent two and a half years in Japan learning the language and working as an editor and writer for a major financial news organization on content that was drier than the Gobi, and only marginally more interesting. At the same time he travelled Japan, Asia and Australia, scribbling notes and writing travel features. All this paid off when Rough Guides hired him for his first gig updating peninsular Malaysia on their Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei book. Next came the chance to pen the first editions of Japan and Tokyo. 
Simon has written guidebooks to a host of other countries and cities, for many major publishers including Lonely Planet, Time Out, Frommer's and Thames & Hudson. He's specialized in adventure travel writing and writing about food including contributions to restaurant guides to Sydney and London. He's also presented a travel documentary on Japan for BBC's Radio 4. His website is

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