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Tuesday December 4, 2012

Book review: Beyond travel guides

Footloose: A love of
travel is a must for Lonely
Planet staff even if you’re
the company’s sales and
marketing director; Chris
Zeiher is pictured at
Tintern Abbey, Wales. Footloose: A love of travel is a must for Lonely Planet staff even if you’re the company’s sales and marketing director; Chris Zeiher is pictured at Tintern Abbey, Wales.

Although renowned for its travel guides, Lonely Planet is increasingly putting out travel-related titles that aren’t just guide books.

MENTION the words “lonely planet”, and I’m sure an instant image of a blue-spined book with a country’s name emblazoned across it in white print will appear in your mind. Perhaps with a picture of scruffy-looking backpacker earnestly consulting it in the middle of an exotic locale.

Although there are plenty of travel guide publishers out there today, Lonely Planet has established itself as the largest and most well-known of them all.

Founded in 1973 by the footloose husband-and-wife team of Tony and Maureen Wheeler, the company is now wholly owned by BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

While Lonely Planet’s core business has always been its travel guides, Asia Pacific sales and marketing director Chris Zeiher shares that its trade and reference titles have been rapidly increasing over the past five years.

“Lonely Planet has been creating beautiful coffee-table pictorials, travel literature and gift titles for more than 15 years, but in the last five years, our output of such titles has significantly increased.

“We believe that publishing an inspirational and reference list of titles will create more frequent engagement with our travellers, and potentially reach a new audience, or a non-travelling market, for example, the armchair traveller,” he says in an exclusive e-mail interview recently.

Zeiher explains that the initial idea to publish something other than a travel guide arose out of the large portfolio of images they had accumulated over the years.

“We had an idea to pack these stunning travel photographs in book format for consumers to enjoy.

“This is when titles like Chasing Rickshaws and One Planet were created back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.”

The success of One Planet made the company realise that there is a demand out there for inspirational titles. This resulted in Lonely Planet investing in, and creating, its most successful non-guide book to date: The Travel Book.

Having sold over 750,000 copies, this title, which contains profiles of every country on Earth, spawned a series of similar books like The Cities Book, The Europe Book, The Asia Book and The USA Book.

Other inspirational titles include the 1,000 series, eg 1000 Ultimate Experiences and 1000 Ultimate Sights, which package the years of experience, content and recommendations of Lonely Planet authors into individual volumes.

Not forgetting the need for practical travel tips, Zeiher shares that Lonely Planet also produces reference books geared towards specific groups of travellers.

“Our Travel With Children title is into a fifth edition, and covers advice on travelling with infants, toddlers and school-age children, on all kinds of travel from short weekend breaks to long multi-month country hops.

“Our successful Volunteer Handbook is a comprehensive directory of the world’s volunteer organisations, which also includes practical advice on how to choose and plan your volunteer experience.

Another quintessential travel topic, food, is also covered in books such as The World’s Best Street Food and The Food Lover’s Guide To The World; both contain recipes and photos good enough to eat for cuisine explorers.

The company is also reaching out to the younger demographic with its Not-For-Parents series launched just last year. “This series was developed to showcase destinations to young enquiring minds.

“These titles are not guidebooks for children, but fascinating, quirky and fun volumes for children to get inspired about the world around them,” says Zeiher.

For example, the Not-For-Parents London title includes interesting information on topics like Cockney rhyming slang, locations from the Harry Potter books, and the London Underground (it might be haunted!).

Using a mix of photography, cartoons, illustrations and fun text, the series has 11 titles out already, with another six more planned for next year, marking its popularity.

The brand also has an eye for the quirky as can be seen from books like Signspotting, Happy and How To Land A Jumbo Jet.

Says Zeiher: “Lonely Planet has always looked at how we can put a travel spin on hot or popular topics. Two such examples of this are our gifting titles, Happy and How To Land A Jumbo Jet.”

Described by Zeiher as Lonely Planet’s response to the interest generated by Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2007 bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, Happy collects in one volume secrets to happiness from cultures and societies around the world.

Meanwhile, How To Land A Jumbo Jet utilises infographics to present travel facts and ephemera, covering practical topics, like what to carry in your backpack, to random ones, like exotic places to run marathons, and facts, like top five countries for crimes of assault and theft, to survey results for topics like “How proud are you of your nationality?”.

Says Zeiher: “This book was so successful with our audience that this year we’ll be doing a second infographic title called The Book Of Everything.

“By creating products such as this, and delivering them in quirky, unique and alternative styles, we’re impressing on our audience that travel can be viewed via themes, topics, genres and formats.”

The company also hasn’t forgotten about the storytelling aspect of travelling.

“Moving into travel literature seemed obvious for our brand. Lonely Planet releases one anthology of travel literature every year.

“Our angle is to gather authors to write under a particular theme, and deliver a travel angle to that theme.

“In 2010, we produced A Moveable Feast, which gathered food critics, celebrity chefs – such as Anthony Bourdain – and food bloggers to relay their most amazing food experience while travelling.

“In 2011, our focus was on the film and TV industry, and our title Lights, Camera, Travel had celebrities such as Alec Baldwin, Brooke Shields and Paulina Porizkova describing their most fascinating travel stories while on set for work,” says Zeiher.

He adds that this year’s anthology, the recently-released Better Than Fiction, collects real-life stories from fiction authors, including Booker Prize winners D.B.C. Pierre (Vernon God Little) and Keri Hulme (The Bone People) as well as bestselling authors Alexander McCall Smith, Joyce Carol Oates, and Isabel Allende.

Currently, these non-guide books comprise approximately 17% of Lonely Planets’ volume, and Zeiher expects this to continue rising in the years to come.

“Whatever genre we publish in, we’ll always ensure that the publication has a travel angle, and that the traveller is at the heart of the content.

“We believe that publishing in other genres will inspire our travellers, and our loyal community, to think about destinations in different ways, and want to experience genuine connected travel experiences.

“This is at the core of what it is that Lonely Planet does; connecting travellers to the heart of a place.”

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