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.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Snow Books

With apologies to the genuine article. Shame about the scaffolding of course. Apparently the very old listed building we reside in has a few issues with its roof that can no longer be patched with tape, and they needed to put the scaffolding up to find out why. Turns out the entire roof needs replacing, so I guess we're stuck with this for a while. Last night we had a fab event with Hilary Bradt and Bryn Thomas of Bradt and Trailblazer respectively. Blog to follow, but a big thank you to them - and all the other hardy souls - who trekked out in the nasty weather to hear a first class discussion on travel publishing in the 21st century. P.S. Some lovely snowy shots of Abingdon here. The Knowle is just down the road from us BTW...

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Richard & Judy effect

A few weeks ago we received an email from someone at Cactus TV enquiring about whether any of our bookgroups would like to be filmed for Richard & Judy. I was intrigued, and when I asked for more details, it transpired that they were really keen to film a bookgroup discussing Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Two of our bookgroups were reading/had already read the book, so I indicated we might be interested. I then fired off an email to someone in my bookgroup whom I considered a bellweather of whether or not I could get eight people to come along for the filming, and on the strength of her extremely positive (not to mention excited) response, told them to go ahead - and we fixed a date. We appeared in the show last Wednesday. We were introduced as the 'Mostly Books Reading Group' by Richard Madeley after a high-quality discussion on the couch with Honeysuckle Weeks and David Morrissey. I've done my best to upload the bit of the show to YouTube that we were on: (BTW, I'm sure this is illegal, so if you can't see anything above we may have been leaned on by someone to remove it - not by Cactus of course, 'cos they're lovely. If anyone asks, just say we can get away with this as 'Fair Use' under copyright law. Sounds convincing to me) Anyway, it's interesting to know what transpired behind the scenes to get to the point above. As is often the case, things in 'tellyland' are not always what they seem... The shop had been suitable spruced up for its appearance on the gogglebox (even if the table looked as though we were expecting Paul Daniels round to show us a few tricks.

(Our regular bookgroups don't get the black cloth ordinarily BTW). Now, strictly speaking, there is no 'Mostly Book Reading Group'. We have the Mostly Books Wednesday Evening bookgroup, Thursday Evening bookgroup, and Wednesday Morning bookgroup. The people taking part in the filming were made up of members of the last two. Here was the group photographed pre-filming looking terrified nice and relaxed. That's real wine in the glasses as well:

Now, because the filming date had been arranged at such short notice, most members of the two groups couldn't make it. So having rashly said we'd go ahead, four days before the filming, I had three people signed up. Beginning to panic, and worried that I might get a roasting from Richard & Judy themselves, I fired off an email to our entire mailing list offering a seat in the group for anyone who had read the book and wanted to come along. I had an enormous response to this email - mostly of the "ooh, how exciting, good luck" type, lots of the "you've got to be kidding, no way" type, a few well-argued, strongly-worded essays on the benefits (or otherwise) of Richard & Judy in general - and one extra person for the filming. So that made six. Anyway, back to the filming. There were three people from Cactus - Jo, Roxanne, and the man who put us all at our ease, Tom (standing below):

At least two of our group found Tom "dishy", looking not unlike Damien Lewis. This sparked an excited debate about Mr Lewis, and I had to intervene to calm proceedings, and get us back onto track for the main event of the evening. The discussion of Kate Summerscale's book, and the filming. What I had neglected to mention to anyone (because I thought it might definitely send them away screaming) was that Tom and the team were not filming the discussion per se (although they did film for about 10 minutes for the opening shots) but instead, each of us would need to do a piece to camera. This is quite daunting - but essentially you sit in front of the camera, and are filmed as Roxanne asks a few questions. Each of us chatted away in response, and the results you see are the edited 'highlights'. They filmed everyone in a different part of the shop. The filming was great fun, and we were all (by and large) pleased with the result (for some reason the group looks as if it's obsessed with references to the weather in the book, but I'm sure that's just down to the editing process). Our thanks to Jo, Tom and Roxanne for sticking to time and making the whole experience as painless as possible.