Avalon Publishing Group, a division of Publishers Group Inc., has signed a purchase agreement to acquire Santa Fe-based travel publisher John Muir, effective January 1, 2000. Avalon Travel Publishing was established last July and is currently composed of Moon Travel Handbooks and Foghorn Outdoors, both of which continue to be published as imprints.

"This is a large, strategic acquisition that will make Avalon Travel Publishing a viable player and a competitive force in the market," said COO Susan Reich. "Avalon Publishing, in its current configuration, did not cover Europe. Now, with John Muir's strong list, which includes the Rick Steves and Travel-Smart series, I feel we have reached a size where we have real efficiencies, and our lines are complementary." Avalon Travel publisher Bill Newlin added, "Our combined forces will create a real powerhouse in both paperback and electronic travel publishing."

Reich projects Avalon Travel Publishing sales will be more than $12 million in 2000, almost half of which is expected to come from John Muir. "John Muir has been expanding rapidly every year since 1994," said current Muir president Steven Cary, who will continue on as a consultant once the transfer of assets is complete. In 1998, the company grew at 25% and was seventh on PW's list of Fastest Growing Small Companies; in 1999, it grew by 20%.

John Muir, a distant relative of the naturalist of the same name, founded the company in 1969 with the publication of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, which still sells 20,000-30,000 copies a year, with an in-print total of 2.3 million. Most recently, the company was jointly owned by Cary (with 20%) and Agora Publishing of Baltimore (with 80%). Cary, who joined John Muir as a partner in 1986, was instrumental in establishing travel guidebooks as the company's focus and expanding the list to 35-40 titles a year, with a concomitant expansion of staff to 26. "The travel companies that are going to be the most successful in the future," he said, "are those moving into the electronic arena -- able to provide a vast array of instant, up-to-date info on a database. Bill Newlin has been a pioneer of travel on the Web. This move is advantageous both to our authors and to our overall publishing program."

For the first quarter of 2000, the company will continue to operate out of New Mexico; after that point it will move to Avalon Travel's offices in Emeryville, Calif. According to Reich, "Discussions will be conducted with all employees to find out whether they are interested in relocating or in carrying on as freelancers."

Avalon Publishing, which was involved in five transactions this year, currently has a staff of 24, but plans to expand to 40. In addition to acquiring full ownership of Carroll & Graf, Foghorn, Moon and John Muir, it took a minority position in Seal Press earlier this summer. "We plan to use the near future to integrate the companies into a single entity," Reich told PW. Total sales for Avalon Publishing are projected to be $25 million in 2000. All the companies in the group are distributed by PGW.