Self-Publishing a Travel Guide on Amazon: My Experience

Self-Publishing a Travel Guide: My Experience

June 3 | 24 Comments

One-Month-Later

Even if you know nothing about Xinjiang, after reading this book, you will want to visit and the book will take you step by step around the area.”

It’s been just over a month since the FarWestChina Xinjiang travel guide was published and I thought it would be interesting to review the process and share the numbers thus far – both income and expenses. It’s been a learning process for me and hopefully others can benefit from my experience.

**Warning: the following article might be considered boring to anybody looking to read about Xinjiang travel. I apologize in advance.**

Let me begin by saying that FarWestChina has never been a huge money-making website for me. Thanks to a few advertisements and limited affiliate sales every month, the website more than covers its costs, although not by much more.

I’ve always known that the Xinjiang travel niche is a small one, so the ceiling for advertising and affiliate sales is painfully low. FarWestChina is a labor of love, to be sure, but creating my own regional guide has always been in the back of my mind.

The Process: Creating a Travel Guide

The decision to write a Xinjiang travel book was not taken lightly. At first glance, it doesn’t seem prudent to start treading on the turf of heavyweights like Lonely Planet, DK, Odyssey and many others. I have worked with Lonely Planet and DK in the past as a fact-checker so I am intimately familiar with the quality and detail they provide.

However, I also knew there was a lot missing when it came to Xinjiang.

I remember sitting down at an empty table last February with a pen and some sticky notes. I had put this off for years and now I finally decided to put together the skeleton bones of the book.

Planning the book layout with sticky notes

At this point, the entire writing process took me two months – a whole month longer than I had anticipated. That was my lesson #1: writing a book is harder than writing a blog and requires much more time and dedication.

Looking back, I should have started this process much earlier…”

Looking back, I should have started this process much earlier, perhaps as early as November or December of last year. Because I chose to self-publish, I not only had to write the book; I also had to simultaneously arrange for cover and map design, communicate with contributing writers, arrange an editor, and design a marketing plan.

A bit ambitious, I now admit. My goal was to publish before the May holiday travel season, and back in February I thought I had plenty of time. Oh, how wrong I was.

The process of writing the book was done using Scrivener, a program designed for writers. The decision to use Scrivener didn’t seem important when I first started writing, but I now realize it was an indispensable tool. Not only did it help organize my research and writing; when it came time to publish, Scrivener made it easy to format the book for both digital and print publication.

That ended up being lesson #2 for me: choosing a great writing and publishing tool was about as important as choosing the right designer and editor. I could have used Microsoft Word, but in the end, using Scrivener probably saved me days of work formatting the book for publication.

The Cost: Designing a Travel Guide

Instead of blabbering on, I’ll go ahead and just list out my initial costs related to the creation of the FarWestChina Xinjiang travel guide:

Company / Individual Service Rendered Total Cost
Scrivener Software to help organize and publish my writing. $45
Anna Bryant Cover design for the book $325
GW Fuqua Map design services for a total of 8 beautiful maps. $2,000
How to Publish an eBook Excellent ebook that helped me figure out how to format for different platforms $7
Contributing Writers Although they didn’t ask for compensation, I decided to thank my two contributors for their work anyway. $100
Total Costs: $2,477

Here’s my lesson #3: design work will cost 5x-10x’s more than you expect. Could I have found cheaper designers? For the cover, definitely. I’m not sure about the maps. In both cases, though, I was working with designers that I knew personally and trusted. To me, it was definitely worth the expense.

At the time, I was expecting to sell the Xinjiang travel guide for $19.99, which means that I would need to sell approximately 177 copies of the book to break even. The math looked like this:

Initial calculations for break even:

Initial Break-Even Calculations

Of course, this doesn’t take into account any advertising I wanted to do. This first month I ended up trying out advertising on two different platforms: Google Adsense and Facebook Ads. I spent about $150 on each platform and I’m still evaluating each campaign.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself on the advertising, though, because before I even published the book I ran into a HUGE setback that hit me like a ton of bricks.

Unexpected Curveball: Amazon

For those who have published on Amazon before, you might already know what I’m about to say. Honestly, I feel stupid for not having realized this earlier.

My readers would pay double the price and the only party that would benefit would be Amazon.”

It happened while I was uploading my .epub file to Amazon. When I got to the point in the process where I could set my pricing, Amazon informed me of a simple fact that completely changed my game plan:

Amazon caps ebook pricing at $9.99 if you want to get 70% royalties. Anything higher than $9.99 drops royalties to 35%.

Ouch.

In other words, whether I sold the book for $9.99 or $19.99, the royalties I received for each book would be exactly the same. My readers would pay double the price and the only party that would benefit would be Amazon.

I made the hard decision to lower my price to $9.99, immediately doubling my break-even calculations.

Final calculations for break even:

Final break-even calculations

The trouble with selling for $9.99 goes beyond finances, though. I now have to deal with value perception. When compared to other books by major publishers (Lonely Planet, Odyssey, etc.), all of which are priced above $20, the $9.99 FarWestChina book looks inferior in value.

Even though I believe that this travel guide is twice as detailed as any other book on the market, I had to sell it for half the price. It was clear now that reviews and proper marketing would be more important than ever.

Click “Publish” and Sell

I decided early on that I would initially publish only on digital format, and to this end chose what I believe to be the three largest digital book platforms: Amazon Kindle, Kobo, and Nook.

Each was given equal treatment on my first sales page, which you can see below:

Screenshot of the Xinjiang travel guide sales page

After a month of promotion and sales, however, it’s obvious which platform performed the best (and which wasn’t worth the effort at all).

Platform Copies Sold Revenue
Amazon Kindle 115 $783
Kobo 7 $49
Nook 1 $6.50
Total: 123 $838

Thankfully, I spent no more than 20 minutes formatting and uploading the book to Nook so I wasn’t too disappointed there.

The release of the book was marketed, as most of you know, primarily through Facebook, Twitter and my email list. As expected, many travelers bought within the first week thanks to a special promotion, resulting in a spike in sales followed by a return to equilibrium.

eBook Sales Chart for the first month

The spike in sales resulted in an immediate jump to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list in both the China and India categories, where I’m proud to say it stayed for about 10 days.

Reviews began to slowly trickle in, which I am extremely grateful for. Within just a week of release, the FarWestChina Xinjiang travel guide had more reviews than any other Xinjiang-related book on Amazon. Not only am I grateful for the reviews, but I’m also extremely happy with the quality of reviews – my readers have gone above and beyond in this regard! Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

Reading this guide, to me, is no different than sitting down and chatting with your buddy and getting the real DL and getting all of your questions answered in a casual and entertaining atmosphere.”

Even if you know nothing about Xinjiang, after reading this book, you will want to visit and the book will take you step by step around the area.”

I’ve traveled to Xinjiang before, and not only did this guide square with my experiences in the places I visited, it added a lot of information that I wish I’d known at the time.”

Read the AWESOME reviews on Amazon here

For those of you who left a review of the book on Amazon or Kobo…THANK YOU. The importance of reviews cannot be overstated, particularly for a self-published title.

In addition to book sales, I also should mention the fact that I sold half-page advertising within the book to travel agencies here in Xinjiang. Because I was asking these agencies to take a chance on a book whose sales I couldn’t guarantee during a time when Xinjiang travel is quite slow, I decided on an extremely discounted price of $100 per ad for the 2015 edition.

In-Book Advertising: $100 x 3 Advertisers = $300

I realize I could have easily commanded a higher rate but I decided not to for two reasons:

  1. My desire is to benefit Xinjiang travel agencies, not make money off them and
  2. I needed a few ads to test in this edition so I can provide better statistics for possible advertisers in the 2016 edition.

There are a few affiliate links within the book for hotels and travel services but it will be a few months before I can accurately track whether these links are both beneficial to the reader and profitable for me.

So overall, including sales and advertising, this is the breakdown of income vs expenses this first month:

Income vs. Expense | 1st Month Simple Breakdown

Book Sales: $838 Upfront Costs: $2,477
Advertising Sales: $300 Advertising: $300
Total Income: $1,138 Total Expenses: $2,777

Long Term Plan

Obviously I’m still a couple months away from breaking even but I’m still happy with the results. From the start, I’ve always had a long-term game plan in mind.

The primary advantage of living in Xinjiang and publishing digitally is that I can update on an annual basis, something the major publishers just can’t do. I also believe that as time goes on, promotion and word-of-mouth will continue to boost visibility (and therefore sales) of the book.

I’m in the process of formatting the book for print. This version will be available later this summer and sold via an on-demand publishing solution.

For now, I have broken out individual chapters that will be sold on my Urumqi travel page, the Kashgar travel page and the Turpan travel page (three of the most travelled-to cities in Xinjiang). I’m also working with individual hotels, hostels, and travel companies to negotiate mutually beneficial cooperation. This, for me, is the fun part!

We’ll see how it goes. For now, I’m happy with how things are going. Perhaps I’ll provide an end-of-year update on the book depending on how much interest this particular update receives.

Was this interesting to you? Useful?

Also, if you haven’t already, please consider purchasing a copy of the FarWestChina guide Xinjiang | A Traveler’s Guide to Far West China. If you have already purchased a copy and haven’t yet left a review, please do so at the link below. Thanks!

Purchase or leave a review of the Xinjiang Travel Guide on Amazon[

Purchase or leave a review of the Xinjiang Travel Guide on Kobo

About Josh Summers

Josh is the author of Xinjiang | A Traveler's Guide to Far West China, the most highly-reviewed and comprehensive travel guide on China's western region of Xinjiang. He lived, studied and run a business in Xinjiang, China for more than 10 years, earning recognition for his work from CCTV, BBC, Lonely Planet and many others.

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Leave a Comment

  1. A fascinating read, Josh. If I ever get mad enough to think about publishing, I’ll definitely investigate software like Scrivener.

    I really HATE any scheme which works on a step basis, like this Amazon one. It’s always self-defeating.

    In the UK, if you are unemployed you get benefits. If you get a low-paid job you hardly gain anything. If you get even a tiny pay rise you pay National Insurance in a big step-change. Later on, the same with tax. The incremental tax rate for the poorest is HUGELY larger than for the richest, who often pay little tax.

    How come Amazon deserves 65% of ANYONE’S sales is beyond me. But they’re powerful, more powerful than some governments. Even though we can do nothing, it’s just plain laziness. A computer nerd can easily program if < $10.00 % = 35 else % = 70, but it's hardly more difficult to do if $30 % = 70, and if in between, use a sliding scale. But that would cost the wages of a nerd for a day. Hardly beyond Amazon’s resources!

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  2. Great article, Josh. Two quick questions from one writer to another: Did you think about going print first to fight the value perception problem, then backing into the ebook as the version that will be updatable over the long term?

    Did you explore working with a traditional publisher?

    Thanks for all you do to illuminate Xinjiang for the world.

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    Josh Summers on June 12th, 2015 at 5:11 am

    Hey Trevor, thanks for the comment! Originally, I had no intention of producing a print version. My whole goal is to make this available to as many people as possible and going print first limits my audience considerably. It wasn’t until after I had published that I received feedback from folks asking about print.

    I thought about approaching a publisher – even Lonely Planet – but I decided against it. I figure there might not be much interest since Odyssey has already produced a Xinjiang guide, but the biggest reason is because I just want to do it myself :) Perhaps down the road, when I have proof of success, I’ll make the approach.

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  3. You might look into Guide Gecko. You just upload a PDF version of your book. They pay royalties of 50 percent. You set your own price. Since they’re not as well known as Amazon, you need to do more promoting. Also, Smashwords will get your book into a lot of places; you just upload once and they do the rest. They don’t do Amazon, however. Most self-publishers I know say they get their best sales on Amazon. Still, if it doesn’t cost you anything to get it into thee places, what do you have to lose but a little time.

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    Josh Summers on July 4th, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts, Cheryl! I think 50% is a big steep for a fee…I’m not sure how they can get away with that when Amazon pays 70%. :)

    I had looked at Smashwords and I might still put it up there. Right now I’m just focused on getting a print version on the market :) I feel pretty happy that I’ve been able to get it up on Amazon, Kobo, Nook and PDF!

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  4. First, congratulations on completing a very difficult project…This was very informative…Thank you! I am still struggling with finding out how to add color photos to my own travel guide without it being cost prohibitive on Amazon’s KDP and Createspace platforms. How were you able to do this? I would appreciate and advice. Thanks and wishing you continued success!

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    Josh Summers on March 7th, 2017 at 8:56 am

    Hey Kenneth, thanks for the comment. I never had problems with adding photos so I’m not entirely sure I understand what the problem is. What I will say you need to make sure that the file size is very small for the digital version (you can get charged for larger book files) and for the print version, you’ll just need to choose your format carefully. Doing an all-color book will always be expensive.

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  5. Hello! Could you please provide the contact information for the map design company that you used? Thanks!

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  6. Hi Josh … wow what a great roundup of your publishing experience, and congrats on publishing your travel guide. I run an author interview series about bloggers who have written travel guides and I’d love to feature you and your book on my website. It would be really beneficial for my audience to link back to this article too.

    Again … thanks for taking the time to put this post together.

    Jay

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The 2015 Xinjiang travel guide is here!