One of the more personally enjoyable aspects of writing hiking guides is that it often elicits curiosity and interest among some people I meet. People often wonder how I got into it in the first place (a happy accident) and how I even begin to write about a place (I’ll get to that).
Just for fun, I decided to write a series of blogs breaking down the process of creating a regional print hiking guide in five separate installments. This first installment covers the proposal process, which may sound dull, but it’s actually one of my favorite parts of the entire process. I’m a huge sucker for a map, a spreadsheet, and a puzzle to solve, and I’ve written proposals for dozens of books that may or may not ever exist – simply because I find it relaxing.
All books begin with some kind of idea or premise. Coming up with a premise for a hiking guide is rather simple as you basically look at a specific region or notable park and then set out to describe the trails within that region or park. However, the process becomes more complex as you begin to bridge the gap between what a publisher wants and what an author is capable of or willing to do.
Proposals generally occur in two different ways. First, an author can solicit a publisher with an idea. Second, the publisher can solicit an author with an idea. In either case, the idea must be fleshed out to a reasonable degree so that both the publisher and the author are clear on what the scale and scope of the work will entail.
For instance, contacting Falcon Guides and telling them you want to write about Yosemite won’t be sufficient in getting a proposal accepted. First, you have to see if Falcon Guides even needs a book on Yosemite (spoiler alert: they don’t). If you determine the publisher does need a book a park or region, you then have to decide how you want to cover it. Will it be a smaller guide catering to casual park goers? Will it be a dayhiking guide that covers a large percentage of the road-accessible trails while leaving out more remote destinations? Or will you attempt a comprehensive hiking guide that attempts to cover the full spectrum of recreational options in a region? It is therefore crucial to get a sense of what the publisher might want as well if the author is the one doing the soliciting.
It doesn’t hurt to reach out to acquisitions editors in advance to find out what may be needed. This is infinitely easier if you already have a working relationship with the editor, but even if you don’t, this could be a step that either saves you time or helps you to clarify what you want to propose.
Most major publishers already have established series that adhere to a rigid format that, should you attempt to contribute to the series, you will be expected to follow. If you want to write an Afoot and Afield: Seattle, which would be a comprehensive guide covering everything within about two hours driving from Seattle, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to focus your work strictly on Mt. Rainier. It therefore helps to research what sorts of titles a publisher creates. Then you can decide which of those titles is the most appealing. That way, you propose something specific and precise that fits within an existing format covering an area that has not yet been covered by the publisher already.
Once you have determined what the scale and scope of the proposal will be, then comes the fun part: research. This next step requires a thorough review on the various trails that will be covered. Most proposals request a preliminary Table of Contents for the work, so before you even send the proposal to the publisher’s acquisitions editor, you must first determine what trails will be covered. This determination requires spending a lot of time gazing at maps, creating extensive lists, researching the sort of hikes that people seem interested in, and then revising extensively until you’ve come up with a good roster of hikes representing the best of what an area has to offer. It’s best to include a wide spectrum of experiences so that any user, no matter how experienced or inexperienced, will find something enjoyable. This makes your book more marketable to a wider audience, which is of great interest to the publisher and therefore must be a cornerstone of your pitch.
Along with the table of contents, a proposal often requires you to create sample trip descriptions (anywhere from 1 to 10), to provide sample photography, to create an author’s bio, to provide an author’s picture, to review your relevant accomplishments and published works, and to provide some level of analysis regarding how you plan to complete, market, promote, and otherwise sell your book. Once all of those different components are created, honed, and revised to a reasonable degree, the proposal is then bundled and submitted to the acquisitions editor.
What Happens Next?
The proposal has been submitted, which means it is now time to wait. It is important to recognize that acquisitions editors at major publishers are very busy people. At any given time, they may be juggling dozens of different projects, actively seeking authors to complete prioritized projects, reviewing dozens of different proposals, and occasionally even smoothing over situations that come up when people get unhappy. In summary, they don’t have a lot of free time to throw around.
Given that an acquisitions editor often has so much on his or her plate, the author has to figure out how to walk a fine line between pestering the editor for updates on a proposal or risking that the proposal may fall through the cracks due to inattention. One particular skill that I think is indispensable in this (or really any) situation is patient self-advocacy. If it’s been a few weeks, and you haven’t heard anything about your proposal. Send a message making sure you use all of the courtesy and understanding you can muster. Chances are the editor is either really busy or is simply waiting on the right time to present the proposal.
Another part of the editor’s job is to present your proposal to a group of people whose job is basically to decide what books to produce. If your proposal is strong, and if your proposal covers an area of need, the editor can then make the case that your book is worth producing. Remember that producing a book is an expensive, time-consuming endeavor. It took 2.5 years to produce Afoot and Afield, and it required months of work from a large team of people to complete the behind the scenes production of the actual book long after I spent nearly two years hiking and revising it. Taking on a new hiking guide is therefore not a light decision for a publisher, as a bewildering number of factors have to line up to create a successful, profitable hiking guide.
Understanding this last point may then be one of the most important parts of the proposal process. After all, if you want your proposal to be accepted, you essentially have to convince a team of strangers that your idea will lead to a successful, and most importantly, profitable hiking book. Everybody has to put food on the table, and if your proposal can’t convince anybody that you will help the publisher turn a profit, then you need to go back and re-think your proposal.
If you achieve the miracle of getting a proposal accepted, there is one small, but massively important step before the whole thing transitions from dream to wonderful/terrifying reality: the contract. As a writer working for a publisher, you enter into an agreement where you satisfy the publisher’s requirements in exchange for compensation. The contract also formalizes the scope and scale of the work, addresses all of the potential outcomes for a number of things that can happen while producing the book, sets the terms both for royalties and advances, and sets the timeframe within which the various stages of producing the book will be completed.
Money is a massive consideration in this process since writing a hiking guide is a long-term commitment that requires extensive travel time, writing time, revision time, and time away from loved ones. You would therefore be correct to expect that you should get paid, and paid well.
I’m reminded of a moment that occurred when I was giving a presentation on Afoot and Afield. Somebody in the audience asked a very loaded and leading question during the Q&A s that implied that I took on Afoot and Afield for the money. It’s true that I do make money from Afoot and Afield, but I will not tell you how much. I will tell you that, in order to obtain a livable wage that allows me to live in Southern California and support a family, I would need to write somewhere between 15-20 more Afoot and Afields. And even at that, royalty checks (all based entirely off of mercurial sales trends) tend to come once or twice per year, which means that any incoming money for any book project tends to be extremely unreliable.
In other words, don’t expect to make a living. You don’t write a hiking guide to get rich. You write a hiking guide because you want to experience a place more intimately than it would otherwise be possible. You write a guide because you have specific, peculiar skills that allow you to organize a massive amount of information over a long period time, combined with proficiency in writing, photography, networking, and self-promotion.
And, most of all, you write one because it is fun. If you have all of those priorities straight and sorted out, sign the contract. If not (and even if yes), don’t quit your day job.