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.
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.