Pointing the Way, in Print and in Cyberspace
Illustration for TIME by Susan Swan
By SHIRLEY BRADY
When Bill Gates visited Australia in 1996, he had just two meetings on his agenda: one with then-Prime Minister Paul Keating, the other with a Melbourne couple who started the world's biggest independent travel-publishing company from their kitchen table. Lonely Planet cofounders Maureen and Tony Wheeler were flattered by the offer to provide content for Microsoft but resisted Gates' advances. If they could take the book industry by storm with little help and even less cash, then why not go it alone into the relatively uncharted territory of electronic publishing?
After exploring the idea of producing CD-ROM versions of their guidebooks (soon to cover every nation on Earth, they say), "the little company that could" soon realized that the travel information they were compiling required a more interactive and accessible platform. Chefs change, visa restrictions get lifted and new airline routes are added every week. Plus they needed something to fill the typical two-year gap between updated editions of their titles. Then they discovered the World Wide Web. Their website at www.lonelyplanet.com lets their community of readers pick up online updates between editions, post their own cyber-postcards with travel reports from the road and talk to each other in cyberspace at the Thorn Tree. A virtual Khao San Road, this is where users can check in, hang out and gripe about hotel standards, restaurant food and even the hefty Lonely Planet guidebook they're toting around. The website is geared toward the LP readership, from student backpackers to wine-touring Tuscany walkers, and is free of charge--and of advertising. "Our philosophy is to get travel information out there, pure and simple," says Maureen Wheeler. "We see the Web as another service to relay information, and our updates add value to our books. How can you be independent, critical and keep your integrity as a travel guide if you're supported by advertisers?"
Mark Ellingham cheerfully disagrees. He launched Rough Guides, his own brand of cheeky travel info, in 1982--in reaction to a frustrating tour of Greece with a stack of travel guides (Lonely Planet included) in tow. He found they missed the best beaches, the best bars and what he perceived as the essential spirit of the place. So he produced his own guide to Greece, and Lonely Planet's biggest rival was born.
Besides adding non-travel guides to his roster, like his best-selling Rough Guide to the Internet and another to the millennium, plus guides to music, European football and, next year, "the unexplained," Ellingham has embraced the Web with almost religious zeal. Since its first foray into cyber-publishing in 1995, making the entire text for the Rough Guide to the U.S. available through HotWired, the company has put the book publishing world into a spin. In September, Rough Guides began uploading its entire catalogue of travel books--120 titles by the end of this year--for free onto its website at www.roughguides.com. "People thought we were mad back then, and now they think we're throwing books out of airplanes," Ellingham says. "Tony and Maureen think we're bonkers. But we know what we're doing. We're not giving books away--we're enhancing our print titles."
Jean Marie Kelly, who oversees the website, says users aren't printing out entire books. "We're finding that people are using the site to prepare for a trip, maybe printing out a few pages," she says. "We're bringing the Rough Guides' attitude to help readers formulate their travel choices in a more interactive environment."
Bookshops are going to take some convincing. "The book trade was frankly horrified," says Rough Guides' British publicist, Simon Carloss, about the online launch. "But we're not trying to take business away from booksellers."
Like the Lonely Planet website, Rough Guides online is an invaluable resource for travelers. Both sites offer a chatty magazine with opinionated travel writing, an area for visitors to post their opinions on all manner of topics, tips on what to do and see, and an e-mail bulletin. While the ad-free Lonely Planet site posts excerpts from LP books, Rough Guides' website not only gives you the complete text broken down into sections, but also ad banners and the instant ability to book a flight, hotel room or rent a car via a partnership with Internet Travel Network. Click on the airplane icon while browsing the San Francisco guide, for instance, and a new window pops open with the ITN booking agent ready to take your credit card number. The company has long been linked with corporate partners, and carries advertorials in print editions.
Like Microsoft supremo Gates, both companies are grappling with the future of publishing. "Perhaps there will be no books printed in 10 or 15 years' time," says Ellingham, whose ultimate Gatesian goal is to make Rough Guides a portal, or gateway, through which users will access the Web.
Lonely Planet's online team dreams of print-on-demand books, so that online users can order various chapters and have a customized guidebook at their door within days. But Tony Wheeler says it's too early to write off the printed word. "With books, the battery will never go flat, the access is faster, and they're fun to flip through. Now that travelers can get more information online, they are getting the best of both worlds."
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When Bill Gates visited Australia in 1996, he had just two meetings on his agenda: one with then-Prime Minister Paul Keating, the other with a Melbourne couple who started the world's biggest independent travel-publishing company from their kitchen table