Tony Wheeler was born in Britain but grew up in Pakistan, the West Indies and the USA. His family returned to Britain shortly before he finished school and after studying engineering at Warwick University and a short spell as a car designer he returned to university at the London Business School. Then, with his wife Maureen, he joined the Asian ‘hippie trail’ of the early ’70s. A year later they founded Lonely Planet Publications and the rest — as they say — is travel history.
How did you get started traveling?
I’d always traveled. I was born in England, but my father worked for an airline and when I was about a year old the whole family moved to Karachi, Pakistan, where we lived for the next 5 years. There was a short interlude in England when I lived with my grandparents, then the whole family upped and moved to the Bahamas. Another short spell followed in England, and then we moved to the US, where I spent the next 6 years, nearly all my high school years. So I finally arrived permanently in England when I was 16 — but then I left, equally permanently, when I was 24.
How did you get started writing?
I’d worked on the university newspaper when I was an undergraduate, I think that’s an entry route into journalism and publishing for a lot of people. Then Maureen, my wife, and I did an Asia overland trip, the ‘hippie trail’ as it became known, in 1972. We ended up in Australia and wrote a book about it simply because we could see how hungry people were for information about that sort of travel.
What do you consider your first “break” as a travel writer?
I guess that first book,Across Asia on the Cheap, has to be that first break. It was a classic case of doing the right thing at the right time. But the first book was totally unplanned, we certainly didn’t set out thinking ‘we’ll write a book at the end of this.’ The second trip, 12 months around Southeast Asia on a motorcycle was much more planned, we definitely had the book in mind all the way through and Southeast Asia on a Shoestring continues to sell, We’re working on edition 12 now and it’s past a million copies. I wrote East Timor for that edition. Then our first India guide in 1981 was big breakthrough, a bigger and more audacious title than anything we’d done previously and a book which was both a critical and a commercial success. That one title changed Lonely Planet from a small struggling company to a much more firmly based operation.
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Writing guidebooks is like a combination of search-and-find and making a jigsaw puzzle. You’ve got to find all the pieces and then put them all together to make picture. Some of the pieces may be hard to find, some of them may be hard to assemble.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing/publishing process?
One of the major problems these days is the ‘writing to length’ challenge. Once upon a time it was simple — we just threw in everything we could find, the more info the better, the bigger the book the more comprehensive it had to be. Those days are over, although we still see comments from people that publisher A or B’s guidebook must be better than Lonely Planet’s because it has X pages plus 100 while LP only has X pages. In fact it’s easy to write a 1000 pages on anything, the trick is very often not to use up 1000 pages, to pack as much info as you can into a limited space. Nobody wants to cart around a huge brick of a book, nobody needs a 500-page book for a one-weekend visit. Logically if you need 500 pages to cover a small country with, say, 10 million people then a big country (the USA, India, China, say) is going to need at least 20 times as much space, right? Anybody want to tote a 10,000-page guidebook?
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
These days there’s competition almost everywhere and often that competition is either from much bigger corporations with deep pockets or from new startups willing to take a loss in order to get a foothold in the market. Either way it’s difficult to compete when people have that incentive to undercut you and guidebooks have become increasingly expensive to produce: more info, more frequently updated, more professionally produced. It all costs money. At the same time the accountants are looking over your shoulder and saying ‘why do a book on country X, Y or Z; nobody goes there and you don’t sell many copies. Stick to doing books on countries A, B and C and you’ll be much more profitable.’ Sure but it’s the books on X, Y and Z which I really like, plus it’s those books which give us our reputation.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
From when we launched our second book —South-East Asia on a Shoestring — I’ve never had to work for anybody else. Oh sure I’ve written articles, done talks, been paid for various things, but not because I had to. Of course prior to that I did all sorts of things and I remember in the couple of months between returning to Australia after researching that book (and producing it, we put the whole book together in a back street hotel in Singapore) I even drove taxis for a spell.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I like all sorts of books and all sorts of writers. I like the old traditional guidebooks. I remember usingMurray’s Handbook to India, a book which felt like it was written by Victorian gentlemen for Victorian gentlefolk. In travel literature I like both the off the wall books, the ones that keep you laughing, and the ones where you think, ‘God, I wish I could write like that.’ Jason Elliot’s An Unexpected Light as a recent example; Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea and Colin McPhee’s A House in Bali as others.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Well only do it because you love it, of course. I think for many guide book writers it’s not a really long-term occupation. Guidebooks take too much out of your life; you can’t lead a normal existence when you’re continually being called away for several months of non-stop intense research/writing and then tied to your computer for months more with editors cracking the whip on you to get it finished.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer and publisher?
As a writer, it’s the weird alleys guidebooks can lead you down. You need to be interested in everything (or be able to fake it) to write a good guidebook and very often you do find yourself developing a quite deep interest in something you never expected to find interesting. As a publisher there’s a certain element of the small boy’s collecting passion to it, collecting all the baseball cards or all the model cars has similarities to covering all the countries in guidebooks. But there’s also the real satisfaction in doing books to unusual places and covering something you know nobody else has done. And you get a real kick when people enjoy using your books and you lead them to places they wouldn’t otherwise have got to.