Wednesday, April 13, 2005
The New Yorker on Lonely Planet
Tony and Mauren
The New Yorker has just published a very lengthy but also very informative article about Tony Wheeler and the present state of travel publishing. I could have done with the trip to Oman, but the background about travel publishing and the changing nature of LP was fascinating. First a couple of exerpts, then the link.
At the same time, however, a number of the company’s authors worry that Lonely Planet itself has begun to manufacture ersatz Lonely Planet guides. As the company has expanded to cover Europe and America, markets already jammed with travel guides, it has been updating many of its guidebooks every two years, which requires that it use more and more contributors for each book—twenty-seven for the forthcoming edition of the United States guide alone. The books’ iconoclastic tone has been muted to cater to richer, fussier sorts of travellers, many of whom, like the Wheelers themselves, fly business class. And Lonely Planet’s original flagship, its “shoestring” series for backpackers, today makes up only three per cent of the company’s sales.
Yet over the years, Wheeler seems to suspect, something essential was lost. “Those vivid colors of the early books,” he said to me, “once they get blended with so many other authors and editors and concerns about what the customer wants, they inevitably become gray and bland. It’s entropy, isn’t it?”
The Wheelers long maintained an implicit non-aggression pact with other countercultural handbooks. But, as Tony Wheeler tells it, in 1984 he noticed that the Moon Travel Handbook’s renowned Indonesia guide was seriously out of date, so he commissioned a book on that country. After Penguin bought a majority stake in Rough Guides, in 1996, Wheeler noticed that Rough Guides were undercutting Lonely Planet’s prices. “So we thought, How can we hit back?” he told me, with a steely grin. “We targeted their twelve or so top-selling guides and produced competitive titles for every one. They stopped being so aggressive on pricing.”
Though sales kept rising, by the late nineties Lonely Planet had begun to falter. The company’s rapid expansion—in 2000 it published eight new series, including “Watching Wildlife” and “City Maps”—was accompanied by constant cash-flow crises. Sixty per cent of the guides weren’t getting to the printer on time.
The morning after the planes hit the World Trade Center, in 2001, the company called an emergency meeting, knowing that travel was about to plummet. A hundred people (nineteen per cent of the workforce) were later laid off, and author salaries were reduced by up to thirty per cent. The company was further buffeted by sars, the terrorist bombing in Bali, the Iraq war, and the threat of avian flu, and it lost money for two and a half years running.