Diary of a guidebook writer: Getting the job, and getting started

Photo: David Nikel When it works, it really works. Great photographs are important for a guidebook, like this shot of Aker Brygge.

Photo: David Nikel
When it works, it really works. Great photographs are important for a guidebook, like this shot of Aker Brygge.

David Nikel
Trondheim, Norway

This time next year, I’ll be the proud author of the first-ever travel guidebook to Norway for the popular MOON Handbooks series from Avalon Travel Publishing. Throughout the hectic year of researching and writing, I’ll be documenting the process of putting together the book in this new regular column. Thanks for joining me!

Let’s begin with the obvious question: how does one get to write a first edition guidebook for an established travel publisher? It’s simple really. I had contacted MOON back in 2014 to ask about the likelihood of them putting out a Scandinavian title. Eleven months later, the commissioning editor contacted me to say they were looking for an author for a new Norway title.

What swung it for me was simple: my platform. For five years I’ve published a blog about Norway at www.lifeinnorway.net, building an audience of tens of thousands. For the publisher, access to their ideal market was a no-brainer. Being able to write well was merely the icing on the cake.

The harsh reality
Contrary to what many people believe, guidebook writing is far from glamorous.

Rather than being treated to slap-up meals and complimentary stays in five star resorts, the life of a modern guidebook writer is one of 12-hour days plodding the streets, endless nights spent typing up notes in lieu of socializing, and many hours of hard graft with the uncertain promise of future royalties.

I do get a reasonable advance from the publisher, but it’s nowhere near enough to live on and besides, most of the fee goes towards my travel budget, which is no small change in a country where everything is farther away than you think.

According to other MOON authors, the photography and mapping take the most time. I’m required to obtain signed authorization forms from anyone who can be recognized in a photograph, and from the owners of any hotel, restaurant, or attraction that I choose to photograph inside. Ouch!

Photo: David Nikel Weather doesn’t always cooperate with the goal of great photographs. The cloudy day makes Oslo’s incredible Opera House look somewhat dreary.

Photo: David Nikel
Weather doesn’t always cooperate with the goal of great photographs. The cloudy day makes Oslo’s incredible Opera House look somewhat dreary.

An amazing opportunity
Despite the months of hard graft ahead, I’m thrilled with the opportunity to essentially be paid to travel around this amazing country and “fill in the gaps” of my knowledge. I’ve yet to explore the Lofoten archipelago, the southern fjords, and picturesque coastal resorts like Lillesand, for example. But most of all, the chance to walk into a bookshop and see my name on a book’s cover is a lifelong dream!

Having lived in Norway for five years now, I feel my insight into the Norwegian psyche and knowledge of the customs of the country will make this book the best on the market. I already know all about the cashless society, the prevalence of English, the rules of the road, how the ferries work, and so on, so I can spend more time focusing on the destinations.

It also gives me the opportunity to start more projects. For example, my research schedule coincides almost exactly with the 2016 Tippeligaen (soccer) season.

Inspired by a book about English soccer, I plan to catch a game at every Norwegian Premier League stadium, from Kristiansand’s Sør Arena to Tromsø’s Alfheim Stadion. I’m kicking things off with a trip to Bodø on the first weekend of the season (March 13—brr!) to watch Bodø/Glimt take on Sogndal. While I’m there, I’ll research the hotels, restaurants, and attractions of Bodø for the book. Two birds, one stone.

An eye-opening first trip
Before Christmas I took a quick two-day visit to Oslo to better understand the process I’ll be going through. The rain and general gloom covering Norway at this time of year made taking quality photographs a real challenge. This means I may have to return to Oslo in the summer purely to take better photographs. You see how the travel expenses are really going to add up?

Another initial problem to overcome was the schedule of deadlines. Although my final deadline isn’t until September, I was given staggered deadlines on a chapter (destination) basis. Bergen was initially scheduled for March, which I had to renegotiate. Although Bergen is open for business in the winter and early spring, much of the fjord region is not. Some campsites and attractions only open during the summer months, or operate on a vastly reduced basis during the off-season. Some mountain roads don’t open until May, including the famous Trollstigen.

What do you want to read?
As readers of the Norwegian American Weekly are the ideal audience for the book, I don’t want this to be a one-way conversation. I want to hear your feedback, in particular what you think is missing from other guidebooks. What’s most important for you? Accommodation and restaurant listings, things to do, or understanding the feel of a place? Do you read a guidebook purely for information or to be inspired? And also, what do you want to read about in these “insider” columns?

Please reach out and let me know, whatever your thoughts, by using the contact form over at lifeinnorway.net. I can’t wait to hear from you all!

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular www.lifeinnorway.net blog and is the author of the upcoming MOON Norway guidebook.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 22, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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