DOWN THE TRACK
Two leading guidebook publishers are celebrating milestone anniversaries. Barry Oliver looks at their unlikely rise to fame and fortune
MARK Ellingham admits it was the arrogance of youth that led him into writing travel guides. The 22-year-old had left an English university in 1981 and decided there wasn’t much chance of landing a worthwhile job. He’d been to Greece a few times and didn’t think much of the guides on the market, so why not write his own?
With the help of £40 a week from his mum (‘‘so I didn’t starve’’), he did just that, and The Rough Guide to Greece was born.
In the quarter-century since, Rough Guide has become a household name among travellers and the brand has moved into everything, including non-travel topics such as guides to the internet (it’s their best-selling title, with three million sold), James Bond and The Lord of the Rings .
Travel, though, is the core, with more than 200 titles dedicated to the theme. This year, to celebrate its anniversary, the company has released a series of 25 pocket-sized Ultimate Experience guides, ‘‘ a collection of ideas, enthusiasms and inspirations, a selection of the very best things to see or do, and not just before you die’’, Ellingham says.
He recalls his delight at the success of the first book; he reportedly said he’d hit on something that ‘‘ was a wheeze to avoiding adulthood’’. It was Mani, ‘‘ a rocky, trailing tentacle of the Peloponnese’’, which first caught his imagination in Greece. ‘‘ I had been reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s classic book on the region, where the villagers talked about pistol-packed vendettas as if they had happened the previous weekend. And back in 1981 it didn’t seem so different 25 years on.’’
He wrote to a dozen publishers saying he wanted to write a students’ budget travel guide; only one, Routledge, showed any enthusiasm. But it wouldn’t pay an advance until the writing was under way (which is where mum came to the rescue).
He is scathing about the guidebooks that were available at that time. ‘‘ They seemed to describe a parallel universe where local people had walk-on parts as waiters and folk dancers,’’ he is reported as saying.
The latest Rough Guide to Greece — the 11th edition with colour photographs and ripproof maps — is a far cry from the original, which Ellingham has said was based on notes written on scraps of paper, tourist brochures and napkins.
Ownership of the company has changed a few times.
The founders bought the Rough Guide series from Routledge in 1987; Penguin acquired a 50 per cent stake in 1996 and bought it outright in 2002.
Publisher Martin Dunford, who met Ellingham in Greece in 1981, says the writers work hard on research and attention to detail.
‘‘ We also realise that travel should be fun and that is reflected in both the style of the books and our recommendations,’’ Dunford says. His first travel experience for Rough Guide was living in a tent in Amsterdam for three months, but he’s not complaining.
‘‘ I find that if you travel with an open mind, then your experiences are usually positive ones,’’ he says.
So what do the next 25 years hold? No one’s predicting, but Ellingham and Dunford are adamant about one thing: they say there will never be a Rough Guide to golf. ROUGH Guides’ 25-year milestone is dwarfed by US-based Frommers, which this year clocks up 50 years of publishing.
Travel guides and wars aren’t usually happy companions, but that’s how Arthur Frommer got into the business. His first unlikely steps came when he self-published The GI’s Guide to Europe , based on his travels after being posted to Germany during the Korean War. It was an instant success with fellow soldiers, nervous about travel after World War II. Back in civvy street, Frommer thought the idea might work on the American public and converted his book into Europe on $5 a Day, again self-published.
‘‘ It became an overnight bestseller and changed his life,’’ says daughter Pauline. ‘‘ His guide showed people they really could [travel in Europe].’’
Her father’s 1957 dollar guide to Europe inflated to $95 a day before it was decided to start phasing phasing out the concept. ‘‘ It was getting a little ridiculous,’’ Pauline tells me from her home in New Jersey. The budget theme, though, is still in the family, with Pauline writing a ‘‘ spend less, see more’’ series for Frommers, now owned by publisher John Wiley.
She says her father remains a firm believer in budget travel.
‘‘ When you travel less expensively, you are forced to travel more authentically,’’ she says. ‘‘ You eat where the locals eat, stay in the local guesthouses. That’s when the great travel experiences are created.’’
Frommer, 77, is still active, retaining a con- sultative role with the company, writing an internet blog and, with his daughter, hosting a weekly two-hour radio program on travel.
Pauline says the guides remain true to Frommer’s original idea of reflecting the joy of travel. ‘‘ Americans have very limited vacations so a big component of the books is helping people make the most of their time.’’
There are more than 300 Frommer’s guides, with the list growing each year. Egypt is the latest addition, along with parts of eastern Europe. To mark the anniversary, Wiley reprinted the original Europe on $5 a Day: ‘‘ It was very special for my father to have a brand-new copy of that.’’
Pauline started travelling with her father (updating his Europe guides) at the age of four months and has never stopped. She nominates India as one of her favourite countries. ‘‘ I love a challenge.’’
Courtesy of Penguin, we have three sets of 25 pocket-sized Ultimate Experience guides to give away. Write your name and address on the back of an envelope and tell us in 25 words or less why you’d like to win. Send to: Ultimate Giveaway, PO Box 215, Eastern Suburbs MC, NSW 2004.
We wish: The original Europe on $5 a Day
Enthusiasm and inspiration: Rough Guide founder Mark Ellingham, left, and publisher Martin Dunford