The Digital Nomad Survival Guide: A Very Remote Collaboration

The Digital Nomad Survival Guide is an ebook on Amazon Kindle that I co-wrote with another Remote while we were traveling in different countries.

In this post, I’m writing about our process and the tools we used to collaborate throughout the writing and publishing phases of our book.

Peter and I met in Montevideo, Uruguay, in February 2016 as members of Remote Year’s second ever group: Battuta.

With Remote Year, we traveled together to Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, the Czech Republic, Serbia, and Croatia. Peter left the program and traveled on his own around SE Asia, visiting Bali, Thailand, and Vietnam. I remained on Remote Year, going to Kuala Lumpur, Koh Phangan, Phnom Penh, and Ho Chi Minh City.

For the last 4 months, we’ve collaborated remotely to write a book together, The Digital Nomad Survival Guide. This post is a case study of the project:

  • Idea
  • Kickoff
  • Cover
  • Editing
  • Preparation
  • Launch
  • Summary
  • Why

Idea

In October, when I was in Kuala Lumpur and Peter was in Bali, he reached out to ask me for my opinion on a project he was working on.

We scheduled a Slack call, which I took from a glass-walled call booth in our RY KL office space, the 14th floor of a mall overlooking a busy intersection.

(Like I do with everything, personal or professional) I started a new Evernote, dropped in the date: October 27, 2016, and wrote down any key information that came up — before I even knew what we were really talking about.

Peter told me that he was starting to write a book about how to become a digital nomad — a kind of survival guide for beginners.

He’d joined several digital nomad Facebook groups, a nomad Slack group, and was working in various coworking spaces during his travels. He kept seeing similar questions arise again and again, and while there are already countless blogs and even some books that address them, he felt that there was still an unmet need for a resource with real, practical advice.

A few of my notes from our call:

  • More of a survival guide, less excitement, more practical
  • Focused on logistics, etc
  • Bonuses of checklists for readiness, packing, etc
  • Aiming for 100 pages ish, goal of 35k words, currently at 12k words
  • Working title “Digital Nomad Survival Guide”
  • Market — several Facebook groups, RY communities, aspiring nomads
  • Don’t want it to be a book about RY only
  • Goal: by the end of the year for the holiday rush for new Kindles etc

As we talked about his idea and the outline of the book he’d started working on, I thought to myself, what a good idea — I should have thought of that!

I told him it sounded like he was on track to create something good, and then he asked me if, as a writer, I would be interested in coauthoring it with him.

Kickoff

After the call, Peter shared a Google Drive folder with a project tracker spreadsheet, an outline document, and a folder with a doc for each chapter. The project tracker had each chapter with the current word count to track progress out of the goal word count of 36,000.

On the next Slack call, November 2, we planned how we’d work together and discussed how we wanted to format the book’s content and define the voice.

We decided that it shouldn’t be a self-help book and that we liked the idea of a survival guide with a tone of giving guidance and specific instructions. And we scheduled our next meeting for November 10.

I created a Style Guide document based on our conversation, following the process that I’ve learned and applied with clients for the past 3 years in my role working with Sarah Ancalmo / Public Persona (a brand strategy studio).

I wanted to be sure we had clarity on our voice, content, and objectives upfront before we dove into writing:

Screenshots of our Style Guide google doc

I increasingly use Google docs with formatting to help navigate and organize content — if you use the various headings, you can drop in an interactive / clickable Table of Contents.

So I created an Outline doc with each chapter formatted as Heading 1, chapter topics as Heading 2, and bulleted lists for content ideas (tips, resources, links, FAQ to answer) in each section.

On our November 10 call, we reviewed the Outline together, assigning ourselves chapters to write first drafts of and agreeing on general scope and content.

I was assigned to Packing, Lifestyle, Local Culture, and Social / Relationships. Peter would start with Finances, Location Scouting, Jobs & Working, Travel, and Technology.

We each set to work drafting our chapters in their respective google docs, copying the link into that section of the outline for easy reference as we reviewed each other’s work.

For my chapters, I started by fleshing out the bulleted outline more — breaking it down into my chapter’s subsections (for Lifestyle, I decided to cover Food & Drinks, Fitness, Entertainment, Balance, and Adjustment) and then listing out primary points, references / blogs / tools to mention, and questions that I wanted to answer or ask. Then I’d dive into writing the first draft, which usually took 2+ hours and resulted in 2000–3000 words.

Throughout the process, we kept in touch over a direct Slack chat, messaging each other links with notes, asking for status updates, scheduling our next check-in.

Cover

Once we had the content moving forward, we started to discuss our launch plan and design needs. Lauren Hom is an incredible illustrator that was also in our RY2 group, so Peter pitched the idea of asking her to design our cover.

I created a high-level Book Brief that noted our Key Selling Points, Audience, Tone, About Us, Content Overview, Chapters, and Bonus Materials.

As a producer for design projects, I wanted to be sure that we gave Lauren the information she needed upfront to have an efficient process and prepare her appropriately.

I also created a Cover Brief specifically to help us prepare for our kickoff call with Lauren: a doc with our Key Selling Points, initial cover design thoughts, a link to a Pinterest board we started with references of what we liked + disliked, our questions for her about process + deliverables, and the content/copy we wanted on the cover.

On December 2, the three of us got on a call (me in Cambodia, them separately from Chiang Mai) to discuss the scope, creative direction, and her process. We reviewed the Pinterest board together, agreed on a creative concept and direction, and determined what we still needed to give her to move forward.

A few of our Pinterest board references and the reference we wanted to work from, also from Lauren’s portfolio

Lauren sent through her fees and scope, Peter signed off on the contract, and I followed up with a summary of the call and deliverables (after confirming them with Peter) to ensure that we were all on the same page, which was essentially:

  • Creative direction: Lauren’s style, colorful, not laptop-on-a-beach, not craft-paper survival guide, embody the book’s tone of friendly but informational
  • Concept: type centered name — with supporting icon illustrations around it
  • Key reference: her Away We Go globe
  • KC + PK to provide Lauren with final text for cover, any creative direction, Kindle spec requirements, chapter contents for icons

A few weeks later, she sent us black + white pencil sketches of 3 cover options, I wrote my initial reaction notes, Peter and I called each other to discuss what we liked and didn’t, and then I sent back our preferred design with a couple requested tweaks.

On January 15, the three of us were in Ho Chi Minh City, so we met up at a cafe for Lauren to reveal the digitized + colored cover. We were thrilled with the result and requested a couple small tweaks.

She finalized the cover + chapter icons and delivered the files to us a few days later.

Editing

Meanwhile, we were still cranking out content — reviewing chapter drafts and bonus materials over Google Doc comments and Slack messages. We realized we wouldn’t be ready for our initial pre-Christmas goal launch and pushed to mid-January.

We discussed how we wanted to approach editing and decided that I would continue to do a first pass and in-depth edit + revision of every chapter to ensure that we had a consistent voice throughout. Then we’d prepare the book for final review by an outside editor.

One of my close college friends (and former teammate and fellow Katherine) has been a copywriter for the past 6 years and usually gives me writing feedback on anything important that I’m working on.

I’d sent her our Introduction for review in late November and requested her to help us edit the book then, but she had been too busy at work to sign on to the whole project.

She gave feedback and revision suggestions on the Introduction, which I reviewed with Peter and found really helpful and encouraging to have an outside party and non-digital nomad opinion.

When we pushed the launch date, I followed up with her in early January to ask her for her availability and anticipated scope to help edit (and attached our two most complete chapters for reference). This time, she agreed and sent us back her estimate.

On January 15, I had compiled all the chapters into a single Microsoft Word file and emailed it through to Katherine #2 and Peter. I still hadn’t written the Local Culture or Social & Relationships chapters, but otherwise, the book was almost finished.

In my personal Evernote for the book, I listed out each chapter and the remaining items to do: copy updates, links to find, formatting to fix, and bonus content to create.

Katherine #2 turned around her first round of edits and feedback to us for the Introduction within a matter of hours, and I worked to get Book Draft v02 together.

By February 2, we had Book Draft v03 complete with all chapters and bonus content (except for the Tool Kit list of resources) for Katherine #2 to do a deep-dive edit. She sent back her changes, and I made v04 on February 8 for her final review.

I reread the book for the nth time and copied out every resource we mentioned into a separate Google doc, organized by chapter. Then I did a google search for each item and copied in their tagline / summary text + link. This became the “Recommendations + Resources” section in the Digital Nomad Tool Kit in the Bonus Content.

On February 9, I took her last edits and created the Final Draft, which I then sent through to Peter for a first pass at formatting into a Kindle file.

Preparation

Peter and I started discussing how to prepare for launch — listing out our final checklists, researching what exactly we needed for Amazon, and assigning each other tasks.

He found Vellum, a formatting application that we could import our Word doc into and format for Kindle, choose a template theme, and see previews of the book on various devices. We each played with formatting a couple chapters and sent each other screenshots to agree on a theme and basic formatting rules.

Picking our theme and formatting the test chapters in Vellum

I looked up Amazon’s requirements, and Peter found references and suggestions for writing Amazon descriptions.

We created a new Google doc for the Amazon Description, and I wrote a first draft by modifying sections of the introduction, adding sales language, and listing out the chapters and general content. Peter added changes in v02, I made v03, he got an outside sales page copy editor to give feedback, and I made v04 / Final for him to upload.

Once he had the full draft uploaded and initially formatted into a Vellum file, he zipped it up and sent it to me via Slack.

I got the notification, including his handoff of outstanding to-do items, at 6 pm on Saturday, February 11, downloaded the file and dug in for a final review + formatting.

At 3 am, I sent him back a zipped file with a list of my changes / updates, questions, outstanding items, and notes for Amazon.

Launch

We are definitely not experts on PR or marketing, but Peter did some research and learned that we had to do a hard push to get some good initial sales and reviews.

I created a spreadsheet with color coding for outstanding items related to Book + Content, Amazon, PR + Marketing, and assigned one of us to each task with a deadline.

We created an interest list on MailChimp to get some signups and send out a free chapter (appx 50 people). We shared on our Facebook accounts (160 likes on my coming-soon announcement from my family and friends).

Peter created the Amazon Kindle Publishing account, uploaded the book, filled out the description + categories + other details, and submitted it for review.

When the book went live, we set the price to $0.99, created a spreadsheet, and assigned each other mutual friends to email and ask for a purchase and review, with specific instructions for how to find the book via Amazon (instead of sending a direct link, for the benefit of an “organic” search hit).

The mailing list announcement, and the book in search results for “digital nomad”

Summary

It’s now day 2 of the launch and officially having our book on Amazon.

  • Start date: October 27, 2016
  • Publication date: February 11, 2017
  • Launch date: February 13, 2017
  • Final word count: 44,302 words (172 pages according to Amazon)

We created 34 Google docs + sheets in our shared Drive (prep, tracking, content), and I have 6 Evernote notes (Planning + Admin, Style Guide, Links, Draft, eBook, PR + Marketing).

According to a notification of our Slack group’s stats, I sent 980 messages last month, all of which (on that account) were to Peter, so I’d estimate our total exchange to be somewhere around 3000 messages on Slack alone.

Hours-wise, I wish I kept better track of my time (I know better — bad project manager!), but I can estimate somewhat for my portion based on my recollection of when I did brief work sessions (1–3 hours) and deep dives (6–10 hours), and what I worked on.

I estimated my speed at 15 wpm writing and 25 wpm editing, but it varies. If I’m exploring an idea or concept I know well, I’m fast (20+ wpm), but doing more research and trying to correctly incorporate references slows me down (10 wpm?).

Using final word counts, an estimated speed, and considering my schedule:

  • Calls + meetings = 10 x 1–3 hours = 18+ hours
  • Initial planning + outlines + style guide + book brief + cover = 10+ hours
  • Estimated hours initial drafts for my chapters: 16,000 words @ 15 wpm = 18+ hours
  • Estimated hours editing chapters that Peter drafted: 21,000 words @ 25 wpm = 14+ hours
  • Book draft versions + reviews + editing: 4 rounds x 3–8 hours = 20+ hours
  • Final edits and formatting reviews = 8+ hours
  • Amazon + MailChimp admin prep + writing + marketing = 15+ hours

So as a very conservative estimate of my total time working on the book on all fronts, I spent at least 100+ hours, which is likely a similar minimum number for Peter.

Over the course of 3.5 months, we each devoted somewhere between 10–40 hours per month on the book, working in addition to our jobs, travels, and activities.

(I personally was additionally quite busy with the end of Remote Year, recording podcast interviews, and having my parents visit twice. Peter was traveling around Asia and went on work trips back to the US/Canada at least two times.)

Why

As a freelancer, theoretically any time I’m not spending on client projects is a sacrifice of potential work and income. Based on the hours I spent working on the book and my billable rates, this project “cost” me between $6,000–10,000 in potential income. For the two of us, the time-spent cost is at least $15,000.

At the initial launch price of $0.99 (which also means Amazon takes a majority share), we’ll unlikely even get close to earning back the financial investment Peter’s made for the cover design, editing, Vellum export, and other expenses.

With a regular price of $9.99 and a 70% cut of that from Amazon, we would only start earning money above our time spent and actual expenses once the book has sold over 2300 copies.

So what’s the ROI?

We do hope that the book is successful enough to make money. While 2300+ copies sounds like a lot of sales to me today, if we’re strategic with how we move forward, it’s possible.

But the financial reward isn’t and wasn’t our primary motivation for the project.

As Peter noted in his initial call with me, he felt this was something that would fill a market gap. Plus, we both wanted to write a book, and this gave us that experience.

Over the past 4 months, we’ve figured out how to go from zero to published. We used our work experience, academic backgrounds, and forays into writing elsewhere to plan out and bring an idea to fruition.

As members of Remote Year and having spent years as a digital nomad, we now have product that demonstrates one aspect of what we’ve been doing and is a portfolio piece for work that we haven’t (yet) been contracted to do for clients.

It’s Better With Friends

Beyond that, it was an important lesson in collaboration. I have lists upon lists of ideas for projects, posts, books, courses, podcasts, shows, movies — you name it. Some of those are developed into realities, but most inevitably sit on the sidelines.

Five months ago, writing a book was an ambitious dream (“someday” I’d find a way to get a book deal). Then Peter had an idea, started a project, sent an email, and we got on a call.

“Someday” became February 13, 2017, thanks to having a partner to pick up the slack when I was slammed (and vice-versa), to hold me accountable for my deliverables and deadlines, to talk me through grey areas and roadblocks, to give feedback, and to strategize with.

Will many of my ideas and projects in the future be solo endeavors? Probably. But some will be collaborations — they’re fun and successful, and they get done.

It’s amazing to prove out, yet again, that almost any creative project can be done with anyone, anywhere thanks to the same tools we use every day to work from wherever we are, with people around the world.

Special Thanks

As we noted in the book, thank you to:

Our illustrator, Lauren, for creating a beautiful cover and fun icons for our survival guide.
Our editor, Katherine #2, for reviewing our drafts in detail and providing helpful outside feedback.
Our family and friends for supporting us and helping spread the word about our project.
Our clients and collaborators for working with us wherever in the world we go.
Our RY2 Battuta family for being an amazing, crazy, and supportive digital nomad community, and Remote Year, for bringing us together in the first place.

The Digital Nomad Survival Guide is available on Amazon Kindle.

No Kindle? No problem. Download their free app for other devices.


Katherine and Peter are digital nomads, working remotely while they travel the world. They were members of Remote Year 2 Battuta, living around the world with 75 other digital nomads from February 2016 to January 2017.