Explorer, author, trail prospector & travel writer

How I Added ‘Guidebook Author’ To My List Of So-Called Professions

A quick heads-up that the new Bradt Travel Guide to Armenia, whose 5th edition I’ve co-authored, has arrived in the warehouse and will be shipping from today! Click here to order direct from the publisher at a 10% discount over the cover price.

But how did I suddenly manage to add ‘guidebook author’ to my growing roll-call of professional activities?

Well, it’s a long story, but here’s the medium-length version…

Last November I received an email from a lady called Rachel, who’d been in the audience for my talk at the Royal Geographical Society in February earlier that year.

It turned out that she was the commissioning editor for the UK-based specialist travel publisher Bradt Travel Guides. And it just so happened that she was in urgent need of a new author to take on the job of updating the Armenia title – which just goes to show that, when you talk about your passions, you never know who’s listening, nor what doors might open as a consequence. (This has been a running theme throughout my adult life.)

I applied my usual process of decision making, which is called the ‘hell yeah!’ test (basically, if someone suggests something and my first thought is ‘hell yeah!’, I agree to it). Shortly thereafter, the contract was signed, and I had my first ever paid writing gig for a professional book publisher.

In another coincidence, the previous author Deirdre Holding, whose late husband Nick wrote the first edition back in 2003, then emailed to tell me that she’d just come back from a lecture (hosted, incidentally, by the Royal Geographical Society’s Scotland chapter) by an Irish guy who’d followed the River Karun from source to sea – along with some bloke called Tom Allen! The book holding such sentimental value to Deirdre, it was reassuring to hear that Leon’s rendering of our tale of misadventure in Iran convinced her that I was the right person for the job.

So in April this year, at the height of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution, I loaded up my touring bike and set off to explore Armenia from a new perspective – that of a travel guidebook author.

The political situation being as it was, it seemed everyone in the country was either out in the streets protesting or glued to a TV or radio to see what would happen next. Luckily, enough people had found the time to continue manning their B&Bs, restaurants and tourist attractions as I cycled the length of the country in search of brand new material for the book.

Ride south finished, I spent May hitching around northern Armenia repeating the exercise, and finally spent a truly arduous few weeks in June scouring the bars, cafés and restaurants of Yerevan for the tastiest, trendiest and most entertaining new joints in town.

Throughout all of this, I was writing and updating the manuscript in real time because of the ridiculously tight deadline – the completed first draft was due in July, less than four months after spring began and travel became possible (most regional hotels and tourist facilities close for winter).

And I somehow also managed to fit in a trip to the UK to collect Georgina, the famous Land Rover Defender now on long-term loan to the Transcaucasian Trail project, and drive her back to Armenia via France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia and Georgia. This road trip was a mix of long highways, loud music, and responding to editorial queries and proofreader feedback from a string of roadside campsites and hostels across the western half of Eurasia.

In retrospect, the research for this book began long before I got the commission. Over the previous two and a half years I’d covered around 5,000km of ground on hiking trails and dirt roads in Armenia, both on foot and by 4×4, while exploring and mapping potential routes for the Transcaucasian Trail. Rachel had known this from my talk, and was keen for me to incorporate as much of this knowledge into the book as possible (preferably without increasing the page count).

The result is that the new edition is stuffed full of suggested hikes (and bike rides) all over this mountainous little nation, with a greatly expanded environmental section and a revised practical information chapter to match – along with much else I found that was new and appealing across the country.

New ventures always reveal unexpected insights if your eyes are open, and now the dust has cleared and I’ve got the headspace to consider the project in hindsight, it seems that the job of updating a guidebook for an entire country – while extremely time-consuming and traditionally poorly paid, as Bradt would be the first to admit – has been rewarding in a few unexpected ways.

The first is the excuse it’s given me to travel to parts of Armenia I wouldn’t otherwise have visited. By doing so, I understand much better new how other types of tourism look in those regions, which means I can do a better job of advising people when they ask. It’s also quite simply been nice to take a break from being so focused on exploring the mountains.

The second is the opportunity I’ve had to spend more time with the people – particularly in the regions – working to make Armenia a more accessible and pleasant place to be as a traveller. Outside of Yerevan, there are certain places where a grassroots approach has combined with novel ideas to produce destinations that are welcoming, fascinating, and memorable.

The third and final way this job has rewarded me is perhaps the most interesting.

A guidebook writer has got to be curious – even to the point of being nosy. Researching an in-depth guidebook means wandering unabashed into new places, asking reams of questions of anyone there, and digging into the answers until every angle is covered.

Being inhibited or shy, as I naturally tend towards, was no longer an option for me if I wanted to get my work done. But I could only do this by believing in the narrative of being a guidebook author.

Now the job’s done, I’ve found that being curious and nosy while not writing a guidebook is actually a lot of fun too, and that I can slip into this mode at any time.

I think what made this pass the ‘hell yeah!’ test was that writing this guidebook would feed into my ongoing mission to expose the wonders and curiosities of the Caucasus and Armenia to the rest of the world.

(More recently, I’ve realised, this is actually about bridging the gap between the home I grew up in and the home I have now.)

That a British publisher had spearheaded such a thorough and detailed guidebook, and committed to putting a copy in every bookstore in the land – well, to be part of that would have been a pleasure even had I not been paid at all.

And there is no more appropriate moment to thank the team at Bradt for their professionalism and encouragement, to Deirdre and Nick for writing such an incredibly thorough volume in the first place, and to everyone who helped bring together all that’s new and exciting in Armenia for the finished product.

Armenia: The Bradt Travel Guide (5th edition) is available now from all good bookshops in the UK, and worldwide by mail order. Click here to order direct from the publisher at a 10% discount over the cover price.


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