16 Lessons I Learned as a New Guidebook Author

A week ago, I reviewed the final proof pages of my edition of MOON BELIZE. Viewing the entire book in PDF for the first time was an emotional experience. It all looked so beautifully laid out, that I had to put my computer aside for five minutes and take a deep sigh of gratitude. Then, I wrote my team at Moon, to express my excitement and thanks for their hard work.

After submitting my final edits — the last bit of work in a one-year long process — I started reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned as a first time guidebook writer. Lessons beyond the ones I shared recently with the Matador Network.

Here are 16 that came to mind:

  • If you dream it, you can achieve it, and more importantly–no pain, no gain: Landing this gig made me really absorb the first principle. As to the second, guidebook writing is really, really hard work. Success doesn’t happen overnight; you have to put in your dues.

  • Black (African or African American) female writers are few in the guidebook writing world: Experiencing a little prejudice while traveling is one thing, but experiencing it while on assignment is another. A few asked if I was “running errands” for the previous author. One property owner (of a hostel no less) wouldn’t let me use the restrooms and treated me like a local con artist. Another person went further and asked, over a cocktail, if I had a hook up of some kind to land such an opportunity. Did these few instances upset me? Of course, but they were few and not enough to derail me from my mission. Besides, it’s part of the reason I travel, not just to learn but to educate.

  • People and relationships are everything: A place is lovely, but it’s the people who will make your job worthwhile. They will save you time, give you extra tips and share their culture with you, making sure you have all the info you need. Belize has some really awesome folks working in tourism, who are in it for the love of country and will go to great lengths to showcase it. I’m talking about the local, hard working tour guides, the long-time hotel owners who run their own show, the tireless non profit staff working to save the country’s resources, and the small mom and pop eateries, among others.

  • As a solo female, safety remains key: Not everyone will respect you because you’re on the job or because you’re a guidebook writer. Men will be men; I learned the hard way to share my cell number sparingly and to be firm when or if someone I didn’t know well dialed my number more than once for no legitimate business reason.

  • Keeping a journal helps ease the stress: More writing? Absolutely! But the fun kind. I had so many incredible stories on the road that I >> knew I couldn’t let them fade into memory. Who knows, maybe some day I’ll whip them out and share.

  • You’ll get sick and no one will come to save you: In four months of intense exploration across the country, I got seriously ill once. A case of food poisoning, one of the worst I’ve had to date. That morning, I could barely get myself up and when I did, I had it coming out from both ends (yes, too much information, but). It went on for the next 24 hours. The worst part? Not having anyone help get me medicine – not even the hotel staff (some day I’ll share that story too). I had to drag myself out to the pharmacy and to places I needed to update, in between bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. I thought I was going to die in my basement suite on a dreary Monday in Orange Walk. My guardian angel? A wonderful older taxi driver I had met the day before.

  • Blending in as a local can help and hurt at the same time: Almost everyone I came across thought I was Belizean. That was great when I wanted information, locals would take me to their favorite spots, and share insider tips. Other times, I would get ignored or skipped, in favor of the tourist that came after me, until I broke out the “American” accent. In all honesty, this sort of thing is common in the Caribbean.

  • Oh, how I still love photography: I didn’t get to focus on shooting as much as I normally do, because the writing was more important and I already had an insane library of Belize photos. Still, I had moments when I would put away the computer and go out to capture the day, boosting my energy and creativity. Landing the cover photo also made me realize–you can do both writing and photography.

  • You can’t keep up with it all: Most hotels, sights and activities remain the same, but restaurants come and go like the wind, especially on the Northern Cayes. There seems to be a new bar or a new eatery every week. Because I was on the ground for a long while and have a tight network of friends across the country, I get to keep current right up until the print deadline. But there are still five months from then until release, and in the end, I won’t be able to capture it all and that’s all right. My goal was to make sure the small details wouldn’t affect the reader’s overall experience.

  • Organization is king: Who knew, but being a trained corporate lawyer helped me out. I was organized, set my deadlines, knew how to handle large manuscripts without panicking, juggled multiple tasks every day and created lists and spreadsheets to track my progress. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – law school (and practice) is never a waste of time!  

  • Not everyone knows what a travel guidebook is: More than one person asked me what Moon is, what a guidebook is, and what my work is about. It’s a reminder that we don’t all have the luxury of travel, or of growing up around bookstores and readily available resources. 

  • Travel writing conferences are worth it: Last year I attended the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. One of the many sessions I chose to attend was on guidebook writing. I knew by then that my proposal was selected as a finalist for Moon Belize, and the workshop gave me a chance to find out in advance how to get organized – from preparing my notebooks to planning my days. I learned from former Lonely Planet and Frommers guidebook writers (Pauline Frommer herself) and asked questions. Beyond this, the conference left me inspired and ready to chase my dreams head on.

  • You’ll cross paths with guidebook naysayers: “Print is dead,” they’ll say, or you can’t keep up with the latest, the Internet is better and faster, and on and on. Do I pay attention? No. My dream isn’t everyone’s and my knowledge of Belize is mine to share how I please. Know yourself and your voice, your goals, and keep the negative people far away.

  • You’ll have little time to keep contact with family or friends: Sad to say, but the pace is so frantic that you won’t have the luxury of even short emails, leisurely Skype calls or Facebook chats (not that I ever did the latter, in fact I avoid it). Following blogs? Forget it. Good friends and family will understand, but it’s a tough thing to explain to anyone who has never walked in the shoes of a guidebook writer.

  • Traveling light is a must: I had about ten Moleskines, two books and my photo equipment to pack. Even though there were times I wished I had brought more clothes and stashed them at my friends’ (which I will probably do next time), I am glad I didn’t travel heavy. By the end of three months, I had double the literature to bring back.

  • Life is about trade offs: No one ever got rich from being a first-time guidebook writer – the money is very little when you start off and sometimes well beyond (although some folks assumed I was “made,” working for a US publisher). But the experience is more than worthwhile (not to mention, a blast), as is the chance to establish your expertise and passion for the destination. Do what you love, and the money will follow, right? You can always help a girl out by spreading the word on her first travel guidebook (smile).


Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma is an award-winning travel journalist, photographer, and guidebook author specializing in the Caribbean region. Her work has been published in major travel publications, including CNN, AFAR, Delta Sky, Lonely Planet, Shermans Travel, and BBC, among others. A self-professed "culture-holic," Lily left her native Ethiopia at age one, fast developing a passion for the expat Caribbean life. In 2008, she ditched her US corporate law career for the road and created Sunshine and Stilettos—a travel photography blog showcasing authentic ways to experience the Caribbean, through culture and nature. Lily has since partnered with Caribbean tourism boards and travel brands on major content projects. She also authors print guidebooks on three destinations, including Belize, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. Read more on her site, LebawitGirma.com

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  1. Wendy 1 July, 2013 at 8:05 AM #

    Congratulations on the new book and the cover photo! It sounds like a great experience. I am surprised at the prejudice you encountered, but am hopeful that change is just a matter of time. Good luck with your next book, as I suspect it’s right around the corner!

  2. Lebawit Lily Girma 1 July, 2013 at 3:03 PM #

    Thanks very much, Wendy!

    It really was an amazing experience overall. I would do it again in a hearbeat. And yes, prejudice is everywhere, but it came from a few foreigners and not Belizeans. Overall though, they were just a few instances.

  3. Cathy M. 1 July, 2013 at 3:32 PM #

    Congratulations Lily, I can’t wait to hear what you have in mind to conquer next! Belize is still on my bucket list to visit, so I will look for your book before I go.
    I have found in my travels that prejudice is everywhere in some form, so let’s hope we all touch at least one person in a way to make this a better world to live in.
    Best of luck on your next adventure!

  4. Lebawit Lily Girma 1 July, 2013 at 4:39 PM #

    Thanks, Cathy! I appreciate your wishes.

    I do hope you make it to Belize, I’d love to see your shots when that happens. And yes, I completely agree – that’s what I keep in mind as I travel. 🙂

    I have another project I hope to make a reality next year, stay tuned!

  5. Satu VW 5 July, 2013 at 4:46 AM #

    Congratulations on the new guide book! I can’t even begin to imagine how much work it must have been! Now that you have one out, would you do the same again for a different destination….? 🙂

  6. Linda Rollins 5 July, 2013 at 7:03 PM #

    Great article Lily, with a lot of insight. I too plan to visit Belize in the near future (hopefully within the next few months) So reading your post and seeing your pictures are helping to prepare me. So sorry to hear of your encounters that you had to experience and I’m happy it all worked out. Looking forward to reading more and seeing more pictures. I also follow you on facebook and twitter. I sent you an email a few days ago and it was pretty lengthy so I apologize in advance. 🙂 Keep up the great work and God Bless!

  7. Lebawit Lily Girma 17 July, 2013 at 5:34 PM #

    Thanks very much, Satu! Sorry for the late reply, it’s been a hectic month. It was a lot of work for sure, and it requires a lot of focus. I would definitely do it again when the opportunity arises!

    Thanks, Linda! I appreciate your kind words. I know you will love Belize. Best of luck!

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