Rough Guides are celebrating their 25th anniversary, so it seemed like a good time to catch up with founder Mark Ellingham. He began the series with his friends having travelled around Greece in 1981, shortly after graduating from Bristol University. Today, aside from his role at Rough Guides, he also finds time to work with Songlines, the world music magazine, Wanderlust magazine, and Sort Of Books – publishers of travel writing and other works.
When did you first begin travelling and where did you go?
When I was a kid, in the 1960s and early 1970s, British people didn’t travel a whole lot – and my family didn’t have much money to do so. My first trip abroad was to Normandy, in France, aged 10. That seemed pretty exotic. In those days there was very little globalization of products, and I’d not seen things like mussels before, or even yogurt. I had a few holidays in Ireland as a kid, too, which I loved. Then when I was sixteen I bought an InterRail European rail pass with some friends and we headed off to Paris, Rome, Florence and on to Greece. That was fantastic – a revelation. I had itchy feet from that time onwards and dashed off to Greece each summer at university.
What prompted you to write the first guidebook and was the trip undertaken with the book in mind?
The short answer is I couldn’t find an interesting job after leaving university – and had to think one up for myself, which was writing a guidebook. I thought I knew Greece reasonably well (you have a lot of confidence at 21!) and so that was the obvious choice. I sent a synopsis around to publishers and had encouragement from one or two companies, so I set off to research and write.
What was that first five years like, building up the series with your friends? It sounds idyllic.
Well – kind of idyllic! The travel and the writing was fun and we were enormously lucky in our timing: there were no guides at all to many of the destinations we were covering, so there was a pioneering spirit that was fun. Especially with places like China and Eastern Europe, which were just opening up to travel. The main problem, though, was we made almost no money. So it was a very, very cheap idyll.
You then bought the company from Routledge and developed the brand rapidly, producing more than 200 titles on travel and other subjects. How did you choose which areas you would cover and what was it like becoming your own boss?
Buying the company from Routledge was a lucky break. They were bought out twice in succession and the second buyer was mainly after their legal publishing, so we were put up for sale. I had a clause saying this could only happen with my permission, so we borrowed money from a book distributor and bought ourselves out. We set up stall in a flat in Kennington and learnt how to be publishers, very much DIY. But this was the time when people were just starting to typeset using computers, so we were at the forefront of that, which was again very lucky – and fun.
We chose our titles rather haphazardly. Some, like France or Italy, were clearly commercial and had to be done. Others – Peru springs to mind – we commissioned because an author came to us and convinced us it would be interesting.
During that time we also saw the Rough Guide TV programme on our screens. How did the show come about, what are your memories of working on it and why did it end?
We pitched an idea to various TV companies for a travel programme that would break the rules: none of the package holiday stuff, no Judith Chalmers – but instead a bit of edge and a real sense of contemporary life and local culture.
The proposal reached Janet Street Porter, who, in that way that she has, swiftly decided that it was entirely her idea, and commissioned a first series for her ‘Yoof TV’ division. There were some ropey shows but I think it was genuinely groundbreaking. A travel programme where the locals had more than walk-on parts as waiters or doing a spot of after dinner folk dancing.
The programme actually ran for eight years, which was beyond our wildest expectations. We would love to see it relaunch in some new modern format. And maybe it will. There’s some interest right now at a couple of production companies.
Just before you sold the company to Penguin, 9/11 occurred. What were its effects on the business and was it a prompt in the decision to sell?
Thanks for reminding me – great timing. However, the sale was actually agreed upon some time before 9/11.
I think at the time most of us thought travel would implode. Oddly, quite the opposite has happened, with the emergence of budget airlines. Which, of course, is a problem in itself, given the impact of flights on climate change.
Since then the series has continued expanding, while Tony Wheeler and you have been spreading awareness of the effects of flying on climate change. How do you balance these two apparent opposites? Will your guides now show how to arrive in a country with the smallest of carbon footprints?
I think the travel industry has a responsibility to face up to its impact on the environment, and in particular its carbon emissions. We need to get the information across – not to make people feel guilty – but so that we all at least think about the effects of flying and are less casual about doing it. Being a travel guide publisher, we’re in a good position to do this. There’s a contradiction, of course, but that’s how life goes. If we closed down tomorrow, people wouldn’t stop flying.
We are also strongly encouraging people to offset when they fly. We offset all our own staff and author flights, and Rough Guides have recently helped to launch a fantastic charity called Cool Earth (www.coolearth.org) whose idea is to buy up the world’s at risk rainforest. It’s a too-little-known fact that the destruction of rainforest accounts for 20 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions. Protecting an acre of rainforest locks in 100 tonnes of carbon, which, if burnt, could generate up to 260 tonnes of CO2. What I want to do is encourage travellers, and travel companies, to offset all their flights with Cool Earth by a multiple of at least ten. Offsetting isn’t an exact science, so cut yourself a bit of slack: do something that far outweighs the harm you are causing. And protecting rainforest is the most urgent task, bar none, in trying to slow climate change.
Our guides will certainly include more information on getting to countries, and travelling around, with a low carbon footprint. That’s something we’ve always done, to an extent, and we will do more of it. We are looking at a book on short breaks in Europe by train, too. Much more enjoyable and relaxing than flying! And travel isn’t only about going abroad: we do plenty of books about UK destinations and our Devon & Cornwall and Lake District guides have been in our Top 10 for some years.
What are your future plans and hopes for the series over the next 10 or 20 years and how will you continue to explore new media opportunities?
More green publishing, as above. And, of course, we hope that everyone will see the error of their ways and give up once and for all on Lonely Planet, DK and other inferior guides, and just use Rough Guides.
New media is going to hit hard in the next three or four years, I would say – maybe sooner, if the Apple iPhone is as good as it looks. I don’t think books will die, but they will routinely be published in some kind of PDF format, or online. And people will be ever more demanding, wanting everyone with GPS and so on.
I’m not 100 percent sure that is a good thing. There is a charm about travelling with a book and a degree of uncertainty, not checking every hotel website in advance and pre-booking every restaurant.
How do you manage all your different roles as a contributing editor to Songlines, director to Wanderlust and co-publisher of Sort Of Books, and what makes you take them on?
World Music has been a passion for many years, so being a contributing editor to Songlines, the world music magazine, is a pleasure. I’d be reading it all if I wasn’t working on it!
Sort Of Books is actually run mainly by my wife, Natania Jansz, who co-wrote the first Rough Guide to Greece with me and then sensibly left to pursue a career in psychology. We set up the imprint initially to publish a book by our friend Chris Stewart – Driving Over Lemons – but that was such a success that we carried on, and now do three or four books a year.
What tips would you give anyone wanting to follow in the footsteps of your career? How do you become a good guidebook writer, travel writer and publisher?
I think if anyone wants to set up a publishing company of any kind, they need to identify a niche. In the internet age, we’ve all become niche consumers and enthusiasts. I’m not sure that print publishing is the best or only way to go, though. If I was setting up now, I would be looking to get established online first.
To be a good guidebook writer, you need to really want to spend time in a country, getting to know it inside out. You should think of the work as an excuse to do that, because the money is, to be honest, not great. If you want to write for Rough Guides, you will also need to be an elegant and engaging writer. We take prose seriously.
Finally, what are your most outrageous memories from your travelling and publishing lives?
Ah, like they say about the ’60s, if you were there you can’t remember it! But perhaps I could just mention our most outrageous mistake?
One of our China authors, covering a town on the border with North Korea, rather vaguely suggested that visitors might consider a “walk around the lake.” One traveller took that entirely literally and set off right around the lake – into North Korea, where they were thrown into jail for a fortnight, with one of those wonderful North Korean radios (volume dial only, no tuner – just the one station) for company. He had a great time, luckily!
Shows you mustn’t follow a guidebook too slavishly, even if it is a Rough Guide!