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Author / Writer Spotlight, Non Fiction

The Lonely Planet Story – how it all started

The Lonely Planet Story

From 2003 to 2005, it was my most intense years of travelling. Owning a business of clothing my husband and I started off with a quirky idea and off we go venturing into neighbouring country to source for merchandise to stock up our kiosk selling ethnic clothing, handbags in the local shopping mall. My bookshelf then is stocked up with many Lonely Planet travel guide books, i.e. Thailand, Bali, China (bootleg version, a cause for concern for Lonely Planet), Vietnam (on loan from a friend for a year), Great Britain, Turkey, India, Middle East and Switzerland (The last four are for leisure reading of destinations I have yet step my foot on), including Beijing insight guide and DK travel for Great Britain and Morocco. In short, I never travel anywhere without a Lonely Planet travel guide, except Cambodia :). It is with great interest that I wanted to know how Lonely Planet was born.

Once while travelling Tony and Maureen Wheeler decided to do the road trip from London to Sydney. They arrived in Sydney, Australia with 27 cents and decided to stay put. Lonely planet publication was born in 1973 when the Wheelers self-published a quirky travel guide, Across Asia on the cheap. This was quickly followed by what soon became the backpackers’ bible, South-East Asia on a Shoestring, which is updated personally by the Wheeler family frequently. Going bold where no other travel publisher had ventured, they catered to a new generation of independent, budget-conscious travellers long before the advent of mass tourism.

The birth of Lonely Planet is not painless. For the first 10 years since its advent, the Wheelers are cash-strapped, followed by a rocky start in the San Francisco, USA branch, tussle with the tax department because their accountants did not file their company taxes for two years etc. while their personal lives goes on, Maureen went back to school to study, Tashi and Kieran are born… not until India and Mexican title achieve travel world accolades did they start making money in the early 80’s.

I believe people who moved around the world as a young child cultivate an appetite to wander. Tony’s family moved around so much that he never did more than two years in the same school. Douglas Coupland , the guy who also coined ‘Generation X’, defined ‘terminal wanderlust’ as a state of being so disconnected to anywhere that everywhere is home, or might as well be. “That’s me I thought. I’ve never found a city I didn’t like or didn’t think I could call home” said Tony, and I shuddered to think that same word seems to come out from my own mouth.

Once you read Tony’s ordeals of running the business you will understand the magnitude of the complications involved in producing a travel guidebook. Managing printing and getting most up-to-date information is one, but there are so many other considerations, such as:

  • The conservation of paper and costs, the need to condense a country’s write-up for regional guide and an elaborate version for single country guide.
  • Allocation of writer’s resources around the world. Copyright and royalty (if any) issues for the travel writers. How to ensure there is no overlap, how to pay your good and not-so-good writers, you also need a travel writer who is able to produce perfect mapping, take nice photographs, get up early to get a glimpse of glorious dawn in the temple and stay up late enough to sample most of the bars and night scenes, and make sure that they get travel insurance cover.
  • How to produce a good identifiable but not corny travel book cover.
  • Consistency in spelling a leader’s or cities’ name.
  • Getting information up to date is a daunting challenge. Entrance fees and opening hours of attraction may changed, telephone numbers changes all the time, especially for politically volatile countries.
  • Plagiarism and counterfeit Lonely 
  • Attack from rival small time travel book competitor, who spam the company’s Internet with libellous remarks.
  • Write something politically insensitive and you will face boycott and book banning in Burma (Myanmar).
  • Political disputes of borders, producing a guidebook only to have the country non-existent after that, for example: USSR.
  • The breakup of the Eastern European Communist countries. A good reason for Lonely Planet to make more money, writing about individual countries.
  • Printing the 40,000 copies of the Western Europe guide only to have it misspelt as Westen Europe!! And decided to sell it with the typo as publicity gimmicks with a bookmark in it. J
  • Travel coverage of less popular destinations, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan (Yes, there is a Lonely Planet guidebook on this!), Israel.
  • The future challenge of the possibility of guidebooks becoming unpopular due to paperless appeal.

The book is also filled with interesting travel anecdotes, of which this little space of mine is not possible to share.

Tony also said a good guidebook have to do 3 things:

  1. It should save your life.
  2. It should educate you.
  3. It should be fun.

Of all the places they travelled, which places are the Wheeler’s favourites, you wonder? Well, they kept going back to Kathmandu, Nepal and Bali, Indonesia again and again. These two places are probably it.

This book is a unique mix of autobiography, business history and travel book. it traces Tony and Maureen Wheeler’s personal story as well as the often painful evolution of their business from its kitchen table startup, right through to the controversial sale to BBC world wide. I suppose the sale to BBC Worldwide is inevitable. Tony’s first love is travelling, and visioning future projects for Lonely Planets, and he is very hands-on and does a lot of the travel writings on his own. The running of a profitable business however is another matter. In my opinion, is best left to the professionals.  

Verdict: 4.5/5 

What I like most about the book: Travel anecdotes, humour, full of interesting facts, learn a lot more about the world etc. and so many colourful photographs. Most importantly, I will never look at a Lonely Planet guidebook with the same eyes after this. It is supposed to be guide, not a blueprint. In the future, if I should stumble upon a mistake or about to lament about the lack of details in the guidebooks, I would think twice before I felt the need to curse and swear when I am out there on the field, my Lonely Planet guide and I.
What I like least about the book: The book can appear as a ramble of facts. It is written as Tony’s first person narrative throughout, occasionally you get a small paragraph with different type fonts as Maureen’s voice and then you get one which is Tony’s! There is lack of personal reflection, except for Maureen’s accounts. Not until at the end of the book would you get a glimpse of inner thoughts when Tony writes of his regret on the near-collapse of his marriage. I think Maureen is a great woman. She stayed behind looking after the children and the house, also tend to the local business while Tony travels extensively. 

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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