Talking Travel with Rough Guides Founder Mark Ellingham

Mark Ellingham and Martin Dunford met in Greece back in the early 1980’s, and soon found themselves collaborating on a guide book to the country. Rough Guides was thus born, and 25 years later the successful publishing company continues to innovate and create helpful tools that enrich the travel experience.

To commemorate their 25th anniversary, Rough Guides has produced a set of 25 compact experience guides, which will be officially released in the US on May 25. Mark was kind enough to take some time to answer our questions on a variety of topics, including the milestone birthday, future projects, and his own travel experiences.

And, as promised yesterday, as a part of the celebration, one lucky Gadling reader will win a complete set of the 25 anniversary guides. Enjoy Mark’s interview and we’ll get to the contest details at the end.

Your very first book, The Rough Guide to Greece, was published for the 11th time in 2006 – and you remain a co-author. Do you have any idea how many times you have traveled to the country since that first trip?

I’ve stopped counting, but I get neurotic if I don’t get to Greece every year or two. Despite many visits, there are still a fair number of islands I’ve not yet visited. And the pleasures of Greece don’t pale. Few things beat the travel romance of sitting on the habourfront, sipping a Greek coffee, waiting for a ferry come in to dock and transport you off to some new island – with all its promise.

What was it about Greece that initially drew you to that country over any other back in 1981?

I first went to Greece when I was sixteen and fell in love with the place. It was my first experience of the Mediterranean so that played a large part: the coast, the light, the relaxed pace of life, the people. I even like Greek food. And of course the whole country is redolent with history, which provides an intellectual curiosity alongside the sybaritic pleasures.

Can you share a few words about some of your other early travel experiences, both before and after university? Or do you recall the very first “trip” you ever took?

When I was a kid, in the 1960s and early 1970s, British people didn’t travel a whole lot – and my family didn’t have much money to do so. My first trip abroad was to Normandy, in France, aged ten. That seemed pretty exotic. In those days there was very little “globalization” of products, and I’d not seen things like mussels before, or even yogurt. I had a few holidays in Ireland as a kid, too, which I loved. Then when I was sixteen I bought an InterRail European rail pass with some friends and we headed off to Paris, Rome, Florence and on to Greece. That was fantastic – a revelation. I had itchy feet from that time onwards and dashed off to Greece each summer at university.

And where do you travel these days? Rough Guides encourages travelers to “fly less and stay longer.” What are some favorite destinations located relatively close to your home that you like to visit?

I spend part of every summer in a small, quirky hotel on the Pembrokeshire coast, in Wales, called the Druistone. If it doesn’t rain (and that’s a big “if” in Wales!) it is the most beautiful place in the world – a huge beach, wonderful cliff walks, good food and company at the hotel. I have some good friends in Spain, so go there often, too: I tried out the train to Barcelona at Christmas, which was a nice way to travel.

Congratulations on Rough Guides milestone anniversary. How did the concept for the “Ultimate Experiences” series come about?

Thanks. We wanted to do something fun and distinctive to celebrate 25 years – and we didn’t want to do another regular guide series – so we thought let’s just put out some ideas – get all our authors to join in an contribute. They’re books to browse and inspire, and – since each highlights 25 ultimate experiences in a country or region – to argue with, about whether we have the right selections.

Could you walk us through some of what happens behind the scenes to make decisions for a special series like this?

The initial decicison was pretty easy to take, and right at the outset we decided to call them “25s” and put them out in full color and in pocket format. But it took a fair bit of discussion before we hammered out the design, and then we had to consult quite widely in the book trade to see what price shops wanted them to be, and how they could be best marketed. Oh – and the editorial side was a vast amount of work. My colleagues Martin Dunford and Kate Berens co-opted pretty much the whole of our editorial and design team at various points, and probably half our authors were involved in selecting and writing up the experiences.

There are so many possible travel experiences to choose from – what process was used to narrow things down to only 25 for each book?

We trusted the authors of our main guidebooks for individual countries and regions. The themed books – Wonders of the World, Wildlife, Ethical Travel – took a bit more debate. We all chipped in ideas and Martin and Kate decided on the final selections. I think they got it pretty much right: the picks include the very best experiences and places, but the books are all peppered with more surprising and offbeat ideas, which keeps them fun to read.

The books really pop with enthusiasm — how did you decide on the compact and colorful design?

We were trying to create a series that was half book, half magazine – fun to browse, but also something you’d want to keep. Maybe leave in the bathroom for future reading!

Can you tell us a little bit more about the forthcoming Rough Guide to the World, that’s due out in the fall? Will it include all the experiences from the anniversary series? And what additional content will it contain?

The new book will include all the 25s experiences – which makes 625 – plus another 375 to bring us up to 1000. So it’s another major undertaking. It does mean we’ll be able to include a lot of selections that for one reason or another didn’t make it into the small books. The World book will be both more complete and quirkier.

I understand that music is a passion of yours, and that you are hard at work on a massive third edition of The Rough Guide to World Music. When will that be out and just how large will it be?

We’re doing the book in three volumes, this time, and have just published the first, covering Africa and the Middle East. We’re now in the midst of the second volume, which ranges through Europe, Asia and the Pacific. Then next year we’ll tackle the Americas and the Caribbean. All in all, I think it will weigh in at about 2000 pages and a million words, and will have contributions from around 25 people. It’s a bit of a nightmare but is the book I’m most proud of publishing!

I also read that you never learned to drive. Does this mean that you are always automatic DJ on road trips?

Yes – I’m a pretty good DJ. But when I’m traveling, I tend to use local transport as much as possible. I like getting around on local buses and trains and of course those Greek ferries. I like walking, too!

Rough Guides began in travel publishing, but has blossomed into a diversified information company with reference guides that cover all kinds of topical and timely issues. Moving forward, how will Rough Guides continue to distinguish itself from other guidebook companies also moving in this direction?

We’ll try and stay ahead of the game! Our first success outside travel was a guide to the Internet – destination everyone needed to master. And since then we’ve done a whole range of music and film and computer and popular culture books. We’ve turned our hand to science recently, with books on the brain and genes, and a guide to Climate Change, that was recently shortlisted for the Science Book of the Year Award.

And with an increasing amount of content available online, how will new technologies impact Rough Guides? Are podscrolls, podcasts and downloadable material the Rough Guides of the future, or will there always be a need to provide travelers with books?

Books are very handy and I think they’ll be with us for some time. But travel guidebooks will be the first things to migrate once there is a really good (and cheap) electronic reader. We produce all our books as PDFs before sending them to the printers, and they are ready to roll on a reader, with all their weblinks live so you can go straight to explore a hotel or restaurant website, or see who is playing at a local festival. I do think that’s the future. And it is getting quite close!

Absolutely. But even as all these new technologies revolutionize the way we read, it’s hard to beat the experience of casually browsing the shelves from time to time, especially while traveling. Can you tell us about one or two of your favorite new or used bookstores that you like to visit, either at home or that you’ve come across in your travels?

The best bookshop in the world is Daunts on Marylebone High Street in London. This was a purpose built Victorian bookshop and it has a lantern roof and gallery, with natural light for reading. It has a fantastic travel section, with books of all kinds – guides, travel books, novels, art books – all arranged by country. My favorite secondhand bookshop is Serendipity in Berkeley, California, which is a treasure house of twentieth century fiction.

Thanks Mark! We look forward to more great travel books and innovative reference information from Rough Guides in the years to come.

Individual Rough Guides 25 books retail for $5.99 each.

Okay, now to the contest — We have ONE copy of the complete set of Rough Guides 25 to give away to ONE lucky Gadling reader! Just leave a comment below and our magical system will automatically select a single random winner — but make sure you use a valid email address, as we’ll have to contact you to get your mailing address. For official rules, please click here. Comments and contest will close one week from today, May 30 at 8:00 PM.