Want to write your own travel book? Here's how.
Updated: May 19, 2021
Many people have a book inside them. But that's where it stays. Inveterate traveller Matthew Lightfoot (132 countries so far and counting) decided to write about his adventures around the globe and recently shared with me the process by which his literary ideas became reality...and how you can do it too.
Have you always been a traveller Matthew? What's the inspiration for your books?
Yes. My mother said that as a baby, I cried incessantly until I could walk, but once I achieved mobility, I was happy. And as a small child I'd lead a gang of boys on all-day explorations which would probably result in a social services intervention today.
At age 11, with younger brothers of eight, we regularly cycled over ten miles to Leeds/Bradford airport so I could watch the planes heading off to the distant lands that I dreamt of.
At 14, on the day of Charles and Diana's wedding, I led a group of kids on a multi-train, 250 mile adventure to Great Yarmouth and back. It's clear that even then I knew that the journey was as important as the destination!
I left school shortly after my sixteenth birthday and started work two months later, so unfortunately there was no gap year for me...all my future travels would have to be squeezed into my work holiday allowance.
I travelled extensively in the USA in the late 80's and 90's, then in 1998 I travelled through China by train from Beijing to Hong Kong. In '99 I went to India and Cuba. Those were organised tours, but once I'd found my feet in more challenging locations, I decided I'd had enough of guided trips.
I travelled solo in Vietnam, South Africa and the Balkans, before meeting my partner Kirsty, who shared my desire to see the world. I'm not generally a country-counter, but I recently totted up the number of nations I've visited and ticked off 132 of the official UN list, which excludes places such as Taiwan, Scotland, Northern Ireland and a number of Caribbean islands, all of which I view as having their own specific identities and therefore should probably be viewed as countries in their own right.
The vast majority of those were on trips undertaken using my annual leave allowance, hence the title of my first book, The Two Week Traveller. I stayed with the same company for the duration of my working life, through various takeovers and mergers, which resulted in a generous leave entitlement of over six weeks a year. I made sure I was travelling for every single one of those holiday days!
I have an aversion to guided tours, so on all the trips Kirsty and I have undertaken, have been done independently. To maximise time in-country, I'll rent a car whenever possible, and have driven in around 70 countries on all continents.
Road trips in Africa and Asia have the obvious potential for incident and disaster, and tales of accidents, breakdowns, police shake-downs, submerging vehicles in flooded rivers and rogue elephant charges are a common feature of my books.
Not that I necessarily need any mechanical complications to get into trouble. I've ridden a bike down a disused airport runway which suddenly turned out to be very much in use; I've been robbed at gunpoint by a stoned soldier during a military coup in Madagascar, and I very nearly killed Kirsty by stranding us in one of the world's wildest corners, a desert in Botswana!
So…if you have the germ of a book idea inside you…where do you even start? What’s your top tip for actually sitting down to write and getting on with things?
I'm one of those people that tends to attract incident, and I'm a natural story teller. I'm at my happiest sitting at a bar with a pint in my hand, regaling people with an entertaining tale. Writing a book was just an extension of that.
The most important thing is to truly believe you have a story worth telling. I think it was Bill Bryson who said that the biggest mistake in travel writing is to think that people will be interested in your exploits, and that you should actually assume the exact opposite. That was certainly always my view, though I was told on numerous occasions that I should write a book.
It took a colleague pointing out that she'd never read a book of travel adventures gleaned only from two-week holidays to convince me to put pen to paper. That coincided with my decision to take an eight month sabbatical from work. The plan was to use the career break to travel around the world, and write the book while I was doing it. Predictably, things didn't exactly go according to plan, and that story is the basis for my new book Snapshots, which has just been released and is available in all Amazon stores.
Did you have a writing process?
Both my books were different. For Two Week Traveller I was writing on the road, so it was a case of finding time to write whenever I could, whether that be in a hammock, on a beach, on a long bus journey or a flight.
For Snapshots, we were locked down for most of the period I was writing, so finding time wasn’t an issue.
In terms of motivation, once I have an idea of what I want to include, and am convinced I have a story worth telling, my problem is stopping myself rather than getting started!
Once I begin, I find it difficult to pause, and would often still be writing into the small hours, then back at it first thing in the morning. During that time, I’d often wake up in the middle of the night with a new idea or memory in my head, so always keep a pad and paper on the bedside table.
Do you have a word count in mind?
I learnt from experience how important that is when writing Two Week Traveller. The book runs to around 120,000 words and 340 print pages. The production costs increase per page and 300+ is towards the upper limit for a reasonably priced paperback. Go much above that and you either won’t be price competitive or you’ll lose money on every sale.
I therefore aimed to keep Snapshots at around 100,000 words, but while writing it’s obviously very hard to gauge whether you’re on track for your target word count. I set up an Excel spreadsheet into which I entered my chapter plan, and calculated my average words per chapter and likely total words as I progressed. That prompted the decision to drop a couple of planned chapters before I wrote them, which would have been time wasted had I not used the spreadsheet. That might sound over complex but I found it helpful and it’s a strategy I’ll employ again in future.
What are some of the basic things people need to know about self publishing? Is one platform better than another?
When I wrote Two Week Traveller, I wasn't sure how it would be received. I'd loved writing at school but hadn't really written much since. They say everyone has one book in them, and my mindset was that this could be mine, and that I may never write another. I therefore decided that it should be wholly my work, not an edited, potentially condensed version based on the views of an agent or publisher. My view was that if it was crap, at least it would be my own crap!
I therefore looked at self-publishing, and my online research suggested Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) was the market leader, and that producing a book via that route was actually fairly simple. I've found the publishing process to be straight forward enough for anyone who can use Microsoft Word. Amazon support is quick and responsive, reporting on sales trends is good, and there are additional opportunities for promotions and marketing. I've been impressed by how easy it's been.
Once you’ve written your book, what are your next tips about proof reading, corrections and rewrites etc? Who do you get to give you honest advice?
If there's one thing that annoys me, it’s a well-written and extensively researched book, which is littered with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. Unfortunately, I find that’s all too common with self-published works.
I review every chapter after writing it, then don't read it again until the book is complete. I then have a full read-through, and edit ruthlessly. Hemingway advised to "write drunk, edit sober" and that's great advice. In that first read-through, I often find passages which lead me to think I must have written them while on the bottle!
Next, I pass a draft to Kirsty, who's as pedantic as me on spelling and grammar. She'll also make sure the story flows and actually makes sense within the structure of the book. As a writer, you know what you were trying to say, but that doesn't mean your readers necessarily will. I then make any changes Kirsty recommends, before reading the whole book through again from start to finish. By that stage, it's fair to say I know most of it off by heart!
It's also worth saying that I prefer to outsource the 'heavy lifting' elements of presentation. A good cover is important, and although I'm fairly proficient with photoshop, there are experts who can do a much better job than me in a fraction of the time, and who make their services available on freelance sites such as Fiverr.
I have a guy in Vietnam who has designed both my covers. I provide an idea of what I want, and he mocks it up. Then I change it slightly. Then tweak it again. And again! To be fair he's very patient, though I suspect the air turns blue in Hanoi when he's working on a job for me.
Can you actually make money from writing a book this way or is it more about the “honour” of doing it?
The short answer is that I'd be surprised if anyone is able to pay a mortgage and support a family solely on the proceeds of self-published books. The downside to the ease with which you can publish on Amazon, with little or no outlay, is that they retain a sizeable chunk of the revenue from your sales.
As you'd expect, especially where print books are concerned, there's a substantial cost incurred in producing and distributing them. On average, Amazon author royalties are around 60-70 per cent of the sale price, but for print books, the cost of printing and distribution reduces this to around 15 per cent, so you'll need to sell a hell of a lot of books to make it a full time career!
Having said that, I still find it quite incredible that someone can order my book one day, and be holding a paperback copy in their hand the next, without any upfront outlay on my part.
What do you think are the best ways to publicise your book?
Social Media is the obvious answer for an unknown author. I get good engagement on Facebook from people who already know me, and I use Twitter to reach new readers.
It's important though to properly engage with others on Twitter and not simply use the platform for self-promotion. If users find your tweets interesting, they'll hopefully check out your profile and buy your work. There's a Twitter Writing Community hashtag, which I find generally disappointing, with a focus on simply racking up follower numbers rather than sharing and discussing interesting content.
I therefore tend to interact more with fellow travellers, many of whom are also travel bloggers, and I've found that chatting with people located all over the world has really helped me through Covid lockdown during a long UK Winter.
Do you think there's a future for travel books?
I took a sabbatical from work to travel and write, then came home and accepted a severance package. Unfortunately, that coincided with the first Covid lockdown!
My first task after that was to update some travel related websites I'd set up around a decade ago, and re-engage with the blogging community. To say I was surprised by the explosion in travel blogs was an understatement. It seems like every millennial traveller now craves the 'digital nomad' lifestyle, and they document and upload every facet of their journeys. It's great that young people are writing about their adventures, but it's got me thinking about the future of the travel book.
The fantasy and romance genres seem to proliferate on Amazon KDP, but I can count the number of travel writers self-publishing their work on one hand. How many of today's bloggers would once have had ambitions of seeing their words in print? Could the online travel blog be robbing us of our next generation of great travel authors? Perhaps our appetite as consumers of travel literature is changing too. Maybe readers now prefer 'snacking' on short anecdotes and punchy location descriptions, read in snatched moments on the daily commute or queuing for a coffee, rather than finding the time to immerse themselves in a lengthy travel odyssey, exploring every facet of a land and its culture?
With the advance of self-publishing, it's never been easier to see your work in print, so we should be witnessing an influx of newly published travel books from young authors. Instead, I wonder whether hard-copy travel books will even exist in 10 years. Could it be that the Therouxs, Brysons and Chatwins of the future will achieve their fame via a series of thousand-word blog posts tapped out on an iPhone in a Thai island hammock or the backseat of a South American chicken bus?
Only time will tell, but one thing is clear: the urge to write about our adventures abroad is clearly as strong today as it has always been, and that's good news for everyone who loves to read a good travel tale!
(Pic credits = top three photos c/o Matthew Lightfoot, bottom two c/o unsplash.com)