Good Reading : October 2007
OCTOBER 2007 ı goodreading 15 author profile the owners would call themselves ‘comfortable’. At first intending to stay only six months in Melbourne, the Wheelers are happy, three decades later, to still call Melbourne home and to base their business there. Today, Lonely Planet is a multi-million-dollar business. Its head office is in an enormous converted warehouse in the western suburb of Footscray.There are also offices in the US and the UK, the three together employing about 500 staff. In addition, there are about 350 contributing writers. Among the Melbourne staff are the Wheelers’ daughter,Tashi, 26, a commissioning editor, and son Keiran, 24, a computer expert. Lonely Planet produces guides to cover every one of the world’s 193 countries, selling six million guidebooks in English annually.The bestselling guides are on Australia, India,Thailand and New Zealand, each of which has sold a million copies. There are also the website, www.lonelyplanet.com, a vast resource for travellers with five million visitors a month; an online accommodation booking service; Lonely Planet Television, which has produced series including ‘Six Degrees’ and ‘Going Bush’; and an image library with 750,000 users. In one of the many fascinating anecdotes in Once While Travelling, Tony Wheeler reveals that the name ‘Lonely Planet’ was actually the result of a mistake on his part.The story is worth repeating.The Wheelers had been looking for a name for their company, and while dining at a cheap Italian restaurant on Sydney’s Oxford Street in 1974,Tony started humming a line from the song Space Captain, sung by Joe Cocker in the 1971 rockumentary Mad Dogs & Englishmen . As he recalls: ‘“Once while travelling across the sky”, I sang, “this lonely planet caught my eye.” “No,” said Maureen, “you’ve got the words wrong. As usual. It’s lovely planet.” She was right, I always got the words wrong, but lonely planet sounded much nicer. I sometimes wished we’d come up with a more business-like, more serious name, but it’s certainly a name people don’t forget.’ Wheeler admits without hesitation that travel guides as we know them are gradually on their way out.The new generation of travellers gets infor ma- tion electronically on the internet, via computer, phone, SMS and palm-held computers. Internet cafés are cheap and available the world over – there are few countries where you cannot connect. ‘The world wide web works very well in Iraq, for example,’Wheeler says. ‘And in China, they may not be as easy to find as they are in the West, but there are plenty.You might find them behind a grotty, grimy building.You open the old door and there’s a room the size of a basketball court with rows of computers stretching into the distance. Even in Afghanistan, every city has internet cafés.’ The advent of the global internet café has changed the way people travel and will be increas- ngly important to travellers,Wheeler says. ‘It’s certainly made life easier. I’m very interested in he internet. I’m amazed that someone hasn’t written some sort of book on the effect it’s had n travellers’ lives.’ The effect it’s having on Lonely Planet is hat travel guides have had their heyday, and though millions still buy them, it is not a rowing market. Electronic travel guides are the ture, particularly when you consider the luggage space and weight printed guides take up. Today’s Lonely Planet guides can be massive tomes with up to 1200 pages that add more than 1 kg to your luggage. If you’re travelling to several different parts of the world, that adds up, though some would say they’re worth their weight in gold and many travellers still won’t leave home without their trusty Lonely Planet guide. The trend towards shorter holidays rather than big trips has also affected sales. But Lonely Planet is keeping up with the times – it’s currently testing an innovative way to produce travel guides. Customers can go to the website shop (http://shop. lonelyplanet.com) and download single chapters for $3-$5 each, which they can then either print out, or transfer to electronic devices such as memory sticks.They’ve started with 35 South American travel guides and phrase books, and guides to other areas will become available if the venture – called Pick & Mix – is successful. On the other hand, travel tales and memoirs are more popular than ever, with readers clamouring for stories of adventure, mishap and ‘discovery’. People also like humorous travel books, lists, and advice on where to find the world’s hippest, most remote or bizarre destinations. Consequently, Lonely Planet has diversified over the last couple of years, producing travel books other than guides.They include Signspotting and Lonely Planet Blue List , with new editions of both due out next month. Signspotting 2 features more of the funniest signs seen by travellers throughout the world, including the Curry Prevention Services Unit in Oregon and the Ha Ha Cemetery in New Brunswick, Canada. Lonely Planet Blue List:The Best in Travel 2008 directs readers to the best, strangest, loneliest, whackiest places to go and is compiled by travellers, travel writers and Lonely Planet staff. Travel in its old-fashioned function as ‘travail’ (from the old-French language) has become a popular subject for books.This year, Tony Wheeler’s Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil featured Wheeler’s observations on nine ‘bad’ countries that most people would not put on their travel itineraries: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, Libya, Albania, Lonely Planet is keeping up with the times — it’s currently testing an inno- vative way to produce travel guides.