Guidebooks Are Hot. Not Just Now, But Forever!
“The market is expanding in various directions,” say Gordon Hardy, editor al Appalachian Mountain Club Books. “There are books for rock-climbers and mountain-bikers, but there is also much more information geared to people who are not hardcore; more books geared toward families–for example, our nature walk series.”
Couch potatoes want the inspiration–and the how-to and where-to essentials–to get off the couch. More seasoned adventurers Want to explore lesser-known places. And both groups need guidebook authors to show them the way by suggesting trip routes, noting campsites and supply points, and foretelling the perils and pleasures of simple day trips or multiday expeditions.
Many first-time authors have broken into print with guidebooks such as Bicycling Mexico, Paddling Hawaii and my own Sea Kayaking in Baja. Even without a long list of publishing credentials, these writers have gotten their foot (or paddle or piton) in the door by proving they know a sport (cycling, canoeing, kayaking, climbing, backpacking or just plain walking) and/ or a defined area (which may be as big as a mountain range or as small as a city park) that hasn’t been covered–or hasn’t been covered adequately–by existing guidebooks.
To parlay your own expertise into publishing success, follow the trail I’ve marked.
Hit the Trail
Hike every mile is the rule at Wilderness Press. If your guidebook is to be the first on a particular area, then the need for firsthand, on-site research is obvious. Even if other guidebooks or background sources do exist, however, your research should still be done primarily on the trail–not in the library–since competing guides and even government maps are often riddled with errors. (If they weren’t, there probably wouldn’t be a market for your book in the first place.
Know that your prospective publisher will do his own research on your topic, so you must be thorough. “Sometimes I know an area well. Other times I, or somebody I trust, will go there and walk several miles with manuscript in hand to see if the words match up. . . . But with all my years of experience, I can usually get a feel for how accurate a person is just by looking at a manuscript,” says Wilderness Press editor in chief Thomas Winnett, who has written or co-written 12 guidebooks of his own.
A publisher may check up on you once, but it’s readers who will be judging your work forever after, and they will be demanding. If you’ve ever stood at the reading end of a guidebook, you’ll understand why–misleading directions or a botched map can ruin an afternoon, a weekend or, worse, put guidebook users in danger.
Simple omissions are the biggest flub (what trail junction is this? why isn’t that island even mentioned?), so aim for comprehensiveness. Take responsibility for your own fact checking, going back to the area in question if necessary.
Be authoritative, but also be honest: If your information is still uncertain, secondhand, or possibly out-of-date, and you can’t substitute another trail or route, alert the reader, so at least he’ll be prepared for a few surprises.
Of course, some inaccuracies will be inevitable. Development can render the most pristine area unrecognizable in the time it takes your book to go to press, and Mother Nature can redesign a beach, bikepath or forest glen overnight. Expect some change and warn your readers to do the same.
Food, Lodging–and Romance
If you only needed to get your reader from point A to point B, a well-marked map might suffice. But today’s guidebook readers expect more. In addition to simply keeping your reader from getting lost, a guidebook may describe access points or directions to and from trails; campsites (whether developed, primitive, or the only flat, tent-size surface for miles); sources of drinking water; availability of firewood; and possibilities (and regulations) for fishing, hunting or foraging.
The same tenets apply for guidebooks as for any nonfiction: Write with an active voice; mind your grammar; and, perhaps most difficult, avoid losing your reader in a tangle of directions, descriptions and technical detail. A tall order, regardless of how many guides you’ve penned.
“Even writers with experience in doing this sort of writing sometimes have trouble making directions simple enough while still being comprehensive,” says Hardy.
To clean up your writing, consult the Chicago Manual of Style, as well as any writers’ guidelines or style manuals provided by guidebook publishers. Once you’re confident your manuscript passes muster, have a friend or fellow outdoors enthusiast give it a “test-read,” walking through a route description either mentally or–better–physically, to check for clarity.
Adequate and accurate can still be dull, so don’t be afraid to add personal anecdotes, observations and comments for color. In my Baja guidebook I used brief recollections of my own paddling trips, misadventures at sea and wildlife sightings to introduce each route. Story-telling can inspire readers to get going and make a trip, and can ensure that your guidebook is read around the campfire, as well as on the trail.
One thing all editors agree not to add is fluffy, nondescript adjectives. “Don’t tell me something is beautiful or gorgeous,” says Randall Green, guidebook editor at Falcon Press Publishing.
To show, not tell, take notes of vivid sensory details while you’re outdoors researching an area, since all those mountains, rivers and vistas will merge in your mind once you’re home writing a final draft.
Finally, a good guidebook will also include notes on the points of interest along the way that make all that hiking, pedaling or climbing worthwhile.
“I use the word romance to refer to that kind of writing–the stuff other than just ‘turn left’ or ‘turn right,'” says Winnett. “I want a manuscript to be simple and direct, but I also want writing that makes a reader think, ‘Gee, I want to go there.’ Usually, that means a description of a view or panorama, a field or flower, an aspect of geology or human history.”
Hardy agrees. “More and more, we’re moving in the direction of including information on the natural world, so people can understand what’s around them as they’re walking a trail or paddling a river.”
There is no need to interrupt a route description with a complete discourse on local fungi dispersion, or a long-winded history of a long-vanished area tribe–just give your reader something to look for or think about. Tempt him to slow down, to use all his senses or to wander from the trail mentally, if not physically.
Technique tips find a place in most guidebooks, too; but avoid redundancies. Guidebooks are primarily “whereto” books, since readers will already own general how-to or reference books on a particular sport. Only tips geared specifically to both the activity and the geographical area being covered–how to handle wind in gusty climbing terrain, or how and where to make camp in a paddling locale with extreme tides, for example–merit inclusion. After all, more is not always better when it comes to guidebooks, since an overly weighty book won’t fit in a backpack or slim back pocket, and will cost more to produce.
It’s Still Good to Go Green
An exception to the advice above is the inclusion of how-to information that helps readers be more environmentally responsible. Publishers are increasingly aware of the need to “camp soft” and “step lightly,” and you can endear yourselves to them by promoting that message.
Says Hardy, “We try to fit a conservation/preservation message into all of our books. So in our book on winter camping, for example, we have information on building fires and gathering wood that’s in keeping with environmental restrictions.”
Randall Green offers another example: “In our new series for rockclimbers, we’re doing a lot with no-trace techniques. If we’re to continue using natural areas, we must pay attention to the effects we’re having on them.”
Of course, even if wilderness users act responsibly, their presence still has an impact. “The guidebook writer is attempting a balancing act,” says Green. “[Writers must decide] how much they want to publicize and bring new people to an area.”
One approach: Aim to spread out the impact of users by highlighting less popular trails or attractions, little-known alternate routes or campsites that are just as worth visiting, and times of the day or seasons of the year when traffic is light. After all, most people head outdoors to get away from crowds.
Sometimes a little natural history goes a long way, too. By telling your readers about the few weeks each year that an island or bluff is used by nesting birds, for example, you can help paddlers or hikers choose less ecologically sensitive areas or times to visit.
Organizing Your Information
No matter how accurate, interesting or environmentally responsible your guidebook is, it won’t get much use if readers can’t find the information they need quickly and easily. Your task: Choose the best format for organizing your information. Format may be decided for you by the publisher, but if not, you’ll have more creative license. However, a few conventions are worth adopting.
Most guidebooks are broken down into a series of individual trip or trail descriptions: 50 favorite hikes from easiest to most difficult, 20 climbing peaks organized in order of height, a long hiking trail broken into ten contiguous sections.
A summary of each trip or an introductory section that includes all the essential trip data, such as distance covered, type of terrain, access points, accommodations en route and possible hazards may precede a more detailed description of the route. Where key directions, warnings or recommendations are integrated into the text, the liberal use of bold lettering and italics can aid harried readers, who may be pondering their next turn from a trail junction, or planning the next day’s travels from the low light of a campfire.
Information that will be consulted regularly, such as average temperatures, wind speeds for an area, or park rules and regulations, is best displayed in charts or tables at the beginning or end of the book for quick reference.
In all these examples, the critical element is that readers should be able to find the information they need as easily as possible. It doesn’t matter whether you do this by using an inverted pyramid format (most important information first, supplementary information following) or a more magazine-like format (graphics or sidebars used to highlight information), What does matter is that you are consistent, enabling readers to intuit how far they should flip, or where their eyes should scan, each time they need information fast.
Making the Sale
Since you may only get one chance to do your research and decide the format of your book, you’ll do well to target potential publishers early on in the process. If you don’t record the kind of details or don’t take the photos a particular publisher wants to see, you’d have to return to the places you’re writing about–easy if you’re doing a hiking guide to parks within a day’s drive of home, not so easy if you’re doing a whitewater guide to the rivers of Peru.
Assemble a list of potential publishers by reading book catalogs, searching for a house that specializes in the activity and/or geographical region about which you’re writing. Some outdoors publishers cover only the West Coast, some only the East; some may specialize in, say, mountaineering, while others cover any self-propelled outdoor activity.
Once you’ve found several publishing houses that might be a good match for you and your book, the process of actually hooking one is the same as for any nonfiction work. A query letter stressing why a guidebook is needed (and why you’re the one to write it) is generally followed by a proposal package, consisting of an outline or table of contents, a few sample chapters or several representative trail or trip descriptions, an analysis of the market for your book, and a brief author biography. Publishers differ on whether they want to see slides or photos, and whether they expect you to make your own maps (either hand-sketched or drawn by computer).
Negotiated your contract? Sold your book? Followed up with the rest of your final, polished manuscript? Good. Now, get those shoes back on, pull out the bike, put the canoe on top of the car. A second edition awaits. Time to hit the trail again.