How To Write A Travel Guidebook And Sell Thousands Of Copies

Published: March 30th, 2019
Sheila Crosby
DragonTree Publis...
from El Paso, Spain
started April 2012
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

I’m a Brit who came to live on the Spanish island of La Palma who self publishes books about the island. My guide book to the astronomical observatory here has done so well that I’m now working on the 3rd edition to include the newest telescopes and discoveries. I followed that with an anthology of children’s stories set on the island and I have more books planned.

I also work as a self employed tour guide, at the observatory, excursions for cruise ship passengers and occasionally private tours. I enjoy the tour guiding, but the income is erratic. I also enjoy the writing, but it's very sedentary and solitary. The combination is much more rewarding than either alone, and I find the guiding helps to sell the books and the books help to sell my guiding services.

It's an unusual combination, but it works for me. I don't have all that much money but I have a great quality of life.

Me and my friend Carmelo the raven. He’s in the children’s book.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I originally came here with a 6 month contract to work at the astronomical observatory here. (It’s the 3rd biggest in the world, with 22 telescopes from 35 countries).

I've learned that a good book with a niche demand doesn't need a huge amount of marketing, particularly when I have personal contact with a lot of potential customers.

I fell in love with the island, then I fell in love with a local man who I met in the Isaac Newton Telescope (under the stars in the heart shaped island. Yes really.) Six months has turned into 28 years so far.

Me, topping up the spectrograph of the Isaac Newton Telescope with liquid nitrogen, circa 2002.

After 12 years the British telescopes cut their staff by 50% and I was job hunting on a small, rural island, I became to tour guide, first for the observatory and then for the island as a whole.

Since I wasn’t getting enough guiding work, I revived my old hobby of writing and started work on a guide book to the observatory aimed at tourists and amateur astronomers. I knew there was some sort of market because the observatory got about 2,000 visitors a year.

I also knew plenty about the observatory after working there for so long, and I had a lot of practice at explaining it to non-astronomers. (I have fond memories of a woman who left the telescope almost jumping up and down and saying, “I understand light years! I understand light years! I used to be so stupid in science class at school and now I UNDERSTAND LIGHT YEARS!”)

Me with a group in the dome of Gran Telescopio Canario

I didn’t have much money for the project, but I reasoned that an ebook would be pretty cheap to launch and it was all too obvious what I’d get if I folded my arms and sat on my backside.

Once I saw that the observatory guide book was a success, I followed it up with an anthology of stories for children. Most of the stories are based on a real historical event on the island with a story created around it. That sells less well but steadily.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

I made a conscious decision to use plenty of humour in the guide book. It comes naturally to me, but I expanded it because a lot of my target audience are nervous of astrophysics, and humour is relaxing and reassuring.

I used lots of photos to help make the book accessible and attractive but also because I like photography and had a lot of photos already.

The northern end of the Roque de Los Muchachos. From left to right, the ATC (half hidden by the bushes), WHT, DOT, LT, SST, Mercator (behind the SST), INT and JKT.

It took a lot longer to write than I’d expected, but I plugged along doing a bit here and there.

It was about 70% written when the island’s council announced grants were available to encourage stargazing tourism, because La Palma’s night sky is amazing. Of course I applied - and didn’t fit the guidelines. But the tourism council, bless them, promised that if I published it as a paperback, with a Spanish version too, then they’d buy 100 copies in each language which was almost enough to to cover the costs of layout and first printing.

Going from one ebook to two paperbacks was scary, but I wasn’t going to miss a chance like that!

I got a really good price on the layout because I had a friend just getting started in the business who needed something to show other customers. She did a great job (thanks Helen!) That made the layout slower, but I was busy translating anyway. My Spanish is pretty good, but not like a native speaker, so I paid to have the Spanish version corrected.

And then the whole thing needed proofreading, and proofreading again. It’s amazing how easy it is to read what you meant to write instead of what you actually wrote.

I’d have preferred a local printer, but I found a printer on the Spanish mainland with newer technology for just over half the price, so I went with them. When the books arrived, I spent ages going around the island persuading as many local shops as possible to stock them.

The guide book to the observatory, available in English or Spanish

Describe the process of launching the business.

My savings covered the costs of Spanish proofreading, layout, and printing.

I already had a blog about the island that I’d been writing for years. It never had a huge readership, but the niche of “La Palma island in English” was pretty much mine.

I’d spent years as a completely different kind of software engineer, writing code to control telescopes and scientific instruments, but I managed to add an online shop with only a few days of swearing.

My shop, which needs updating

I dreamed I had an official book launch in the posh, historic room the island council uses for such things. In my dream the only people who came were a family of cockroaches. Grandma Cockroach kept looking at her watch and saying, “Is it time for free food yet?” It was quite a relief to wake up.

Between the dream and life being busy, I never really had a proper launch. The books arrived, the tourism council bought 100 of them, and the money started to trickle in. As promised the tourism council bought 250 books which covered layout, printing and shipping. I’d forgotten to budget for the ISBNs and all the free copies I owed to the various telescopes and people who’d helped but the initial curiosity meant that in the first month I sold another 30 or so to locals, which put me in the black by a hair.

Of course, sales dropped off after that, but there were no more big bills to pay. I had 100 books out on sale or return, and it took awhile for them to sell and longer for me to hear about it, but it leveled off at around 8 a month for the rest of the first year.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

I’ve been disappointed by online sales from my own shop and Amazon, but that’s been more than compensated for by the much higher than expected sales to observatory visitors, particularly people I’ve guided myself. That has the added advantage of a higher profit margin.

The firms who take people out stargazing also sell books on commission, as do local shops. Most of the smaller shops didn’t sell many books, but a few sell really well, so now I concentrate on those. Oddly enough, a local T shirt shop does really well. I wore one of their T shirts of the telescopes for work all one summer, which was great free advertising for them, so they agreed to try the book and see.

Once they found it did well, they started a sideline in astronomy themed souvenirs, like planispheres and umbrellas with glow-in-the-dark stars inside which has worked very well for them, too.

The huge Grantecan telescope at sunset

At long last, the visitor centre for the observatory will be opening in the summer of 2019. I'm hoping that means lots more visitors to the observatory and that their shop there will sell plenty of books.

All the online sales get posted with a cover letter. It took me ages to think of mentioning my other books at the bottom of the page, and another age to think of asking for Amazon reviews. Amazon has been rather frustrating. People tend to tour the observatory, buy the book and then friend me on Facebook because they liked the book and the tour. And then Amazon deletes their reviews because they're my friends. Amazon's getting it backwards. They don't praise the book because they're my friends; they're friends because they like the book.

I really need to get a mailing list, I know. But between the day job and the family, it's really hard to make time. It's on my list for this year, but I confess it was on my list for last year too.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

The books currently provide about ⅓ of my modest income (hey, the house is paid for) and they're a great advert for my tour guiding services. I hope to sell more with the new visitor centre at the observatory, and as I add more books to my inventory.

Books sold through shops or other people break down at about 30% printing cost, 30% sales commission and 40% for me. When I can sell direct to the public, that's 70% for me. Of course there are fixed costs for the edition too: 450 € for layout (English and Spanish) and I think 90 € for the ISBNs. For the children's anthology I spent a scary 1,000 € on artwork and it took me a couple of years to get back into the black, but the margin is better because printing costs are just 22% of the sale price.

The future? Once the 3rd edition is completed, I want to get back to my unfinished whodunnit set in the same observatory, “Murder by Starlight”. There are such good ways to kill people in a professional telescope! And I have lots more ideas for other books.

At some stage I'm going to have to learn a lot more about marketing and maybe try paid advertising. And yes, that mailing list. Minimal advertising and distributing the books myself works fine for local interest books, but I'd like a much wider audience for the novel. If I can't get that to work, I'll have to stick to local books.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I've learned far more than I expected about the physical side of making books: things like paper quality, which fonts are more readable, the importance of proofreading several times, etc. The very first print run had rather cheap paper which didn't do the photos any favours – and the observatory book has over 130 photos in it so that was serious.

I've learned that a good book with a niche demand doesn't need a huge amount of marketing, particularly when I have personal contact with a lot of potential customers.

Sales of the anthology of children's stories in English have been rather disappointing. I should really have seen it coming. Plenty of adult Scandinavians and Germans etc. can read a book in English, but of course their 10 year olds can't. I'm hoping this won't be a problem with an adult novel.



What platform/tools do you use for your business?

My biggest tool is my car boot! I keep about 10 of each book in there, with my receipt book and a pot of change. I use it for direct sales to the public and for distribution to shops and other tour guides.

My blogs run on WordPress (shout out to my hosting service, Eco-Geek) and the shopping cart is WP eCommerce. Since my online sales are small, I do my own fulfillment.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Chris Guillebeau's Art of Non-Conformity helped me to look beyond paid employment. “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield did wonders for my productivity and stress levels, and Stephen King’s “On Writing” was one of many books which helped me write better.

I have far too many books about writing to mention them all - about 6 ft of shelving.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

I'm not sure I've got any great advice.

A lot of what's worked for me is very local, so I suppose my advice would be to have a good hard think about how to adapt general advice for your own situation.

I would also point out that it's possible for someone risk averse who starts out clueless to achieve at least modest success.

Also, sitting on your behind with your arms crossed won't work.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Nope. I do almost everything myself and I'm happy with the people I've got for the things I contract out. Of course if I sell the film rights to the whodunnit, I'll want to hire someone to peel my grapes.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!