In this article we break down how to self-publish a travel book like a travel memoir or a guidebook. Towards the end of the article, we also discuss the specific case of self-publishing literary travel books and travel guides.
Why should writers consider self-publishing?
Self-publishing, also known as indie publishing, is one of few paths authors can take to publish their books. It has shaken off much of its stigma over the past decade and has emerged alongside traditional publishing as a viable option for authors trying to make a living with their writing.
If you’re an author hung up on getting your book published with a traditional publishing house, you’ll need to get an agent and find a publisher. But if you’ve exhausted those opportunities, self-publishing might be the only path you have to see your work in the world.
That’s fine, as a self-published book can open doors. Travel Writing World podcast guest Ben Aitken noted that his first self-published book helped him land a book deal.
Self-publishing can also help you establish authority in a niche; writing a book on, say, the American Southwest might position you up as an expert in the area.
And, with a bit of luck and a robust author platform, some self-published books can be financial windfalls. Craig Mod recently self-published two print runs of his limited-edition book Kissa by Kissa and generated some $160,000 in net sales in a few short months.
Don’t be seduced by the dreamy successes of the chosen few. It is hard to sell travel books, whether traditionally or self-published.
Self-publishing allows authors to put their work out into the world without the traditional publishing gatekeepers. But because independent publishers sidestep traditional gatekeepers, they often see better terms with royalty percentages. But this comes at the cost of indie authors having to take care of literately everything themselves.
Where there is more control, there is more responsibility. And the work you put into self publishing is basically work on spec and without any guarantees you’ll ever see a dime in sales. Self-publishing is not for everyone, so you’ll need to weigh your options when determining what is the best path to take.
How self-publishing works (an overview)
What image comes to mind when you hear the term “self-publishing”? Do you envision a garage full of boxes of unsold books? Do you envision poorly crafted prose, a pixilated cover with comic sans font, and a mess of typographical errors? Self-publishing looks a lot different in the 2020s, with indie publishers producing work that can rival and often exceed the quality of work produced by major publishers.
Gone are the days when an independent publisher had to manufacture hundreds of books and store them in their garages until, hopefully, the books sold. Nowadays, thanks to print-on-demand (POD) technology, independent publishers do not have to store, track, or ship inventory; once a customer places an order, a manufacturer produces and ships the book directly to the consumer.
How modern self-publishing works: Once you’ve written and edited your manuscript, you will submit properly formatted print and ebook files to websites that specialize in POD and ebook distribution. The POD distributors will ensure that your book is available on all the usual online retailers and distribution channels. When someone orders your print book, the POD distributors will print, bind, and ship your book directly to them. The ebook distributors will make your ebook available in all the usual places. When someone buys your ebook, the ebook distributors will deliver it to the customer’s device. You, the distributors, and the retailers will all keep a cut of the sale. Your cut is called a “royalty” and is usually paid out between 30 and 90 days.
It sounds easier than it is. Having properly formatted print and ebook files means that you first need a finished and professionally edited manuscript, a daunting process that can take many months or years. It also means that you have a professionally made cover and the print and ebook files prepared according to industry standards, all of which may cost the equivalent to a month or two of bills. To get the full benefits of self-publishing, you will also need to buy an ISBN and submit your files to various distributors, a mind-numbing slog of logging in, submitting and proofing files, and entering metadata.
Don’t pop the cork just yet. Just because your book is available in all the usual online retailers and distribution channels doesn’t mean your book will sell. Heck, it doesn’t mean that anyone will ever even see it. Self-publishing also means that authors will do all the marketing and advertising on their own.
It really is a lot of work to take on, with self-published authors having to wear multiple hats.
Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing
Steps to self-publishing a book
- Write an interesting book that readers want
- Edit the book using professional editors
- Get an ISBN
- Format the book (for print and digital)
- Get a professionally designed cover
- Submit your files to IngramSpark, Amazon KDP, Google Play Books, and Draft2Digital
- Market your book
Writing an interesting book that readers want
This is perhaps one of the most mysterious parts of writing. How does one capture public interest? How do we know a book will sell? If we knew the answer, we would all write bestsellers. While it is impossible to know if your book will be a financial success or strike a chord with readers, there are some steps you can take to increase the likelihood of success.
The strategy for financial success in writing a self-published or a traditionally published book involves market research. It is a good practice to determine if other books similar to your new book idea have sold well in the past. If so, this might show that there is a preexisting market/appetite for your idea.
Another strategy involves researching trends. What new trends do you see in the genre? Does your new book idea play on public sentiment or public discourse? Is your new book idea related to subjects or topics that have garnered media attention? Timing is key, but it is difficult to predict what topics will interest readers when you’re ready to publish your book.
In terms of travel literature, a simple travelogue without a story might not be that interesting to others.
How to create ebook files
Creating ebooks can be complicated, but software like Vellum makes it easy. With the click of a few buttons, you can transform your manuscript into a beautiful ebook in all the normal formats like epub and mobi. Plus, it is a breeze to make changes should the need arise. If you use Apple products and plan on publishing more than one book, Vellum pays for itself. Otherwise, Calibre is a free cross-platform program that helps you organize your ebooks and format epub and mobi files from your completed manuscript.
How to format a print book
Creating beautiful print books is an underrated art form that is more difficult than it looks. Formatting guidebooks—a form which includes lists, charts, photographs, and sidebars alongside prose—is even more difficult. If you’re formatting a simple print book without a lot of graphics, Vellum can also make the process of creating a beautiful print-ready file easy. Otherwise, these are best left to a professional using Adobe InDesign.
Your book’s cover
Covers are incredibly important, and each genre has its own style and conventions. Consider surveying the book cover design trends in your sub-genre and following suit.
Unless you have some design chops, your book’s cover is best left to a professional. You can search for professional cover designers in places like Reedsy, the Alliance of Independent Authors, and 99designs. While you can find some great cover designers on sites like Fiverr and Upwork, some customers have found the results mixed and amateurish. The last thing you want is for your book to look cheap.
Print and ebook distributors
Some self-published authors only use one distributor like Amazon, but there is a vocal contingent among the indie-publishing community that recommends publishing “wide.” Publishing “wide” means submitting print and ebooks files to a variety of global print and ebook distributors like Amazon KDP, IngramSpark, Google Play Books, and Draft2Digital.
KDP is Amazon’s in-house distributor that will help you put your print books and ebooks on Amazon. IngramSpark is a distributor that plays well with other retailers and will help you distribute your print books and ebooks to them. Using Google Play Books will help you get your books on the Google Play store, which is loaded on nearly 75% of all global mobile devices (compared to some 20% for Apple’s iOS). Draft2Digital is an ebook distributor that will help you make your ebooks available to the top ebook retailers around the world and libraries.
You can have your books available in the world’s top retailers using these services, which all take a cut of the sales when your book is sold. Except for IngramSpark, the distributors do not charge set-up fees. You’ll get paid anywhere from 30 to 90 days after the sales period ends.
Publishing a book “wide” doesn’t guarantee that anyone will ever see the book, much less buy it. Both traditionally published and self-published authors realize they need to hustle and work towards getting their books seen and bought. Marketing often begins before the book is finished and, after being published, never really ends.
Some common book-marketing strategies include
- Building a strong author platform
- Smart social media outreach
- Smart pricing
- Book reviews and endorsements
- Media coverage (podcast interviews, blog tours, etc.)
- Paid advertising
- Writing another book
A strong author platform is the single-most important component in marketing that an author can control. We’re writing an article on how travel writers can build a strong author platform, which we will link here when finished. Come back or join our newsletter to get notified when we publish it.
Books that have an increased likelihood for success in the market look something like the Venn diagram, which presupposes many things including that the book is well written.
The specific case of travel literature and travel guides
Travel literature and memoir – a popular genre?
Literary travel books do not have the cultural cachet as they once had. Go into any bookstore today and you’ll likely find the small travel section in the back corner next to esoteric subjects. Worse for the broader travel writing landscape, narrative travel books and guidebooks share an already-limited shelf space despite them being different types of books. Finding travel guides shelved next to narrative travel books in bookstores is like finding self-help books on relationships and dating next to romance titles.
Because travel isn’t a hugely popular genre, most travel books published globally won’t be stocked in stores unless their authors have HUGE names and get lots of attention.
The publishing world has changed since the new millennium, mostly because of the rise of Amazon, ebooks, and print-on-demand technology. But because of the consolidation of the publishing industry, market appetite, and external economic forces, it isn’t easy to go the traditional publishing route and find an agent and a publisher for travel books.
Finding an agent and a publisher is one of the major steps (some say hurdles) in the “traditional publishing” model. Recent Travel Writing World Podcast guest Pam Mandel noted how she went through nearly 75 iterations of her book proposal before finding a publisher. Agents told her they loved her book, but they weren’t sure they could sell it. A book’s writing can be beautiful (her book is a page turner), but agents won’t touch a book if they don’t think they can sell it.
Publishing is a business, after all. And therefore book proposals need to make a business case for the book and include a detailed marketing plan.
What is a travel writer to do if an agent or publisher doesn’t want to work with them? One option would be to file away the manuscript and move on. Another option would be to self-publish.
Self-publishing independent guidebooks and travel guides?
The market for travel guides collapsed during the pandemic. Case in point, Lonely Planet announced that it closed its main offices in 2020 and the business was sold off a few months later. The jury is still out how and if they’ll re-emerge after the pandemic. But nobody is buying guidebooks if nobody is traveling.
Part of Lonely Planet’s demise was its footprint. It simply couldn’t keep the lights on and paying employees with travel at a standstill. Lonely Planet has helped a lot of people over the years, and we respect that, but there seems to be an opportunity for smaller operations to gain some market share.
I’ve written elsewhere that I think travel blogs are contributing to the demise of the printed travel guidebook. This is happening because of several reasons, some of which are relatability, cost (free), and speed-to-publish. Are you a solo female traveler who needs up-to-date information on an upcoming trip? There is a travel blog (travel guide) just for you. A millennial black traveler? A traveler with special needs?A family? Same. Same. Same.
Many travel bloggers with unique perspectives and special knowledge, however, “monetize” their sites by selling premium travel guides in PDF format. They often make them available via POD on sites like Amazon. The business can be quite lucrative.
Nothing beats a guidebook that has detailed and up-to-date information written by someone with specialized knowledge. Self-publishing means they can publish their own guidebooks and travel guides much faster than the big guidebook publishers. Instead of annual updates, an indie publisher can make updates in real time.
And they can do so for cheaper too. Instead of selling a guidebook to an entire country for $25.99, an indie publisher can sell a guide for a fraction of that. There is some potential here for bloggers to diversify their income by offering well-researched and updated guidebooks.
Travel writers, books, and the coronavirus pandemic?
At the start of the pandemic, many travel journalists had a hard time making ends meet. Publications folded and assignments dried up. When the wheels of the travel industry stopped spinning, so too went the travel media industry. Even travel bloggers had a hard time; advertising and affiliate revenue dried up because nobody was traveling and searching for destinations. The outlook was bleak, as many writers spoke about on a Travel Writing World podcast episode.
That said, book publishers had a record year. Book sales boomed; print and ebook sales are still at the highest level in about a decade, with no signs of slowing down. And writers reported on Twitter that they’ve landed new travel book contracts during the pandemic.
What the pandemic has taught travel writers is that relying on just freelance gigs is risky. Having multiple streams of income (like books or other products) is a smart way to protect oneself from a sudden downturn in the travel industry.
If you recall, we’ve seen three blows to the travel industry in the last 20 years: the September 11 attacks, the Great Recession, and now the COVID-19 Pandemic. Having a series of travel books and publications might just help the next time it is difficult to land freelance writing assignments.
What would you do?
I occasionally speak with authors who have completed manuscripts—a difficult feat in its own right—and are still holding onto hope that they will find an agent or publisher after many months of failed attempts. There is something to be said about persistence and reworking an idea to make it the right fit for the market. But, I wonder how many manuscripts never see the light of day because the author is “holding out” for an agent or publisher that will never come.
What would you do in this situation? If you had a completed manuscript you’ve been trying to find an agent or publisher for without success, would you hold out for a traditional publishing deal while revising the manuscript, attempt to self-publish it, or just shelve the book and move on to another project? Let us know what you would do and why in the comments section below.
Is self-publishing worth it?
If you cannot find an agent or a publisher for your book, self-publishing can be worth it. Self-publishing can open doors, so it could be “worth” it in that respect. In terms of it being “worth it” financially, maybe. Books by writers who market well and have established author platforms see the biggest returns.
It is not uncommon to see authors spend 2,000 dollars to self-publish a book and, for whatever reason—no marketing strategy, poor market appetite, pandemic or economic crisis—, the book doesn’t sell a single copy.
That said, authors with a healthy “back catalog” of books can see some traction and growing sales. If the process of self-publishing is too daunting for you, or you don’t have a strong author platform, self-publishing may not be “worth it” at the beginning.
Is it hard to self-publish a book?
It is not hard to self-publish a book. There is a process you’ll need to learn if you want to do it professionally.
How much does it cost to self-publish a book?
Except for IngramSpark, the POD and ebook distributors listed above do not charge a setup fee. The ebook formatting software Vellum will set you back a few hundred dollars, though the less user-friendly Calibre is free. A professional cover can set you back anywhere from 50 to 500 dollars. A professional edit can cost anywhere between 1,000 and 2,500 dollars, depending on the condition and length of the manuscript. However, if you can design your own books and edit your own manuscript, self-publishing can be inexpensive.
How do I know my book will sell?
This is a hard question to answer. Nobody can predict with any degree of certainty whether a book will sell. In short, you can’t. That said, you can take steps that will increase the likelihood that your book will sell like studying the market, researching competitive titles and their performances, writing a book on a topic that regularly sells well, and developing your author platform to name a few.
Do I need to start my own press to self-publish a book?
No. While some authors like to start their own small press or legal entity, it isn’t necessary. Some believe self-publishing on an imprint looks more professional.