Monday, October 10, 2011

How I Became a Lonely Planet Author

The question I get after "what's it like being a Lonely Planet author" is "how did you get your job?" My response is usually, "long story," because it is. People don't like this answer for obvious reasons so, in continuation of last week's low down on what it's like on the road as guide book author, here's how I got my job and some thoughts on how you can get a job like mine. Spoiler: it's not easy.

For me it started in 1998 when I lived on Ahe Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. All we had for communication was a short wave radio and a satellite telephone (that cost $10 per minute) that we used mostly as a fax machine in emergencies. Just to put where I was in perspective, this atoll had no roads, no plumbing and only one little store selling canned food. When you see those cartoons of a stranded guy sitting under a coconut tree surrounded by shark-infested waters, that's pretty much where I was. I also had a two year old and a newborn baby. So, imagine my surprise when I got a fax from an old school friend asking if I'd be interested in writing the French Polynesia guidebook for Lonely Planet.

But it wasn't in the cards that time. My friend (unknown to me) was working as Lonely Planet's publicity manager and when she heard they were looking for Tahiti writers she thought of me. I faxed her back to let her know I was interested but by the time the communication had gone back and forth, Lonely Planet had found someone else. A few months later I got offered Tonga from the Australian office but this time the communications seemed to just dissolve somewhere between my remote atoll and the satellite, so once again, I lost the job. Looking back this was for the best since there's no way I could have done what was needed to be done from my remote location and with two very small kids.

Fast-forward to 2001 and the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference in Corte Madera, California. My family and I had recently moved to the much bigger island of Tahiti and I had started travel writing. I'd had a few things published and decided to attend the conference while visiting friends and family in the US. I had no idea Lonely Planet was going to be there and my school friend no longer worked there but I had had the seed put in my head that this was my dream job. Lonely Planet offered a workshop and I decided to take it.

On the last morning they told us all to wear good shoes and a sun hat and to get there at around 7am - the reason was a surprise. They drove us all into San Francisco and dropped us all off for about an hour to update a guidebook section. We had that night to write it all up and whoever did the best job would win two tickets to Europe and a chance to become an author; I think there were about 30 of us. I'll skip the details here, but I won.

We decided to go to Spain and Morocco that fall with the tickets. Unfortunately, a day before we were supposed to take the ferry from Spain to Tangiers, 9/11 happened. We were frozen, stuck in Spain with our two young kids, not knowing what to do. Instead of going to Morocco we got the first flight we could back to Tahiti. My husband's pearl business was severely effected by the plummeting economy and I suddenly had to work full time for him to try and save the business. Meanwhile, Lonely Planet's book sales dropped so dramatically that they closed the Oakland office where I'd just theoretically got a job, and everyone I'd just met was laid off. My chances of becoming an author again became just a dream.

Three years later, once the economy had settled a little bit, my family and I traveled to Mexico. Again, I'll skip the details of the trip but we ended up in this little coastal village called Chacahua on the Oaxaca coast. There were maybe four other foreigners in town and we became friends with an American woman at our guesthouse. Her name was Carolyn and, randomly, she was a managing editor for Lonely Planet. She also remembered me from the contest. We hung out for a few days and at the end she told me that, especially with my history with the company, that there was no reason I shouldn't be an author. Things had changed a bit by this time though so, via Carolyn writing a letter of introduction, I had to be accepted to write a sample chapter that would be reviewed by the recruiter. I was given the OK and then the sample took about two weeks to write (I did it once we were back home in Tahiti); after a few months of review and interview, I was accepted into the author pool.

Great, you think, but no. Getting accepted into the author pool doesn't guarantee work. A publishing schedule is sent out once a month and authors have to pitch for each individual title. Luckily for me, Tahiti was on the list and I secured my first gig within a few months. And the rest is history. Once the books I'm currently working on are out I will have contributed to over 30 Lonely Planet titles.

So how can you get a job? Honestly, it's harder today than it ever has been. The company hires very few new authors and only those who specialize in regions where they need people. To check the list go to - there were no listings when I wrote this post. This is your only hope.

I was lucky to have had connection, be in the right place at the right time and specialize in a region Lonely Planet needed but ultimately I can't imagine what I would be doing if I hadn't got this job. I kept the goal strongly in my head for years. You may not agree, but I'm a strong believer in the power of will mixed with gratitude to make things happen. I think anyone who wants this job badly enough and has the skills and work ethic to go after it, will eventually succeed. It just might take a long time.

Of course if you read my prior post about the realities of life on the road you might decide to keep your day job. For me though, through the hard pillows, blistered feet and days tied to my computer at home it's still what I love to do and what I hope to continue doing it for a long, long time.


  1. Excellent article and all your hard work paid off. It's very pleasig when effort means rewards eventually :-)

  2. Awesome :) dream job. Keep rocking :)

  3. Wow! What an amazing coincidence of events! I'll bet it's a very rewarding position.

  4. Destiny - another word maybe.
    Keep writing, Keep traveling.



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