Notes on writing a guidebook

Although I have written the word-count of several books here online, my 14er guide is the first thing I have published, unless you count my PhD thesis, which probably exists in physical form somewhere in the bowels of the UCSD library. I learned a lot in the process, and thought I would share some of my experience for readers who might want to publish something of their own.

To self-publish or not

From what I could find online, I would receive at most 15% royalties going through a publisher. In exchange for their 85% cut, they would provide editing, typesetting, printing, shipping, and inventory management. They might (or might not) also distribute it to some stores, but as a new author, I would probably receive little to no marketing.

Going through a print-on-demand shop, I can make over 50% of a reasonable cover price after shipping, even when printing in small-ish batches. I already knew how to typeset and do a reasonable job self-editing. It was marketing and distribution where I was weakest, and a publisher seemed unlikely to help much in those areas, so I decided that a publisher was not worth it to me.

There is also an intermediate route: selling print-on-demand through Amazon, with the advantage that they handle shipping and inventory. However, my profit going this route would be at most 20-25%, and Amazon would probably use part of their 40% cut to underprice local stores and sales through my own site. I don’t think it’s worth it.

Electronic or not

Though people increasingly use their smartphones for navigation, I prefer physical maps and guides. (I don’t even own a smartphone.) If I preferred smartphone navigation, I would create a guide that takes advantage of the phone’s sensors (GPS, compass) and interactivity. This guide would, of course, be impossible to translate into print.

Similarly, a well-laid-out print guide is impossible to translate to a tiny phone screen. I have seen crude ePub conversions of some print guidebooks, and the position and quality of figures and photos are inevitably butchered. For a guide to be readable to many people on many devices, the text has to be resizable and reflowable, which destroys the careful layout and often breaks page references.

One legitimate use-case for an electronic version is to print out a handful of relevant pages to carry on an outing. They are both disposable and lighter than a book, and I could see myself using such a thing instead of photographing guidebook pages and trying to read them on my camera screen as I do now. I don’t think “piracy” would be nearly the issue it is with mass-interest content like TV shows — there aren’t enough 14er climbers to establish a reliable torrent, and the PDF is large enough to be hard to thoughtlessly put on the web. However, I still prefer physical things, so for now the book will remain print-only.

Creating a manuscript

First, always submit a PDF! Some places take word documents, but different versions of Word print the same document differently, ruining your careful layout.

I briefly considered using Apple’s Pages, which produces decent documents, but ultimately opted for LaTeX. While it is complex and sometimes maddening, it offers beautiful typesetting, and I had already learned it in school. It is not designed for fancy internal layouts with background photos and color swatches, and text in various colors flowed to match, but I am not artistic enough to create that kind of book. I did use Pages for the cover, though — its output was good enough, and I could match the font.


I spent countless hours creating and tweaking the maps before settling on their current form. My initial plan was to upload my GPX tracks to CalTopo, print out a 6×9 map at a scale to cover the area I wanted, and voila! This, of course, failed miserably. First, GPX tracks are noisy, so it was easier to draw the routes where I knew they should be. Second, map-making is an art, and automatically-created topos are terrible. Google’s “terrain” feature is the least-bad, but of course its license forbids my using it. Open Street Map topos are ugly, with overlapping labels, different features displayed at different scale, and too many other problems to mention. They’re “good enough” for tooling around on a computer, but not for print.

The only usable base map set I found was the USGS 7.5′ quads. They have some infelicities, like the contours in meters in parts of the Palisades, but they are designed by professionals. Unfortunately, to cover all routes at true 1:24,000 scale would require many pages of mostly uninteresting maps. I eventually settled on true-scale maps for the most interesting portions of routes, with a variable-scale “key map” showing the locations of the detailed ones. Like all labels, the route labels were best done by hand.


With increasing use of print-on-demand, many smaller bookstores sell approved books on consignment with a split ranging from 70/30 to 50/50. A 50/50 consignment is an insult to the author, since after printing and shipping cost, he makes almost nothing, a fraction of the bookstore’s huge cut. Better stores will track your sales quarterly, while worse ones will make you drop by periodically to count the books on the shelf. Larger stores do not seem to offer consignment arrangements, instead working with a list of publishers; I have not yet figured out how best to deal with this.

But bookstore placement is as much about marketing as sales. By far the best distribution mechanism for me is through my website, since I don’t have to give anyone else a cut (the $5 S&H covers PayPal, padded envelope, and USPS media mail). I am still deciding how to handle this while on the road this summer.


Though I have some “social media” presence, I am clearly not very good at the game, as evidenced by the fact that, other than a shoe-testing gig, I have never been sponsored, despite approaching a few companies. Maybe I should use more hashtags. I know and/or am known by enough fellow climbers to sell a moderate number of books, but reaching beyond that sphere is an ongoing challenge. I hope to give some presentations to clubs and at outdoor stores, both this winter and while traveling this summer. We’ll see how well that works.

2 responses to “Notes on writing a guidebook

  1. LOUISE chandler-hones says:

    Good luck to you Sean. You put a great deal of work and detail into your books and your ‘helpful tips on publishing’…and it shows. I would love to come to any presentation you might give out here in the Pacific Northwest.
    I would even offer a place to stay should you get the invitation for a presentation out here in the PNW.

    1. drdirtbag says:

      Thanks! I’ll definitely be up your way this summer, and will hopefully give a talk or two. I’ll let you know when I have figured out my summer plans.

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