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Is Guidebook Writing
Worth the Money?  

Every guidebook author has stories of guidebook projects that didn't pay....

Though predictions for future income from guidebook royalties are difficult and rarely accurate, projecting income from a flat fee is much easier, and is absolutely necessary.

Even if you're offered royalties, read the rest of this essay to help you predict the success or failure of your project.

The payment offered to you by a publisher is based on the publisher's calculations, and assures that the publisher will make a profit. You must do your own calculations to assure that you make a profit as well. If you don't, you'll have no one to blame but yourself when, at the end, the reader and the publisher are happy and you're disappointed, disillusioned, burned out and broke.

Since they will be estimates, it's important to make these calculations as accurate as possible, and to allow a healthy margin for error. Remember: if you fudge these figures, you're only cheating yourself.

In order to be accurate, you must follow several basic business practices:

1. Tracking Time & Expenses

2. Estimating Project Expenses

3. Revising an Existing Guide

4. Writing a New First Edition

5. Calculating Profitability

6. How Not to Lose Your Shirt

Tracking Time & Expenses

(a) Track your time. Keep a timesheet (to half-hour, or preferably quarter-hour accuracy) as you work on any guidebook project. Use a paper sheet or time-tracking software. This is tedious but absolutely essential, and after awhile it becomes second nature. If you don't know how long it takes you to write or revise a page or chapter of guidebook text, you cannot possibly predict how long it will take to write or revise future books.

(b) Track your travel expenses accurately. You probably already do this for your income tax return(s).

(c) Track your annual overhead: the expenses for your home office, computer, stationery, telecommunications and postage, health and disability insurance, and retirement savings. You probably already do this for your income tax return(s).

Estimating Project Expenses

When discussing a guidebook proposal with the publisher, you must agree on the manuscript deadline, the estimated length of the book, number of maps, photos, appendices, etc., and of course the fee. Once you know what the publisher expects from the project, you can calculate your own interest in it.

(a) Draw up detailed, day-by-day itineraries of the fieldwork to be done. Allow time for rainy days, illness, rest breaks, transportation strikes, unexpected discoveries, holiday closings, etc. Be realistic! Do not under any circumstances assume a minimum-time, best-case scenario.

(b) Estimate the time required for writing (as distinct from research/fieldwork). This is where your timesheets are essential. Base your estimate on past work. You can figure actual hours per page, or the number of weeks required to complete a chapter of so many pages. Consider not just the number of hours or days, but the length of time over which those hours or days are normally spread. Don't plan a straight succession of eight- or ten-hour writing days from now until the deadline. You won't, and can't, and shouldn't work that hard. Indeed, for many writers, a day on which you write—just write—for five hours is a very good day; the rest of the day is spent answering phone calls and mail, reading proofs, looking for new projects, etc. On some days, no writing gets done.
Allow for illness, vacation, filing your taxes, short but lucrative rush projects, conferences, kids' birthdays, getting sick, falling in love, moving house, car breakdowns, etc. To be safe, do an accurate estimate of the time, then add 20% or 25% or even more for contingencies.

If you don't have records of past work, you can use either of the following rules-of-thumb until you do:

Revising an existing guide: For a complex, highly-detailed guidebook of 350 pages with 50 maps, plan 300 hours writing/revising/correcting time (not including fieldwork) over a six-month period from contract signing to deadline.

Writing a first edition: A guidebook writer with some experience may be able to crank out an average of one book page per calendar day during the period from contract signing to deadline; an experienced writer working under very favorable conditions (deep knowledge of the destination, few distractions, saintly spouse, etc) may average two book pages per day. Of course, on many days you may exceed these figures; this is the average for the length of the project. This includes writing and drawing maps, etc., but it does not include field research, which is additional time. It does not include editors' queries, and correction of text and map proofs, which come after deadline, and which may add 4% to 6% more time to the project. So if you're writing a 350-page book, a comfortable deadline would be around one year (350 days) after signing the contract.

If you figure three book pages per day of brand-new writing in your estimate, you're probably setting yourself up for disappointment.

So, if you've been asked to write a new, detailed 350-page guide for a major publisher (Frommer's, Fodor, Lonely Planet, Moon, —any detailed guide with maps), you must figure this way:

Writing days  
175 to 350 (1-2 pages finished per calendar day)
Fieldwork (travel) days  
235 to 410 days

For this exercise, let's estimate 323 days from contract signing to deadline.

Calculating Profitability

Once you have these estimates and figures, you can calculate the project's profitability with some accuracy:





Proposed fee





Travel Expenses









Total Travel Expenses  




Annual Overhead

Home Office









88.5% (323 days) of Overhead




Net fee (before taxes)    


Income tax (25%)  


Self-employmt tax (15.3%)  


Net fee (after taxes)    


Net Fee Breakdown...
Before taxes
After taxes
Net fee per week (46 wks)
Net fee per workday (5 days/wk)
Net fee per hour (8-hr day)

How Not to Lose Your Shirt

The net fee per week/workday/hour is the money you have left from the project to pay the rent or mortgage on the rest of your house (that part which is not your office), buy and run your car, buy groceries, clothing and other necessities for you and your family; take a vacation, pay for your children's education, buy gifts for birthdays and holidays, purchase a new TV set or stereo or bicycle or tennis racket....

So how does $30,000 for a 350-page book look now?

The publisher is making money. The reader is delighted with your book. So who's unhappy? Does this prove that guidebook work is not worth it?

Not at all!

It shows that this particular deal is not worth it, unless you think your expertise and abilities are only slightly greater in value than those of a person making the minimum wage. With a fee of $45,000, this project looks more serious, and at $55,000, it starts looking pretty good. At $75,000, you're getting into quite good money.

"But the publisher is not willing to pay more than $30,000 for this project," you say. So what?! That doesn't make it viable for the writer.

Show your calculations to the publisher. Redo the calculations using figures which do make the project viable for you. If the publisher rejects them and won't budge from the original fee, walk away! Find a project which will pay you decently.

"But someone's going to take on the project," you say. Yes, probably so. They will take it, and they will find out the hard way—too late—what you found out in good time.

If you're locked into a contract that requires you to lose money subsidizing the publisher, you'll be sorry. You won't have the time to find work that really does pay you well.

You want to find your future, not pay for your past.

What About Self-Publishing?

Economics of Self-Publishing

All About Guidebooks

All About Book Contracts

Successful Self-Publishing Online


Tom Brosnahan