Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Wanderlust - Hilary Bradt and Bryn Thomas

Whilst Alex was utterly delighted with the decent amount of snow piled up outside the back door last Thursday morning, I was less so. It had taken quite a bit of time and organisation to set-up our event with travel publishing supremos Hilary Bradt and Bryn Thomas, and - after all the fuss caused by the snow a few days before - my first thought was that I'd have to cancel the event, or that no-one would come. In the end, I needn't have worried. Hilary and Bryn doggedly made it up from London (where they were taking part in Destinations 2009), and a group of hardy souls from Abingdon and further afield trudged through the ice and slush to make it to the shop. Bradt and Trailblazer are two companies that represent everything that is good about positive about small, dedicated publishers. Hilary Bradt (together with her husband) founded that eponymous travel publisher in the early 70s, and Trailblazer was founded in the early 90s. Both companies have, at their core, a passion and integrity about their guides that accentuate the excitement, joy and positive impact that ethical travelling can have on both the traveller and indigenous populations. At a time when travel increasingly comes under the spotlight for its carbon footprint and environmental impacts, it's sometimes easy to overlook just what a positive impact responsible tourism can have on a country and its people. Hilary and Bryn set out to enlighten us. They took turns interviewing each other - a novel format for an event at Mostly Books - and we learned how they had both started in travel publishing, their experiences in an increasingly competitive market, and how they saw the future at a time when the market for travel guides seems to be shrinking with the advent of new technologies. Bradt started in the early 70s, with Hilary's first guide - Backpacking Along Ancient Ways in Peru and Bolivia - written largely whilst floating down a tributary of the Amazon in 1973. She bought an original copy along which was passed around as she spoke. As well as the early years of Bradt, Hilary recounted some gripping stories of some of her exploits whilst travelling, including her entrance into Chile a few weeks after Pinochet had seized power, and trying to get to the Ugandan National Gardens in Entebbe on the same day as this raid. Bradt now publish 170+ guides, and have won a whole heap of awards - not just for their guides, but for their whole approach to pioneering travel writing which pre-dated Lonely Planet et al. It's well worth reading Hilary's explanation of Travelling Positively - a belief and passion she shared with everyone on the evening. There were a lot of issues brought up during the talk, such as the nature of risk when travelling (and the consequences of an increasingly risk-averse world, at least here in the West). One key message that I took away from the talk was the downside that very popular guides and imprints can have in distorting the travel experience, and limiting contact with local people. Here Bryn used his experience of writing for Lonely Planet's India guide, and the unwitting effect his recommendations had. When a guide sells tens of thousands of copies, a specific recommendation for (e.g.) a good place to eat, will transform that place out of all recognition when the guides return a few years later. Trailblazer - which focuses on routes more than countries or regions - tries to address some of these unwitting effects by focusing on interactions with locals as the starting point, presenting maps and info in innovative ways. Their Asia Overland book (published in 1998) had to pack a guide to 34 Asian countries into less than 600 pages. Key innovations were to give travellers that streetwise tools and tips to find out from local sources the best places to eat, stay, etc. - which is a very honest - and reasonably futureproof way of arranging what was a very ambitious guide. Trailblazer have since brought innovations like this to bear on a number of walking guides for trails throughout the UK. The evening ended with an informal chat between publishers and audience, with Bryn signing some copies of the Trans-Siberian Railway. I had - through rather poor planning - omitted to get any copies in of Madagascar, the guide she has edited through all nine editions (how long have I been doing this job now?) but follow the link above to learn more (we've got it in now of course!). Last but not least - obligatory shot with bookshop owner: Hilary and Bryn rarely do bookshop events, and I am very thankful for them giving up their time to come on such an awful evening, and for everyone who turned out for what was such an entertaining evening. Serendipidously, next day, our copy of the Bookseller turned up with a special travel supplement. In it, there was a stark message for travel publishers in a market that had already started to turn in 2008. There are certainly challenges facing publishers - Bryn said as much, particularly in the urban guides market where electronic information fed directly to handheld devices is increasingly competing against traditional guides. But in an age when the integrity, validity and source of all our media and Internet-based information is being increasingly scrutinised, you have to believe that small, nimble, innovative publishers with strong ethical codes - exemplified by Bradt and Trailblazer - can and will flourish. Not unlike independent bookshops.

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