Bill Dalton was a hippie from Massachusetts whose advanced case of wanderlust landed him in Indonesia for six months in the early 1970s. Soon afterward, he jotted down six pages of notes and hand-drawn maps for fellow travelers in a youth hostel, and, as he writes in a 2014 reminiscence titled “The Founding of Moon Publications,” a crusty old journalist from New Zealand told him, “You shouldn’t just give that information away—you should sell it.”
Dalton mimeographed the pamphlet and sold it in Australia at festivals and flea markets and on the streets of Sydney, displayed on a blanket along with underground gear like pot paraphernalia and Zap comics. He knew he was onto something when it sold 600 copies in three days, and it soon grew into a 36-page booklet.
Around that time, a Brit named Tony Wheeler had just finished a sojourn in Asia with his wife, Maureen. He happened upon Dalton’s motley display on the sidewalk in Sydney’s Kings Cross neighborhood and asked him where he’d gotten it printed. With that, a revolution in guidebook publishing—and along with it, a baby boomer–driven approach to independent travel in unfamiliar places—was born.
Dalton’s Indonesia Handbook eventually expanded to more than 1,000 pages and anchored the company that grew out of it, Moon Publications. Wheeler’s first book, Across Asia on the Cheap, launched Lonely Planet. The year was 1973, which makes this the 45th birthday for both brands.
The connections don’t end there. After Dalton set up shop in Chico, Calif., in 1976, a fellow named Rick Steves crashed on his front porch while seeking distribution for his nascent publishing effort. Four years later, Steves self-published the handbook Europe Through the Back Door, now in its 37th edition.
Today, the erstwhile backpacker bibles are all grown up and clustered at the top of the guidebook heap. During the first three quarters of 2017, the brands that evolved from this bootstraps network were first and second in the world travel guide rankings compiled by Stephen Mesquita for the NPD BookScan Travel Publishing Year Book. Lonely Planet is now part of the NC2 Media portfolio, and Rick Steves and Moon are both published by Perseus imprint Avalon Travel. (DK, Fodor’s, and Frommer’s rounded out the top five.)
In October 2017 APA, which publishes the glossy Insight guides, acquired Rough Guides, another foundational backpacker line, underlining how valuable this market segment is. Fodor’s, too, plans to launch a new line in 2019 that editorial director Doug Stallings says will focus less on hotels and resorts than the publisher’s established products do, and more on what he calls “authentic experiences” and “emerging destinations”—buzzy terms that indicate exactly where the action is in the world of guidebook publishing at the outset of 2018.
Are You Experienced?
“We had a passion for flat-out experiences,” Steves says, when asked to account for the takeover that he helped set in motion. “That has morphed from hippie-backpacker travel into staying at more palatable hotels, getting cash from ATMs, and taking an Uber to the airport. But the core is experiential, and what the public wants is experiences.”
Rick Steves’ Europe, a one-man operation in 1976, now has a staff of more than 100 that each year produces more than 50 guidebook editions, plus various public television and radio shows and a syndicated column, and takes 20,000 clients on tours. Though Steves’s personal travel horizons have expanded beyond the continent, his guides are still focused on Europe. “I’m lucky my beat sells a lot of books,” he says, and most of those are in print. For the past 18 months, royalties on digital editions of his titles have accounted for around 12% of royalties overall, as e-book sales have been flat while print sales have continued to grow. His guidebook sales altogether, he says, “are better than ever.”
Rick Steves Iceland (Apr.) is a new entry about a destination that’s been wildly popular in recent years. In January 2017, the author told PW that he was reluctant to cover the country because he wasn’t feeling that requisite element of passion for the place. But he was encouraged by the enthusiasm of his staff and the realization that the people who go there and love it can’t all be wrong. “I had a supremely good experience there,” he says.
Steves also reckons that, in addition to its inherent appeal, the country benefits from a perception that it’s safe compared to destinations that make the wrong kind of news. Still, he says, “I think you’re more likely to fall off a rock in Iceland than to be killed by a terrorist in Turkey,” and that’s the spirit that animates the new edition of Steves’s Travel as a Political Act (Feb.). Previous editions of the title pubbed in 2009 and 2014; the new one has been substantially rewritten to include reported travel essays on fast-changing places like Israel, Palestine, and Erdog˘an’s Turkey, and the thorny dynamics that have arisen because of Brexit, Europe’s refugee crisis, and the Trump presidency.
Steves is a staunch advocate of conscious, well-informed travel to challenging places where politics are not abstractions but facts of daily life. Firsthand engagement in such places is the antidote, he contends, to the dangerous effects of ignorance and nativism.
“People-to-people travel experiences can be a powerful force for peace,” Steves writes in the book, and they have the power to stimulate enlightened activism at home. Debt relief for the developing world, drug policy reform, and affordable housing are among the causes he’s embraced as a result of traveling.
Steves says he sees the arc of his career as an educational travel writer’s corollary to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In the ’80s he told people how to travel through Europe on a budget. In the ’90s he emphasized history, art, and culture. And since 9/11, he says, “my mission has been to bring home empathy for the rest of humanity and help people deal with fear.” Look no further than Travel as a Political Act for evidence that the backpacker ethos has ripened into a fully mature worldview.
Lonely at the Top
Piers Pickard, Lonely Planet’s managing director of publishing, says the brand has succeeded by evolving along with the changes that have made its style of travel increasingly accessible: more and cheaper flights, the opening of borders, and the democratization of information in which the smartphone plays no small part. “People are more confident than ever to travel,” he says.
The Solo Travel Handbook (Lonely Planet, Jan.) speaks to that observation. “Twenty years ago there would have been some dread associated with [traveling alone], but people want to get out there and do it,” Pickard says, noting that female empowerment is an important aspect of the book. “If women are wondering, ‘Can I or can’t I?’ we want to give them the advice and information they need to give it a go.”
Special interests are also driving travel decisions these days, Pickard says, and Lonely Planet’s forthcoming publications follow suit. A widespread decadelong enthusiasm for culinary travel shows no sign of slowing, and Lonely Planet tapped its far-flung network of local experts for August’s Ultimate Eats, which Pickard describes as a ranking of “the 500 most memorable food experiences in the world, whether it’s Noma in Copenhagen or a hole-in-the-wall curry house in Punjab.”
Cruising is a travel interest that Pickard acknowledges Lonely Planet would never have covered 30 years ago, but he says the niche has broadened to include more options for exploratory on-shore adventures. In June, the publisher is releasing Cruise Ports guides for Alaska, the Caribbean, and Scandinavia. The last title joins a full menu of existing Lonely Planet products devoted to the region as a whole, its individual countries, and major cities.
“Those countries are at the vanguard of world culture in ways they hadn’t been before,” Pickard says, pointing to trending interest in their progressive governments, food, design, and lifestyle. Scandinavia also offers opportunities for the kinds of nature travel and city visits that he says have become increasingly in-demand.
In April, Lonely Planet introduces the first two titles in a new line of hardcovers aimed at travelers who are seeking new things to do on return trips to favorite destinations. Experience Italy is devoted to a perennially popular destination, and Experience the USA responds to a huge surge of interest in the national parks generated by their 2016 centennial and an observation that American cities have become more interesting to visit in recent years. Pickard attributes the latter to enhanced local food culture and craft brewing scenes, and what he calls “social accommodations” that make “live-like-a-local” experiences easy.
He also notes increased interest in quick trips, a trend that other publishers are taking into account, too. Michelin, for instance, is launching a pocket-sized line called Green Guide Short-Stays in June, with volumes on Charleston, New Orleans, New York City, Paris, and London.
For all the talk in the American travel milieu about foreign destinations trending, in 2017 domestic trips accounted for 85% of vacation travel by Americans, a 7% gain over the previous year, according a report by the travel and hospitality marketing company MMGY Global. Forty percent of those were first-time visits, which goes a long way toward explaining why Moon now emphasizes U.S. road trips, regions, states, and mid-market cities. “Moon is focused on trying to give active guidance to readers on how to choose the places that are best for them,” says Avalon Travel publisher Bill Newlin. “Why to go to a place is just as important as how.”
Newlin says that many of the strategic decisions he and his team make are driven in large part by the lack of competition from other major publishers. Moon Nevada (June), for instance, is more about the desert than Las Vegas, and Moon Tucson (Aug.) covers the kind of interesting second city the line specializes in. Other forthcoming guides are devoted to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (Apr.), Acadia National Park (May), Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula (May), and the Blue Ridge Parkway (June).
Newlin cautions against drawing overarching conclusions about global travel by watching the guidebook publishing trade winds blow. “Tourism as a business is massive; the guidebook industry is less so,” he says. He also notes that there’s no way to compete with the TripAdvisors and Yelps for on-the-spot travel information. Newlin is another guidebook veteran from the backpacker lineage—he did a boots-on-the-ground edit of China Off the Beaten Track (originally published in the U.S. by St. Martin’s in 1983), which he calls “the first guide for independent travelers in the modern era” for travel in that country. Having been with been with Moon since 1990, he has convictions about what accounts for staying power in the field; he reports that Moon has seen 40% growth in net sales and profits in the last five years. “We’ve evolved with the form,” Newlin says. “Plain vanilla is not going to survive in the age of the internet.”
Dave Herndon is a veteran travel writer and magazine editor who is currently reporting for freelance duty from southwest France.
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