When I first met Milestone Press Publisher Mary Ellen Hammond, she asked me why I wanted to write a hiking guide to the Carolina mountains. Was I hoping to make some money? The answer had better be “no,” because virtually no one makes a living this way.
Johnny Molloy, who's penned more than 30 outdoor guidebooks, says he still makes less than $30,000 a year.
But I wanted to write a guidebook because you can't really understand a place until you have to explain it to others.
So I bought a new GPS device, tested it and got ready. Equipped with a camera, the GPS clipped to my pack, a compass around my neck, and a digital recorder and notepad in my pocket, I went hiking.
On the trail
Compared with tracking a gazillion details, the actual hiking is the easy part. I take copious notes — and, trying to focus on the reader's hike, not mine — I don't mention the weather, my hiking pals or what I'm snacking on.
I stop at visitor centers to learn about local conditions, view the exhibits and talk to rangers. I write up the hikes as I do them. If I mention a side trail to a waterfall or cabin, I include that distance. All my hikes are on maintained trails: With thousands of miles of official trails here, there's no need to trespass on private land or go bushwhacking.
Jim Parham, the author of Milestone's inaugural series (Off the Beaten Track), saw a need for books on cycling in Western North Carolina. While working for the Nantahala Outdoor Center, he noted, “Folks in the store were spending a lot of time giving out advice to the many mountain bikers who were showing up in the late '80s and early '90s. People said there needed to be a mountain-bike guidebook for the area, and I wrote one.” For Jim, the best thing about writing guidebooks is having an excuse to explore new places and see things he's never seen before. “The most annoying thing about writing guidebooks is having to ride in bad weather just to get things done,” he says.
Luckily, I'm not as bothered by rain or cold, since my feet are firmly on the ground, and you can hike comfortably all year here.
At home, I download everything into my computer, holding my breath when I transfer my GPS track. Is it good? Have I marked the highlights I'm writing about, such as trail junctions, cabins or waterfalls? The boring part is listening to myself repeatedly while transcribing my notes.
Every route requires an angle. What makes this trail worth hiking? Historical home sites? Outstanding autumn flowers? A waterfall? In our mountains, flat terrain is enough to make a hike special (the Pink Beds and Laurel River, for instance). Each trail description needs to provide more than “turn left/turn right” directions, and I must avoid over-the-top superlatives (go easy on “magnificent” and “outstanding”). I try to explain what I see, and though I ask questions of everyone, I try to get the definitive answers from rangers, books and official Web sites.
After I hand my editor the text, photos and maps, she sends them back with dozens of questions I have to resolve. “I wasn't clear here,” “Joe-pye weed has a dash on page 248 but not on page 300,” and “What's the exact name of this gap?”
Writing, though, is only part of the job. Marketing might be the other 90 percent. With each book, I've updated my Web site, sending out post cards and printed bookmarks to a huge mailing list. I wrote a personal letter announcing my book and offering to give a slide show, which I sent to more than 150 stores.
By my second book, stores were inviting me. At several events, only four readers showed up (they got a private tutorial about hiking in the WNC mountains). At others, I had standing-room-only crowds.
Often someone will flip through my book and ask, “Did you do all these hikes?” How else does one write a guidebook? They also want me to suggest easy hikes. And inevitably, I hear this question: “What's your next book going to be about?”
“What do you think it should be?” I reply.
“Easy hikes for old geezers,” most folks say. Perhaps there's some potential there …
[Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein is the author of Hiking North Carolina's Blue Ridge Heritage. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]