How to Make Money by Publishing a Local Guidebook

by | April 24, 2020

Publishing a Local Guidebook

Martha Williams is someone who has been able to pay her rent and many of her other expenses through creating and selling a local guidebook. Let’s listen to her story and learn from her:

In the early 70’s 1 published The Mendocino Coast, a small local history and guidebook. Dreamed it up, did the research and writing, took the photographs, dug for the money, and found a printer to run off 5,000 copies. The undertaking took four months and three days. This year there will be a second edition (with tiny changes) of probably 10,000 copies.

It’s a modest kind of success, but ever since I started my guide I’ve wanted to turn other people on to doing the same thing (only differently) where they live. That way I could get some solid information about the Ozarks, say, or Puget Soundor what it’s really like in Vermontor Arizonaor the far reaches of British Columbia these days.

You can have the same fun, frustrations, satisfactions of doing, and great feedback that I’ve enjoyed. . . and make some money. How much money depends on a lot of things; the area where you live and how interesting it is to how many people, the competition (there may or may not be any), the kind of job you do getting it all together, and luck. Your success—or lack of it—will also depend on the plain old endless and sometimes acutely boring nitty-gritty things like promotion, tax records, press releases, bookkeeping, chopping up cartons, and packing books to be mailed. . . and the constant, bothersome business of blowing your horn (bow else will others know the book exists, however much they want it?).

Potentially, at least, guidebook publishing is a good and flexible business that might help you live where you want to live. The demand for honest, loving handbooks is high, and the supply is surprisingly low. And it’s a challenge. There are plenty of places still worth singing about, and that singing is best done by those who really know their areas – – . in fog and rain and whopping winds, in ten feet of snow and 1100 of sun.

For the Mendocino coast, there was no question about the demand. It’s a beautiful and astonishing part of the world. Twisting, crumbling cliffs and pocket beaches confront the moody Pacific – . – which changes, sometimes in minutes, from lapis lazuli to turquoise or teal or slate and back again.

Each year, thousands of visitors explore the small Mendocino villages and towns where clean little salt boxes and Victorian gothics suggest New England more than California. The tourists wander around, admiring and sometimes painting or photographing old fences and barns and wind-worn lowland firs, rejoicing in the clean air (assured by prevailing winds from the ocean). Hundreds of those visitors ask for a guidebook that—until mine appeared—didn’t exist.

Oh yes, the area is briefly included (often with astonishing inaccuracies) in larger guides to the whole region. And someone is always putting together a monstrous “thing”, strictly for dollars, with full-color pictures of gas stations and other uglies looming larger than the scenery – . . or a brief, boastful, and somewhat biased Chamber of Commerce brochure. But a simple, honest guide? No, there wasn’t one.

My Assets

I didn’t exactly go into the publication of my handbook cold. I’d had a good bit of seasoning as a professional writer and bookseller and some photography experience. I’d even taught a little. I knew the lay of the Mendocino land (from ten years of exploring and living in the area), had many acquaintances there, and could draw on cluttered files of my own negatives for some of the pictures I would need. (There’s no reason, though, why someone shouldn’t start from scratch and learn by doing. Every day, people are learning to milk cows and wire houses and build tipis. .. things that sound harder to me than stringing words together.)

My cash assets were something else: about $5.00. There’d have to be money from somewhere and, since I didn’t want advertising, I thought that maybe I could have sponsors listed in the back of the book like a symphony program. With only fifty carefully chosen businesses or people who wanted the book enough to put up $100 each, I reasoned, I’d have $5,000 to cover the cost of research, writing, photographs, and the actual printing of the book.

That notion was overly rosy, and I soon ran up against obstacles to the plan:

[1] The country (and thus the coast) was in the middle of a galloping recession. Money was short. There were fewer tourists, and those that came were ‘lust looking, thanks”. Local businesses had to think twice about $100.

[2] There weren’t that many businesses in the area I wanted to cover, anyway. At the start I ruled out huge corporations, subdividers, and real estate firms. (They weren’t all bad but the exclusion would save me the trouble of sorting them out. It would also leave me free, without climbing on a soapbox, to say what I wanted to say about protecting the coast.)

Other possible sponsors were eliminated because I couldn’t imagine the handbook helping their business (auto body shops, the manufacture of toilet bowl cleaner, and such). I didn’t approach a restaurant unless I liked its food. This kind of picking and choosing certainly reduced the potential take, but I’d do it again.

In the end I chopped my hopes down to 30 or 35 sponsors. – and got 23, which wasn’t quite enough to do the job in comfort (production of the book—not counting film, paper, developing chemicals, gas, or my time—cost just over $2,300).

The Beginning

Before starting (except for a couple of trial runs), I wrote up a contract which sort of explained what I was about. It worked well, except for two sponsors that I neglected to have sign the paper and which changed their minds at the last minute. I also did some thinking (rough), made a first draft outline (which never changed much), and put together a crude dummy (to show possible sponsors) of the proposed guide as preparation for my assembly and publication of the handbook.

Getting It All Together

Geography pretty much dictated the contents of my book. Since there wouldn’t be room in the publication for the whole Mendocino coast, I chose to cover the 35 miles that hang together in a fairly natural unit in the middle.

I decided on a size—36 (counting the covers) 8-1/2 X 11 pages—that seemed good for both photographs and printers. . . and cut, trimmed, and folded dummies from 12 X 18 construction paper. When a dummy got too disgustingly frayed and dirty, I made a fresh one.

It is possible—even probable—that a sharper-looking dummy would have done a better selling job. . . but there were restrictions of time (I wanted the book out that summer) and money (taking the final pictures and printing them at the beginning would have meant an expensive delay). Instead, as work on the guide’s contents progressed, I wrote in titles and rubber cemented in t dog-eared photographs I had on hand. Slowly the dummy began to look like something (but not much), and it was an act of faith for a sponsor to believe that the rough sample was the forerunner of a real book.

What I Wanted My Guide To Be

Some people asked me why I wanted to do a guidebook of the Mendocino area. “It will only bring more people,” they said. I disagreed. The people were coming anyway, and I felt they might take better care of our coast if they had some factual—but gentle—background about the region.

I planned for the book to have an introduction, a map, a little general history of the area, a brief guide to looking, and then share and share alike for the communities strung along the coast: two pages each for most and four for Mendocino (the best known) and Fort Bragg (the biggest and most neglected). The little handbook would then be closed out with some final notes for visitors, the list of sponsors, and—because it felt good—a poem on the outside back cover.

My overall goal was to make the small guide as honest, as accurate, and as interesting as possible . . . while emphasizing the importance of preserving the Mendocino coast. For the latter reason I mostly featured the main roads (there are fragile areas best protected by silence . . . those who need them will find them). Humans can be nauseatingly predatory so, unlike some other travel guides I’ve read, mine would not encourage the rip-off of driftwood, flowers, fence posts, abalone, and the other things that make our region special.

To drive home the point that the Mendocino area is worth preserving, I intended to focus my book on the coast’s fragile beauties rather than the awful neon signs or mishmash string towns of body shops, gas stations, wounded cars, and other uglies. Which is to say that I knew in advance that the finished book would somewhat idealize the region. I also wanted my guide to credit the many national groups represented in the Mendocino coast’s small population and capture something of the area’s cosmopolitan flavour.

To wrap up most of what I wanted my book to be (and to let potential backers know what they might be getting into), I wrote a statement which would appear above the sponsors’ names on the inside back cover:

Thanks to these friends who, by their faith and sponsorship, have made this guide possible. With them I share the hope that progress on the coast may be gentle enough not to destroy the beauty, worry the gulls, or deaden the rivers, woods, and beaches!

To me, this prelude to doing and selling the book was necessary . . . but I knew where I was headed when I began, and the advance planning didn’t take long.

Another Consideration

There was one other point to ponder as I considered the publication and marketing of my guide. The cost should be low enough so that anyone who really wanted it could afford it. A price of $1.95 sounded good . . and gave me just enough margin to work with.

The Sponsors

Selling the first two or three sponsors—by reason of long friendship—was easy. The others were long, hard work with frequent call-backs and “time to think it over Most of the people I approached, whether they were able to go along or not, were friendly and encouraging. Some were confused by the idea . . . or thought their dollars better spent elsewhere. A couple were downright mean.

In the end, the project turned out to be beautifully self-selective with some great built-in plus factors. The folks who came in on the guide became actively involved and full of hopes for “our book”. They formed a community of good people that encouraged me and were proud of the results.

More Thoughts On Financing

There are, of course, many variations on my sponsorship method of financing a guidebook. . . and some completely different ideas for raising the necessary money. A larger number of backers at a lower price each—say, 60 at $50.00 or 120 at $25.00—might or might not be easier to swing. Maybe putting a bankroll together that way would involve so many calls that the book would never get off the ground.

Some handbook publishers might be able to borrow bright new money from friends or their own bank accounts. An advance sale (cash with order) either of the regular guide or a specially bound limited edition is another possibility.

Smaller guides cost less money. You may have to limit the number of pages in your handbook if—try as you might—your fund raising remains stuck at a level a little (or a lot!) lower than you had anticipated.

A Research Tip

A while ago, I came upon a new series of small books that might prove helpful to aspiring local guidebook publishers. It’s the Localized History Series issued by Teacher’s College Press of Columbia University and edited by Clifford Lord, President of Hofstra.

The series includes handbooks for many states (most cost $1.50, a few are priced higher), some cities, watersheds (The Wisconsin Valley) and national groups .(The Finns in America). The list of titles also includes a teacher’s guide Teaching History with Community Resources. The books are designed to turn high school kids on to local history and contain ideas and information useful to any regional guidebook publisher.

Getting It On

It might have made heifer sense to sell all the sponsorships first and then do the book, hut—impatient to get on with it—I started the research, writing, and fresh picture taking for my guide as soon as I had three or four firm backers.


Research was a problem because there wasn’t a great deal of reliable material available from which I could draw. The Mendocino area was considered small, remote, and somehow atypical enough to be scanted by the general histories of California. . . and some of the brochures, pamphlets, and newspaper clippings I found contradicted each other about six times to a page.

There were three good sources of historical information I didn’t tap due to lack of time and space. One, both Mendocino and Fort Bragg have very old weekly newspapers whose files would have yielded far more treasures than I could cram into a brief guidebook. Two, the mountains of data stored away in the museums of a local lumber company and historical society presented the same problem. And three, I would have loved to talk to old-timers but, again, knew that I’d have little or no room for the stories they could tell.

I finally compromised by basing most of my guide’s historical research on an 1880 history of Mendocino County which was updated and reissued a few years ago by the Mendocino County Historical Society and on a much more recent—though brief—book about the area done on special assignment for the museum-owning lumber company.

The information in my book is as accurate as I could make it in the space I had available. When accounts disagreed, I said so – . . rather than making my own choice of tales.

The Writing Of The Book

Combining history with the here and now gave me more to say than I had room to say it in which is always a good plan.

I have three handy rules to guide me when writing. The first is that old, anonymous quote, “The written word should be clean as a bone, clear as light, firm as stone. Two words are not as good as one.”

As a second rule, 1 always read my copy aloud to myself. That is, I write as much or more for the ear as for the eye.

My third guiding principle is as much a hope as a rule: I have an obligation to try not to bore the reader.

Typesetting And Layout

Once finished, my copy was set in type on one of those IBM wonder machines. Then, because I felt that technical skills I didn’t have were required, I found a commercial artist to do the final layouts and paste-ups for my boot For doing this work, I agreed to pay the artist a royalty on the guide’s first edition. It would have been more economical to have had the artist associated with the printer do this . . . but I happened to find the artist I used before I settled on the printer.

The Printer

Printing was the scary part, and I got frightening estimates from three shops before—by happy accident—I found a fourth whose owner was as excited about doing the book as I was. His joy was a valuable plus which made our joint work fun.

My book was printed by offset (very fast and inexpensive) on recycled paper (except for the cover). The recycled paper, by the way, was a calculated risk. People are so used to seeing photographs reproduced on glossy stock with “good blacks and whites” that most I polled before the decision was made thought the recycled, paper an act of madness. On the other

hand, it seemed somewhat absurd to talk about saving trees while cutting them to print the book. Besides, maybe we were in a photographic rut. Now that the deed is done, a number of folks have written to say they like the gentle result and that it fits the mood of this coastal region.

Snags And Frustrations

In writing about the doing, I’m sure that I make it sound simpler and smoother than it was. . . because there were hassles without number all along the way.

I was living in Fort Bragg at the time I did the book. . . in a very small, one-room cabin which served as living room, dining room, kitchen, office, bedroom, and darkroom. Conditions for printing, washing, and drying pictures were less than ideal.

The printer was 100 miles south—over a slow road—and my car was in the last stages of accelerated senility. During the actual printing, a heat wave with temperatures touching 109° hit Santa Rosa. This was hard on us and very hard on the presses. Water is an indispensable part of offset printing, and the heat played hob with the process. Sheets fresh from the press bore strange globs and streaks. Somehow we muddled through.


Copyrighting a book is simple. Write to the copyright division of the Library of Congress,Washington,D.C.20540, and ask for copyright registration forms. Print your book— including the copyright notice in the proper place—and send two copies of the finished publication along with the forms and small fee to Washington.

Making Your 800 “Official”

There are some standard listings which any publisher should fry to get for a book. in addition to the two copyright copies, samples of a new publication should be sent to the Library of Congress for a Library of Congress number. This is a mysterious process, and my book hasn’t yet been issued such a number.

Copies of a new volume should also he sent to Publisher’s Weekly for listing in that magazine’s Weekly Record section (they can refuse to list books under 48 pages and, in any case, usually wait for a Library of Congress number before featuring a book). Requests for information should be made to both Advance Book Information, R.R. Bowker, 1180 Avenge of the Americas,New York,New York,10036, and to Standard Book Numbering Agency at the same address.

Getting Your Book Known

In sending out review copies of my guide, I was particularly naive. I blithely mailed the book to all and sundry, expecting immediate response (like the front page of The New York Times, for heaven’s sake!). Instead, I found that a great many reviewers were quite content to mention the guide in a sentence or two. Even more ignored the publication.

There was also a delay I had not reckoned on. I mailed most review copies in August and early September. . . and one very helpful review (it brought dozens of return orders) was published the following March. Several more mentions are still pending. At that, my book received a number of reviews, and many were generous.

I should further point out that mails are heavy, and packages entrusted to them do go astray. I sent follow-up notes to several reviewers that seemed naturals for my guide, and at least one replied that the first copy had not arrived and asked for another. 11 still hoping for that review. . .any day now.

Mai Lings

In order to qualify for the post office’s low book rates, books have to be of a certain physical size. Check with your local postmaster before your guide is printed.

1 mail my publication in 9 X 12 envelopes, reinforced with an 8-1/2 X 11 sheet of corrugated cardboard. Invoices can be included without adding extra postage, but if a letter accompanies a book I write “first class letter enclosed” on the outside and add another stamp. When shipping more than two books (two will fit into one envelope), I reinforce the bundle with cardboard and wrap it in heavy kraft paper and tie it with twine. All book-carrying envelopes and packages are stamped Book Rate with a handy rubber stamp. I also stamp all outgoing mall with my return address.

The Log

I keep track of my mail (there’s some, most days) with a simple log. Incoming mail—all of it—is listed on one side of the page and outgoing on the other. When the postage I use differs from that necessary for a letter or statement—or the charge required to mail The Mendocino Coast at book rate—I make a note of it.


Most publishers have three discount schedules: [1] whole. sale to retailers, [2] wholesale to libraries, and [3] retail by mail (if they handle such orders.. . some do not).

To simplify life, I established one wholesale price for both libraries and the retailers who have a resale number (required in California). I offer no discount on single copies, 25% off on two to four of my books (for a net price of $1.46 each), and 40% off (SI .17 per copy net) on orders for five or more of the guide. That’s pretty standard for the book business. When cash accompanies an order, I pay postage.

The Final Red Tape

Most library-orders must be billed in triplicate (and you’ll need a fourth copy for your records). One invoice is usually sufficient for retail accounts (plus a carbon for you).

For each retail account I serve, I keep a sheet in a small ledger. Sales are entered in the appropriate tiny squares from the invoice book. It’s important that these records be maintained because all retail sales in California are charged a sales tax, while wholesale transactions are not. It’s obviously to your advantage, in such a situation, to be able to prove that every wholesale business deal you make is indeed just that.

It has suited me to deal for cash as much as possible, and a number of retailers are willing to operate on this basis. Consignment works badly. If a store wishes, I agree that the books it buys can be returned for cash in 90 days. So far, none have been returned.

And Next Time

I’m now looking at a second edition of The Mendocino Coast. . . which means a second chance. There’s just one typo in the first printing, and we’ll correct that. A few layouts annoy me. ,. I think we’ll change them. One or two photo graphs printed from too-contrasty prints didn’t come across. We’ll make substitutions.

There’s a better quality recycled paper available now than when edition one was printed. The paper (including cover) of number two will he in this new stock.

Financing is still a problem (banks look askance at little publishers, and we’re not eligible for small business loans). In part, I’ll pay for the second edition with advance orders from regular customers (at a special cash-with-order price of $1.00 per copy, postpaid, instead of $l.1 7).

I plan to let people know about the second edition with a few ads. There’ll be at least a brief announcement in Publisher’s Weekly and some small advertisements in several other places.

There’ll also be a press release going out to as many newspapers and magazines as I have stamps for. The list will be compiled with the aid of two indispensable (and frightfully expensive) paperbacks: the latest edition of Literary Market Place and Gebbie’s All-In-One Directory. The latter lists magazines, daily and weekly newspapers, radio, and TV all in handy order.

The Dividends

I’m lucky. Sales of The Mendocino Coast have held up well and promise to continue good. if my expenses had been lower,

I’d have come out ahead on the first edition. The second printing should start putting dollars in my pocket. . – and there have been dividends.

As a result of publishing my book, I’ve spoken to a couple of groups, taped a very local TV show, and received invitations to write other things and take other pictures.

And the letters! They’ve come from as far as Maine and Israel. Two of the best were sent by a new Chinese friend in San Francisco. – a descendant of one of the men who’d been shipwrecked on the beach at Caspar. He wrote with great imagination and warmth about what it must have been like for his ancestor and closed, “Thank you for caring about an old American family.” I liked that very much.

In Closing…

Doing a small, local guide has been a good thing for me. The promotion part gets boring, and waiting for the mall can be discouraging, but—on the whole—I like it. And you?

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