Friday, April 28, 2006

The History of Travel Guidebooks

Tony and Maureen 1973

I don't quite understand the posting policy of Publisher's Weekly, but it seems that some of their articles are posted on their website, while large parts of their site are off limits, unless you a paid subscriber, and Publisher's Weekly ain't cheap.

And so I was pleasantly surprised to find this PW article today about the history of travel guidebook publishing, with mentions of Bill Dalton and his adventurous days selling his Indonesia Handbook at the freak festival. It's the same orange guide I used on my first trip to Bali in 1979, or perhaps the first formal guide rather than a collection of notes, typed, and stapled.

Travel has changed radically since the days of the Victorian Grand Tour, when the privileged classes would pack their steamer trunks for European journeys that could stretch into years while the common folk contented themselves with a trip to the shore or to a town with a springs. Travel in our time has become much more democratic, global and fast. Two decades ago, says travel writer Rick Steves, Eurailpasses were guarded as carefully as passports. "People would do 17 countries. Now, it's the south of France, or Portugal, or the heel of Italy. People are more focused."

And taking shorter trips, says Avalon Travel publisher Bill Newlin. "They are valuing time over money, looking for ways to make educated decisions. People want to find something new, have stories to tell, but what that means has changed." Newlin and Steves are just the latest in a long line of travel book folk who have tried to keep up with the changing whims of travelers. The much-cherished Baedeker guides of the late 19th and early 20th centuries are collectors' items today, valued for the excellence of the writing and the romance that still clings to a world of empires and hat boxes. But the books themselves are obsolete in a world of cell service and time-shares. "The unknown is harder to find today," says Newlin, "but the craving for adventure survives." As does the determination of travel book publishers to remain relevant.

Indeed, all the major travel lines today—Fodor's, Frommer's, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Moon, Insight, Rick Steves, Michelin—started in response to a perceived need in the marketplace. Even Karl Baedeker felt that there were no books available at the time that filled the traveler's need in the precise way he saw it. Not a single publisher watching over today's once eponymous (for the most part) imprints said that the spirit of the founder had changed, though the scope and breadth of the offerings are far different from what they used to be.

Let's Go has more than 50 titles covering six continents; Rough Guides takes in more than 200 destinations. Fodor's lines encompass more than 14 different series, and Frommer's titles number more than 330. Michelin now offers about 200 different guidebook titles, while Lonely Planet's number exceeds 600.

When Eugene Fodor brought out his first book, in 1936, Baedeker's (published in Germany), Murray's Hand-Books (London), Michelin Guides (France) and Hachette's Blue Guides (also France) were preeminent. Baedeker's had a venerable place in the annals of travel, but Fodor perceived new needs for the tourists of his era: he wanted them to have up-to-date, practical information and to understand what he called "the human side" of the places they visited. He researched his first book, 1936... On the Continent, while working for a steamship line and writing freelance travel articles.

In the introduction Fodor reminded his readers that the rewards of travel derive from the interactions with people in the visited locales. "We have proceeded on the assumption that your thirst for historical knowledge is nothing like so great as your thirst for the beer of Pilsen or the slivovitsa of Belgrade," he wrote. In 1950 Fodor took his guides to the David McKay Company and published books on France, Switzerland and Italy. His guide to Great Britain and Ireland, compiled in a single book, evoked loud protests from the Irish and were subsequently issued as two distinct titles.

In large measure attracted by the Fodor franchise, Random House bought David McKay in 1986 and undertook a major overhaul of the guides. Despite considerable diversification, the books haven't deviated from Fodor's vision, says Fodor's publisher Tim Jarrell. "The experience of travel has changed, but why people travel and the motivation is still the same."

Fodor's dominated the travel market for roughly a decade, until an ex-OSS employee named Temple Fielding entered the arena in 1948 with a hardcover guide to Europe. A bit more high-tone than Fodor's, Fielding's Travel Guide to Europe had become, by the time a profile of the author appeared in Time magazine in 1969, a 1,485-page, 909,000-word primer weighing just over two pounds. The company existed as recently as 1997—Robert Young Pelton, author of Fielding's The World's Most Dangerous Places, bought the company name from Morrow in 1993 and published traditional guides for a while—but Pelton's books are now published by HarperCollins and few Fielding guides are still in print.

In 1957, Arthur Frommer, a young lawyer in the U.S. Army, wrote a slim travel guide for American GIs in Europe, then produced a civilian version that caught the popular imagination of the era: Europe on $5 a Day. The book ranked sights in order of importance and included budget travel suggestions. "Arthur showed that everyone could travel and had the right to travel," says Michael Spring, the publisher of Frommer's Travel Guides, now published by Wiley. "We've gone from one book to over 320 books, but the vision hasn't changed."

Frommer's idea was that by traveling cheap you'd get inside the culture. "You'd stay at a B&B and talk to the owners at the breakfast table and meet the other guests," says Spring. By 2004 Frommer's signature guide to Europe was up to "starting" at $85 a day, while the 2006 Paris guide starts at $90.

Frommer continued to self-publish his guides while practicing law and in 1977 he sold the business to S&S. Through a series of subsequent sales the books ended up at Wiley. By the time Spring came in as publisher, in the early '90s, "the books were safe, geriatric, schoolmarmy, for a generation that hadn't traveled much," he says. "We started from scratch and wrote for the active, curious savvy traveler." Some of these travelers happened to be well-heeled. "It's our feeling that money shouldn't be held against you. The issue in traveling isn't how expensive, but how special," Spring says.

As travel became easier—planes faster, fares cheaper—students started thronging charter flights to get a taste of Europe during summer vacations. The guides on the market, which were aimed at a middle-class crowd, didn't address their needs. Over the next decade, several young entrepreneurs—hippie idealists—wrote guides for this young, curious (and underfinanced) group.

The first to appear was Let's Go Europe, in 1960. The original was a mimeographed pamphlet put together by students at Harvard Student Agencies and handed out gratis to those who booked charter flights to Europe. Two years later the guide had grown to 124 pages and carried a $1 price tag. "The budget advice available at the time was staid," says Tom Mercer, editorial and marketing manager for Let's Go at St. Martin's, which has published the series since 1982. "The authors of Let's Go were the audience themselves, young, adventurous Americans starting to sow their oats."

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