When news emanated from the Melbourne headquarters of Lonely Planet two weeks ago that the iconic publisher of guidebooks and related travel titles was laying off up to 80 editors and other staffers, shock waves reverberated throughout the travelsphere. LP is the world’s largest guidebook publisher, with 500 titles covering 195 countries, produced by hundreds of writers and editors, and speculation surged in social media and old school journalism circles alike that this move portended the end of print guidebooks, or at least the demise of LP as a guidebook power.
Shortly after the announcement and its aftermath, LP’s new owners, NC2, which had purchased the publisher from BBC Worldwide in March, released a statement saying “At the end of last week, Lonely Planet began engaging with its global workforce regarding its plan for the future, which includes a restructure of the business. Since that process began, reports have emerged in the media that Lonely Planet has plans to exit the content business. These reports are untrue and stand in stark contrast to the company’s renewed commitment to great content for both print and digital offerings. … Lonely Planet remains committed to delivering quality content to our travellers, as we have over the last 40 years. There are currently no plans to reduce our breadth of destination content, or our product offering in digital or print. Large scale cuts to our guidebook publishing list are unfounded and categorically untrue and Lonely Planet is committed to continuing to publish guidebooks.”
Despite this assertion, debate about the fate of print guides in general and LP’s in particular has spread, and some other publishers have been moved to reaffirm their commitment to keep their guidebooks in print. Pauline Frommer, who with her father recently reacquired the Frommer trademark from Google, wrote to me in an email: “Starting this October, we’re going to be putting out 30 new editions: 10 will be updates from the very popular Day by Day series, and 20 new guides in a series we’re calling The Easy Guides. … We hope to be up to 80 titles by next fall. (We do recognize that digital media is a huge tool for travelers and so concurrent with the print publication of the guides will be the publication of e-books and apps, and the upkeep and expansion of Frommers.com.)” And Rick Steves, head of his own eponymous empire, wrote me: “I am very much committed to print. … Our guidebooks are literally selling better than ever. I have 30 or 40 in print and, as I have every year for the last 25, I’m in Europe right now for 4 months researching with my team.”
No clear conclusions about the future of publishing can be drawn at this point from the LP news, but one truth has emerged very clearly from the reaction to that news, and that is how deeply important guidebooks are to many people, how they become intimately interwoven into the narrative of our lives. This truth has found poignantly rippling expression in a Twitter thread – hashtagged #lpmemories — started by longtime LP author Celeste Brash.
“I started #lpmemories in reaction to all the layoffs because I was sad and sharing the good times with people was a therapy,” Celeste wrote me.
“The first post was on July 19th: ‘Once, in Sulawesi I had the honking King of taxi drivers. He honked at sticks in the road when he had nothing else to honk at #lpmemories.’ I followed this with two more #lpmemories, then Zora O’Neil, another LP author, chimed in. I did a few more, then LP authors Sally O’Brien and Sara Benson got in on it. Elizabeth Eaves got in on it somewhere in between as the first non-LPer, so I tweeted: ‘Thanks @ElisabethEaves! Hoping #lpmemories are for everyone, @lonelyplanet users, authors, whoever.’
“The first reporter to pick up the story was Bronwen Clune from the Guardian. Then everyone started writing about it, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Time, the Telegraph and then the New Yorker. It’s just taken on a life of its own. But the story was always the same (and based on Bronwen’s information — she was the only one who reached out), that #lpmemories was a sort of eulogy for LP and guidebooks in general. I’m not sure either of those are dead. My original intention was just to think about the good times in honor of my colleagues who had just lost their jobs and LP which had just fired a big part of the heart of the company, the many people who made it what it is.”
A week after it launched, the #lpmemories thread had lengthened to many hundreds if not thousands of tweets, with posters ranging from battle-scarred LP author-veterans to everyday on-the-road enthusiasts. Reading the thread feels like attending a joyous-sad, wanderlust-full wake-cum-celebration, filled with nostalgia-drenched 140-character recollections of misadventure and magic.
Tracking this journey has been profoundly poignant for me. I was the Global Travel Editor at LP from 2001-2007, and I have my own treasure chest of indelible memories from that period, but much more deeply, the company has been an integral part of my traveling life since the summer of 1978, when I set off from Tokyo for a two-month meander through Southeast Asia with a compact yellow book titled South-East Asia on a Shoestring in hand.
Already dubbed the Yellow Bible by fellow backpackers, this guide — increasingly tattered, beer-stained, curry-spattered, starred, underlined, and scribbled-in-the-margins as the trip progressed — became my invaluable travel counsel and companion; it told me where to eat and stay and what to do, but even more importantly, it gave me essential bits of history and culture that taught me how to act respectfully in a place and how to peer under its surface and get a sense of its heart and soul. Years before Lonely Planet co-founders and Shoestring authors Maureen and Tony Wheeler became actual friends of mine, they felt like friends because of their ground-level approach to foreign cultures and their personal voice that seemed to speak directly to me -– and to all my fellow tribe members who traipsed around Asia clutching their tome like a talisman.
I used the Yellow Bible to navigate Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It took me to Lake Toba and Yogyakarta and Bali, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca. When I was marooned by a missed bus connection in what seemed a middle-of-nowhere place called Kuala Kangsar, it comforted me with news of a historic temple I should visit. And when I arrived exhausted and famished in Penang, it led me to a soul-reviving guesthouse and a street-stall feast that was one of the best meals of my trip. The Wheelers’ advice was straightforward and simple, and delivered with we’ve-done-this authority and god-we-love-travel passion.
Recalling this period now, 35 years later, it feels to me like the beginning of a travel revolution. Coinciding with larger economic and technological changes that suddenly enabled more and more travelers to venture more and more widely around the world, the LP guidebooks inspired and empowered people to explore on their own. And crucially, by example and edification, they encouraged travelers to take seriously the history and culture of the places they were visiting, to take time to learn about the beliefs and practices prevalent there. Do so and you’ll have a deeper, richer, happier experience, they preached. And they were right. But the usually unspoken and even more important message was that this kind of attitude/approach was fundamentally important on a human level.
In this sense, I believe that the Wheelers, and other early, enterprising guidebook creators who promulgated similar principles, played an immeasurably important role in encouraging travelers to become better world citizens, to be both knowledgeable and empathetic about other peoples and places, and to appreciate the everyday from the local person’s perspective. Like the best travel writing of all kinds, their work — and the works of the hundreds of similarly impassioned and empathetic writers and editors they hired over the years — brought the world closer together.
Consider the ever-expanding ripples of this effect over the company’s 40-year history, and you could argue that on a popular, person-to-person level, LP has contributed as much towards world understanding and peace as any other institution on the planet.
Of course, I’m biased. From 2001 to 2007, I wrote a weekly column for lonelyplanet.com and was the global spokesperson for LP. I’ve edited seven LP literary anthologies, with an eighth scheduled for publication next year. I’m the author of LP’s Guide to Travel Writing, which has been the signature creation of my professional career. So I owe a great, great deal to Lonely Planet. In addition, Tony and Maureen Wheeler are personal friends, and though I left the LP staff six years ago, I’ve maintained friendships with dozens of colleagues in its Melbourne, London and Oakland offices.
But for two decades before I joined the LP staff, I was just a far-flung fan like any other, relying on its guides to find my way around and into more than 80 countries, from the haute cafes of Paris to the hinterlands of Pakistan. Perusing the guidebook on the plane became a rite of passage for me, the blessing of each new adventure. It opened the portals of possibility, posing the head- and heart-quickening question: What wonders await?
Many of those wonders were pointed out in the books, but equally important, the books gave me the grounding confidence to venture out and find other wonders on my own. This is just as much a legacy of LP for me as the hostels, festivals, and off-the-beaten-path attractions it spotlighted. LP gave me the courage to leave the guide in the guesthouse and explore beyond its pages. Ironically enough, it made the planet less lonely, more friendly. It paved the path to a truth I found time and time again: that people around the world generally care for each other, whatever their background, ethnicity, and political and religious beliefs, that kindness is the glue of human connection.
I began this rambling word-journey thinking I would recall some of my own most poignant #lpmemories. But I realize now that the path has led in a different direction, that the hashtagged signpost has pointed me to a very personal celebration of the past and a heartfelt hope about the future of LP. From the Yellow Bible to the Blue-Spined Book, LP has immeasurably enriched my life’s journey and, as that ever-lengthening Twitter thread testifies, the life journeys of innumerable people around the world. In an age when intractable divisiveness, superficial advice, and anonymous expertise threaten to become the norm, its legacy and calling seem more important than ever before.