Friday, March 14, 2008

One on one with guidebook author Philip Briggs

When it comes to guidebooks on Africa, without a doubt one of the most prolific and respected authors is Philip Briggs. Since the early 1990s he has travelled the length and breadth of the continent researching and writing some 25 guidebooks, including the first editions of Bradt's guides to Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Ghana, and penned more than 100 features and columns for a variety of publications such as Africa Geographic, Travel Africa, BBC Wildlife and Wanderlust.

I first heard about Philip when I was researching the impact of tourist imagery on the small seaside resort of Coffee Bay in South Africa for my masters dissertation in 2004. While I had previously travelled through the region updating the 5th edition of Lonely Planet's South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland in 2001, Philip had trail blazed the way in 1991 with his South Africa: The Bradt Travel Guide produced while other international guidebook companies sat back and nervously awaited the fall of apartheid. Everyone I interviewed for my study mentioned Philip and his guide and suggested that I contact him. And so I did; even quoting him in my final thesis!

Now some four years later as I'm preparing to work with Philip on the up-coming 6th edition of his Bradt travel guide to Tanzania, I thought it was about time I got to know a little more about the man behind the myth.

What made you become a guidebook author? How did you get started?
When I started travelling in Africa, in the mid 1980s, guidebooks were pretty thin on the ground – Lonely Planet and Bradt published extremely patchy guidebooks to the whole continent, and that was about it. A couple of years later, Rough Guides brought out a fantastic one-country guide to Kenya, and it opened up so many exciting new travel possibilities that I was inspired to try to do the same for another country. In 1990, I wrote to Hilary Bradt from South Africa suggesting a few possibilities – Tanzania and Uganda as I recall. To my utter astonishment Hilary got back saying that she felt the time - months after Nelson Mandela was released - was right for a guidebook to South Africa, and since I was there, would I be interested? So, pretty much a case of being in the right place at the right time... and from there, I went on to produce several other pioneering guides for Bradt, including the first dedicated guidebooks to Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Malawi, Ghana and Rwanda.

What are the best and worst things about life as a guidebook author?
Best thing is the travel. Worst thing is the writing, or at least the isolation that it enforces.

What is a typical day like for you on the road?
No such thing. I'm married to a photographer and we usually travel together, so every day is a fresh juggling act of priorities. The closest thing we have to a generic blueprint is: get up at dawn for the best photographic light, dedicate the middle of the day to getting from A to B and/or research and updating, then photograph again late afternoon, and relax over a meal and a few drinks after dark.

What is your favourite place and why?
That's an impossible question. Serengeti-Mara for wildlife, Cape Town for its combination of scenery and urban buzz, Virunga Mountains for its mountain gorillas, rock-hewn churches of Tigrai (Ethiopia) for their utter weirdness, Namibia generally for its sense of space... But for me, guidebook writing/updating involves more revisiting old haunts than I’d ideally choose to do, and a lot less time seeing new places, so I'm generally most enthusiastic about places I first visited recently. Last year, my coups included Alexandria, which has to be one of the most engaging cities in Africa, and Madagascar, with its revelatory cast of oddball creatures, and this year it looks like I might finally make it to the Okavango – probably top of my Africa wish list!

How do you feel about the plethora of online travel e-zines and free travel information sites like Wikitravel and their impact on print media such as guidebooks? Do you think this signals the end of the traditional guidebook?
I don't have strong feelings. I find that online travel information for Africa has to be filtered with greater scepticism than a good guidebook. The net does have the potential advantage of being more up to date, but often it isn't, or at least it's difficult to tell. Guidebooks are more focused and portable, you have more of a sense of who wrote and researched them, and for the time being a book seems like a less clumsy option than carrying a ream of computer printouts, or booting up a laptop every time you need information or a map. So no I don't think the traditional guidebook is in any immediate danger, but publishers may have to take a more innovative approach to online updates etc.

It's the age-old question, but can you make a living as a guidebook author?
Yes, especially if you supplement the guidebook work with magazine and other writing. But it's not easy, and it will probably take several years of hard work and scraping by to reach an acceptable income level. It’s not a job I’d recommend to anybody who places earning big money high on their list of priorities.

Finally, what advice would you give to someone who wants to become a guidebook author?
I'm not sure. Its probably a tougher field to break into today than it was 15 years ago. But I think its vital to make the most of any opening that comes your way, to take on board editorial priorities (a list that’s almost always topped by 'meet the deadline', followed by 'read the spec properly', 'don’t overwrite' etc) and to take a long view of things – you need that repeat business, and that means building up good working relationships and mutual trust with editors and publishers. More mundanely, have enough money saved to see you through the first couple of years, when your income is unlikely to vastly exceed your expenses.


Lara Dunston said...

Great interview! Good stuff!

I should have added this to my post yesterday on 'Life of a Travel Writer' but I'll do a new post instead in a couple of days as I've found another couple of sites that features interviews with travel writers.

Thanks for the best blogs nomination! I've just nominated you two! Good luck!

Kim Wildman said...

Thanks Lara. I enjoyed reading your interview too!