Guidebooks: Is Self-Publishing For You?

Guidebook self-publishing option for travel writers
19 October 2009 Post Author:
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Writing guidebooks is a dream of many travel writers, but if publishers aren’t knocking on your door begging you to write one for them, write your own and self-publish it.

That’s what I did.

My first mini-guide grew out of an article I was writing for a newspaper travel section in 1996. They wanted 750 words on what to see in Beijing. Impossible! I’d just returned from working in Beijing for a year, and knew it would take many thousands of words to do justice to the city. So I kept on writing and ended up with a booklet called “17 Really neat things to see and do in Beijing and other good stuff I learned the hard way“.

I designed it in MS Publisher and photocopied it at an office supply store. Primitive, yes, but, hey! this is how Rick Steves got his start. I set up a simple web page to sell it in the year I was back in the United States.

I went back to Beijing for another year of working as a copy editor at China Daily. When I came home, I revised and greatly expanded my booklet, renaming it “Do-it-yourself Beijing“. I sold about 500 copies of the guidebooks, which is remarkable since the only place they were available was my website. I didn’t take credit cards and checks had to clear before I would ship the book. Along the way I got a couple of nibbles from guidebook publishers, but I didn’t want to give up control over my “baby,” and, by the time I did, the information was outdated.

Fast forward to 2009. Demanding jobs and a new marriage kept me from writing more books during these years, but I still kept going back to China. When I retired last year, I decided to revamp my Beijing guidebook. Technology has changed a lot in the intervening years, and my new “DIY Beijing: A guide for the independent traveler” is positively upscale compared to my early efforts. It’s still self-published, but I’ve chosen to do it through GuideGecko.com, a Singapore-based company which specializes in traditional and self-published travel guides. It’s available as both printed and e-books. I figure I’ll make about the same amount of money as on my earlier guides but with a lot less hassle. No more photocopying trips to the office supply store, no more mailing envelopes to buy, no more trips to the post office to mail the guides, and they take credit cards! I also published “Parents guide to Beijing: A kid friendly city” and “Cuandixia: An ancient mountain village in China” with them this summer. All three books are selling.

My guides are highly opinionated – they’re what I like or don’t like about places in Beijing. That’s why I call them Cheryl’s Guides. I specialize in off-the-beaten-path locations, but don’t include every one, only those I like. Historical background depends on how much an attraction fascinates me. Over the years readers have told me they like this type of guidebook, that they’ve found useful information in it that wasn’t contained in their mainstream guides.

My marketing efforts stress my guides are not a replacement for mainstream guides – I don’t include hotel or restaurant recommendations and other stuff like that. Yes, I have to do the marketing for the books, but I would have had to do that anyway. I target my books mainly to independent travelers to Beijing, but also stress they’re great for people on guided tours who want to break away for a few hours.

Self-publishing works for me, and it can for other travel writers, too.

~Cheryl

Have you written any guidebooks? Share your experience!

8 Responses to “Guidebooks: Is Self-Publishing For You?”

  1. Rebecca
    Twitter:
    says:

    I did not write a guidebook, but I would like to write one for Scotland and possibly for the entire UK because it’s one of my favorite countries. I enjoy going off the beaten path as well. It’s more fun and you discover things you may not have if you stick to the typical “touristy” travel. Self-publishing can be daunting because you do everything from writing to marketing, but you do have complete control.

  2. Rebecca, doing your own guidebooks is indeed fun, but, as you noted, a lot of work. I would suggest picking out a niche area instead of a generalized country/countries. What do you like to do best when you visit Scotland? Tour castles or cathedrals? Eat scones? Buy plaid fabrics to make your own kilts? Or pick out an area the mainstream guides give short shrift to and concentrate on that. You’ll find many people who share this interest with you and would be interested in buying a specialized guide.

  3. Hi Cheryl,

    Thank you for your informative article! My husband and I have written a series of cultural travel guidebooks (ApproachGuides) that we are selling as PDFs, but had not looked into self-publishing a paperback copy. I am browsing through GuideGecko’s website now!

    I also love your comment about your guides being “highly opinionated”! We have tried to do the same — making sure that our voice is heard in the guides and staying away from hotels, restaurants, etc. which the large travel guide companies do so well.

    I will connect with you on Twitter – I look forward to hearing more!

  4. Rebecca Sebek
    Twitter:
    says:

    I lean towards being a generalist. Drilling down my niche challenges me!

    When it comes to the UK, I’m all about the “arts and music scene.” Love the International Fringe Festival in Scotland. Of course, the shopping is fantastic as well. Then again, I do love the “historic haunts” like Edinburgh Castle and Mary King’s Close. Pub crawls are a blast…Decisions, decisions, decisions…

    • Rebecca, you’ve mentioned several things that would make wonderful niche books. Why not do a book on each area that interests you? That way you’ll still satisfy your desire to be a generalist. Or you can include some general information in each book. I specialize in off-the-beaten path places in Beijing, as I prefer places where you don’t have to elbow your way through the crowds. But I still include some mainstream sites, such as the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.

      For the Forbidden City, I suggest times to go when the crowds won’t be as thick and then to tour the side buildings, which get few visitors as most people just walk straight up the middle to the main halls, where you can only see in the doorway IF you can get that close. And at the Summer Palace, which can be equally as crowded, I suggest walking around Kunming Lake for visitors who have the time on a nice day. It gives you a whole different perspective of this beautiful park.

      As a one-woman guidebook company, I know I cannot be all things to all people. And I wouldn’t want to be. I don’t want to write about everything, just things I enjoy. I know there are people out there who also like to visit less touristy places after they’ve done the must-sees, and i target my book to them.

  5. pelu awofeso
    Twitter:
    says:

    I am encouraged by this post, Cheryl. I have self-published two books in the last 5 years:a guidebook to Jos, a touristy city in Central Nigeria, and a travel book on Nigerian Festivals. I can say that,yes, I have also had to do almost everything myself (except the editing); but then, it’s been marginally worth the effort too. I’m currently travelling around Nigeria and simultaneously working on a third travel book. I and am interested in exploring the e-book format but almost everyone I’ve asked seemed unsure of the best approach.I will look at GuideGecko now

    • One of the beauties of GuideGecko is that you can have print, e-book or both for not too much extra work. There are many places out there which also offer both options, but I chose GuideGecko because it specializes in travel books.

      Good luck with your latest book!

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