Looking back, it seems incredible to recall just how sparse the travel bookshelves were 25 years ago in 1982. There was a small selection of Fodor’s and Frommer’s, both of which were rather looking their age, and if you found yourself in Asia you might have come upon a primitive Lonely Planet guide. But for the most part, the shelves were bare: There were literally no guides on the Eastern European countries, or China (which suddenly became accessible in the mid-1980s), or Vietnam; there was hardly anything even on mainstream destinations like Morocco or Kenya.
And the guides that did exist seemed to me, then a 22-year-old English graduate in search of a job without an office, to describe a kind of parallel universe. A mid-1970s guide to Greece or Spain would have a curious absence of Greeks or Spaniards, beyond occasional walk-on parts doing folklore dancing.
When I wrote the first Rough Guide to Greece with a bunch of friends in 1982, we wanted to get right into the thick of contemporary life. We wanted to write like real journalists (none of that land of contrasts baloney for us) and we wanted to explore and recommend places where you’d do the same things as local people. It seems utterly bizarre today, but a previous generation of guidebooks would not have considered recommending a local bar or club, or joining in a festival, or going to a football match; they wouldn’t have much of a clue about trekking or other outdoor pursuits, either. And the books that I consulted on Greece would not have given you much to talk about once you had found your local bar: History seemed to stop with the War of Independence, while the Greeks that you met, of course, wanted to talk about life and politics since the fall of the colonels’ junta just a few years back.
We tried to address all of these angles in that first Rough Guide, and to write with a directness that would feel fresh to ourselves and our readers, enthusing about the places we liked, and being quite rude about those we didn’t. That was new, too, and it hit an immediate chord. We went through three print runs of the Greece book in the first few months, and before we knew it, we were busy creating a series, first covering Europe, then the USA and South America, and Asia. We reached 20 titles in the first five hectic years, and since then we’ve been pushing on to more than 250 titles on countries, cities, regions, cut this way and that.
We realised midway through this trajectory that the approach we were taking with travel explaining complex subjects, empowering readers could work just as well for other areas of publishing. So in 1994, we published a book on world music, a madcap endeavour that set out to cover all the world’s popular roots music, the kind of thing you might hear on the radio in Athens or Bangkok or Bangalore. Just occasionally, I regret this fit of enthusiasm, for like the travel books, our reference books have long lives and many editions. And The Rough Guide to World Music [now published in two region-specific volumes] is the mother of all Rough Guides, weighing in these days at more than a million words, written by 150 different contributors.
But the chance to cover any subject that intrigues us Rough Guide editors and authors, so long as we feel there is a large enough niche of fellow enthusiasts, makes for a compelling publishing life. We don’t always get it right, of course, but the non-travel successes have been astonishing and fun. A decade ago, we published one of the first ever books on the Internet, writing for a new species of enthusiasts drawn to content and communication rather than technical geekery. That went on to sell more than 3 million copies. We had big hits, too, with books on Lord of the Rings (ISBN 9781843532750), cult movies (ISBN 9781843533849) and The Da Vinci Code (ISBN 9781843537137). And most recently, we have been navigating the zeitgeist with a truly exceptional book on climate change (ISBN 9781843537113), which we felt was so important and useful that we have been sending it to the world’s politicians, starting with Britain’s MPs 320 of whom responded to an accompanying questionnaire which is now going out to all U.S. senators, as well as to elected representatives in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.
For our 25th anniversary year, however, we have kept travel as a key focus, with the publication of a series of 25 new books of ultimate experiences, each laid out in magazine style, and offering a new approach to both destinations and themes Wonders of the World (ISBN 9781843538356), Ethical Travel (ISBN 9781843538301) intended both to celebrate and share our expertise. In essence, each book has 25 reasons to take an extended break from work rather like the one we had set out to create for ourselves, all those years ago.
Rough Guides founder and publisher Mark Ellingham, a recovering travel writer, lives in London.