A Log Cabin or a Guidebook

I was recently asked to recount my “start as a travel guidebook writer.” Perhaps you’ll find this obscure history interesting.

I wrote my first book in the mid-1970s — accidentally — over years of giving my Budget Travel Skills talk at the University of Washington’s Experimental College. The book matured and its structure tightened with the class. When a relative suggested I write a book, my first thought was, “You’re crazy.” Then I realized it was already there. I just needed to transcribe it from my mind onto paper.

In 1979, a little battle was waging in my mind: Should I build a log cabin or write a travel book? I had the wooded lot in the Cascade Mountains, had picked the spot for the cabin, and took a log-cabin building class. I even had a line on the trailer I’d live in while constructing the cabin. When the reality of peeling logs and aging them set in, the competing big project — writing a travel book — won out.

I wrote the first edition of Europe Through the Back Door by simply writing out my lectures. The book came out almost effortlessly. My girlfriend typed it, and my UW roommate sketched the illustrations from my favorite photographs. Corrections were typed, carefully cut out, and glue-sticked onto the pages. And one winter day in late 1979, I drove the precious 180 pages of that first edition an hour north of Seattle to Snohomish Publishing with a check for $2,400. A few weeks later I drove home with two thousand books in the back of my station wagon.

The first edition of Europe Through the Back Door

I was so green, I didn’t know to put on an ISBN. The cover was so simple, people in the media thought the finished product was a pre-publication edition. But it sold. In 1981, I invested in typesetting for the second edition. (I remember rationalizing the substantial expense because typeset copy took up ten percent fewer pages than the same typewritten copy.) In 1982, the book looked less like the Beatles’ White Album when I put a sketch of “the” back door (an old door in Rothenburg) on the cover.

In those first years, Ira Spring (of Mountaineers Books) and I went to computer classes — we were so in love with Spellbinder and our clunky Eagle computers. Cliff Cameron (of Signpost Books) would join me for brown bag lunches to explore ways to distribute books. I still remember my first customers: Cliff, who’d stick a box in his trunk before visiting bookstores up and down the Oregon Coast; Leroy Soper, then the trade book buyer at the University of Washington Bookstore, who purchased several boxes (that was my first big break — one year they even had them on their Christmas table); George Bradt of Boston’s Globe Corner Bookstore, who gave me my first out-of-state order. And then, the big break: Vito Perillo, of Pacific Pipeline, agreed to distribute it. He seemed to really enjoy giving self-publishers a boost. I’d meet Vito late at night in Seattle, where — as if passing drugs in the wee hours — I’d shuttle a couple of boxes from my trunk into his.

In 1984, for the fourth edition of Europe Through the Back Door, I landed a publisher. I was at a little book festival sponsored by the Edmonds Library in Edmonds’ Old Milltown shopping mall. I remember meeting Lensey Namioka, author of the marvelous Japan: A Traveler’s Companion, which I had used to get the most out of a trip there — and I didn’t even know she was local. And across the aisle from me and my pile of books was Carl Franz — and a whole pile of his (now-classic) People’s Guide to Mexico.

Carl had wanted to meet me, and I had wanted to meet Carl. When we finally got together, we clicked, finding that we were both motivated by a love of travel and wanting to share our passion with others. I explained to him my frustrations of being self-published and my fear that a publisher would take the fun out of the work. He sold me on his publisher, John Muir Publications (of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive fame). Back then, JMP was a hippie publishing house with a handful of books in their catalog and an interest in expanding their line of travel books. Turns out we were a perfect fit.

Steve Cary came to JMP and replaced the munchies with a serious appetite for book sales. I distinctly remember the American Booksellers’ Convention in San Francisco when, walking down the street to the convention center, Steve and JMP boss Ken Luboff put their arms around my shoulders and said, “Rick, if you want to make it as a travel writer, you need to give us more titles to sell.” (At that time, in the late 1980s, I had four or five titles.)

I got the message and have since have added a book or two a year ever since. Today, I have over 30 guidebooks in print (and many more if you consider spin-offs). JMP is no longer, but their wonderful spirit survives at Avalon Travel Publishing, my current publisher (who purchased JMP). I enjoy collaborating with a well-traveled staff of 100 employed at the home office in Edmonds. The books are selling better than ever. And I’m one hardworking, and very happy, travel writer.



12 Replies to “A Log Cabin or a Guidebook”

  1. That book with Rothenburg was the one that first made me think I could actually afford to go to Europe. I just held it – like a dream. Thanks for making my dreams come true! And yes, the first time I went to Europe, I went to Rothenburg!

  2. THis is inspiring. I recently published my own first travel guide (Ireland), partly because I was inspired by your own success. Now I’ve got two travel guides (Ireland and Scotland) and two novels, with two more novels in the pipeline. Thanks for being a great role model!

  3. Our first Europe adventure was with your book in 1989. Using RS guides we were back to Europe again in 1994, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2006. Beginning in 2007 started taking RS tours…..so far have taken 8 tours. We’ve been to places we would never had gone had it not been for RS. Thanks Rick and as you say keep on traveling.

  4. Rick,
    Thanks for not building a log cabin so we could learn how to travel smart in the Old World that so many of us love.
    Your newsletters in the 80’s gave me the courage to travel on my own for almost a month in 1987. I’ve been four times now and the recent one was a Rick Steves VFR tour in Italy. It was awesome.
    Ricknick #1,
    Tampa Twin

  5. I bought a copy at a bookstore in Pullman, about 1981 or 1982. Rick came to the CUB and had a class.

  6. Bonjour, Monsieur Steves, As an author of Paris Mystery series, I can relate to the struggles of getting the first door open. Merci for sharing. A mentor told me that “Nothing is ever as easy as you would like it to be, nor as hard as others would have you believe.” Certainly, you’ve proved that to be true. Congratulations for a life well lived.

  7. I have wished you were in politics for years now, you have many views I share. But as with the log cabin, it would take you away from what you love and are destined to do. We used ETTBD to travel Europe on the fly in the 90s but can not do that now due to the crowds. I was in Florence last Spring, saw video lights in the crowd, was told later it was you and your crew. Still kicking myself for not getting the chance to meet you, have you sign our RS Italy book.

  8. Ah yes, I was teaching a ‘Shoot pool like a shark’ class at Experimental College when I took your class in the ’70s. Good times. -)

  9. Nothing to do with travel, but I hadn’t thought about the JMP Volkswagen book in perhaps 45 years—back in college when I had my ’69 beetle.

  10. Hi Rick….I remember selling your 4th edition of, Europe Through The Backdoor…1984, “The Gift Shop” Everett Pacific Hotel, Everett, WA. You delivered 12-15 copies, I sold all, I still have a copy!
    Congratulations on your amazing success!
    Judy McClintock-Hayes
    Mission Beach, Tulalip, WA
    (Owner, The Gift Shop)

  11. When a coworker heard I was going to Italy for the first time in 2003, he loaned me a copy of your Italy guide. It was my introduction. You (well, your books) have been my companions on more than 20 European adventures since. Took the ferry over from Seattle to visit the Edmonds office several years ago. Thanks for doing what you do. You have made a difference in so many lives and attitudes on both sides of the pond.

  12. I myself want to be a travel blogger though I haven’t had the chance to go to Europe yet (I wish in a near future I could!) hence this post of yours gives me the inspiration and motivation to continue my desire. Thanks a lot! :)

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