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Q&A with Jeff Greenwald
A travel writer's adventures in self-publishing.

BY ROLF POTTS | Travel writer Jeff Greenwald has seen his share of adventures over the years — from volunteering at a refugee camp during the 1979 Cambodian war to appearing as a bit player in the NBC sitcom NewsRadio. His latest adventure has been to bypass agents and publishers and self-publish Scratching the Surface — a best-of compilation featuring 31 short articles from his 20 years as travel writer. Many of these stories originally appeared in places like National Geographic Adventure, The New York Times Magazine, Yoga Journal, Sierra, Outside, and Salon. Since Greenwald's earlier books (such as Shopping for Buddhas and The Size of the World) were published by Ballantine Books and Lonely Planet, I was curious about his reasons for going DIY. Because Greenwald lives in Oakland and I'm based in Thailand, I emailed him questions about his decision to self-publish.

You're an established travel author with several books in direct circulation and reissue. Why self-publish at this point?

There are a couple of reasons. The main one, of course, is financial. A couple of years ago I started paying close attention to my royalty checks for Shopping for Buddhas. It made me crazy: Lonely Planet was taking in at least $35,000 a year on the title, and I was getting about $3,000 of that! So I thought I'd perform an experiment, take a risk, and see if I could get a bigger slice of my own pie. Secondly, after the events of 9/11, publishers became rather gun-shy about travelogues. It occurred to me that a book like mine — with a very admiring and sympathetic introduction set in Iran, the "Axis of Evil" — would probably languish in slush piles for quite some time.

What inspired you to try the self-publishing option?

Linda Watanabe McFerrin is a writer/teacher friend of mine, and after her writing group self-published the book Wild Writing Women, I was inspired to get off my ass and give it a shot. The women in that anthology warned me that self-publishing would be tough, and it was — but there's also an awful lot to recommend it. It's fun, it's challenging, and the author gets to have the final say in every facet of content, design, publicity and pricing. And again, the financial rewards can be considerable. No matter how successful my other books have been, the royalty is always far less than 20 percent, sometimes less than 10 percent. After I pay back my debts on this venture, I'll get about 70 percent of the cover price on every book sold.

You've written a lot of articles in the last 20 years. How did you choose which pieces to include in this collection? Is it a straight travel book, or are there other types of essays and articles as well?

Through San Francisco's Media Alliance, I was able to find a couple of excellent interns who helped me review the hundreds of published stories in my files — many of which were written before computers, and had to be scanned or transcribed. Most of the pieces in Scratching the Surface are indeed "straight travel," and all but two relate directly to the art and science of travel. The two strays were included because I love them. There's a story about my cameo appearance on the NBC sitcom NewsRadio, and a humorous piece about my backstage visit to the California Lottery's "Big Spin."

What do you see as the advantages of self-publishing?

One of the main advantages is gestation time. A "normal" book with a traditional house can take a year or more just to move from finished manuscript to the bookstore shelf. I had the initial idea for Scratching the Surface last August; the manuscript was completed in February; and it came out in March.

Where are the challenges and drawbacks of self-publishing?

Every aspect is a challenge: which stories to include; the cover design; what kind of type to use inside; how to publicize and distribute the book; how many to print; what paper to use. But if you have a mind for details and a curiosity about how books are made, it's a wonderful learning experience.

As for drawbacks... Well, it may be too early for me to tell. There's always the chance that even a well-known writer won't sell as many books as he or she needs to in order to cover their investment, or that the book itself will turn out looking cheesy, or that critics and peers will snicker at the whole idea of self-publishing. I am of course aware that, in writing — unlike in film or music or any other art form — going the independent route has a stigma attached. It's considered an act of "vanity" rather than of courage or self-confidence. For some writers it probably is; for others, it may be the best idea since moveable type. My own rationale is that, since nearly all the stories in Scratching the Surface were previously published, I'm well within my rights.

Publishing companies spend a significant amount of money on book publicity and promotion. How do you plan to get word out for Scratching the Surface?

My feeling is that the best way to sell a book is via radio. For this purpose I've hired a local (Berkeley, California) publicist, Peter Handel, who has worked with me on several other books. He's going to do what he can to get me lots of radio. It shouldn't be too difficult, as I have a good history with a number of shows and hosts, and I think they'll be interested in the saga of this new book. Along with that, I've got a bunch of mailing lists, my website, and a pretty loyal fan base.

How have you approached distribution issues for Scratching the Surface?

I'm working through a friend named Lowry McFerrin, who is associated with a company called ProForma Mactec Solutions. His outfit is going to take care of "fulfillment," as the process of receiving orders and mailing out copies is poetically called. People will get to their site by clicking a button on my website,, and order the book on ProForma's secure server. ProForma will take a cut for shipping and handling each book, and I'll get the rest. (I have to pay them a $275 per month minimum.) It's just like Amazon, except ProForma takes a much smaller bite.

Is attracting the attention of a bigger publisher part of your strategy, or are you going DIY the whole way?

Too early to say. If the book sells like hotcakes, it'll be to my advantage to do it myself. If sales slack off, or if it's far more work than a attention-deficit disordered soul like myself can handle, I'll pray for a big, strong publisher to take it off my hands.

Can you foresee other established authors doing this kind of thing in the future?

Definitely. Publishers really have writers in a stranglehold. I'm all for artists of every stripe finding out how to run their own businesses and supporting themselves as lavishly as possible. A lot of the reluctance, I think, has to do with fear of mystery. So many things are like that, from changing your own oil to updating your own website. They seem messy and daunting, so third parties have positioned themselves right in the cash flow. But maybe this book (and this interview!) will help demystify things, and make self-publishing seem more user-friendly to the writing community at large.

What advice might you have for writers who are considering self-publishing as an option?

For new writers, I would certainly advise they get some outside editorial advice, and view the material with the critical eye of a "real" publishing house before casting it out into the world. For known writers with an established audience, my advice would be to investigate the process and weigh the advantages. The stakes are kind of high, and it's a time-consuming process, but it's also exciting and empowering. Consider this: I only have to sell 1,000 copies of Scratching the Surface to pay back my investment; Shopping for Buddhas alone has sold more than 50,000. So the numbers are not terrifying. I may not get rich off of this book, but I doubt it will plunge me into bankruptcy.

Rolf Potts is the author of the forthcoming Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel (Random House/Villard). His travel essays have appeared or will soon appear in Salon, National Geographic Adventure, Condé Nast Traveler, NPR's Savvy Traveler, and Best American Travel Writing 2000.

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