Candid Aussie Guidebooks to Pack

WAYNE STARR is telling an old friend how to determine if a mattress has bed bugs. Oh, and he wants the friend to know that a trip to Yugoslavia was a complete disaster. "Hated the place the minute I arrived," says Mr. Starr of Chilton, Oxon, United Kingdom. And don't try to exchange money on the black market in Yugoslavia, he advises, because it's too easy to get ripped off.

Starr is relating this information to his old friend Lonely Planet Publications, publisher of 80 travel guides from every continent except Antarctica. In large part because it encourages mail, Lonely Planet receives 75 to 100 letters a week from readers. But the company also gets the letters because it has cultivated loyal customers.

So many people come in and ask for Lonely Planet guides that "you don't even have to display them," says Ross Lamond, travel-guide buyer for the Angus & Robertson bookstore in Sydney.

Some travelers buy the books because of their off-the-beaten-track appeal. Lonely Planet has published guides about such non-touristy places as Yemen, Reunion, Namibia, and Madagascar. Writes Lucy Kunkel of Ithaca, N.Y., "Without your books I am sure the courage and convictions that I have for my journey would be much less."

Gabriel Fox, publisher of The Complete Traveller, a United Kingdom magazine, calls the guides either the best or equal-best of available guides. He says only the British Rough Guides (Real Guides, Prentice Hall/Simon & Schuster, in the United States) are comparable in quality. Lonely Planet frequently has a book on The Complete Travellers' bestseller list.

Turning out quality books helps Lonely Planet sell 1 million copies per year. The US and UK are the largest markets. Australia represents 15 percent of its $5.3 million to $6 million in annual revenues. The books are either Shoestring guides - written for low-budget travel in a region or continent, or Travel Survival Kits, which cover a country or small group of countries.

The company, which joint-owner Tony Wheeler says is profitable, is a partnership between Mr. Wheeler, his wife, Maureen, and Jim Hart, who joined Lonely Planet in 1979. Today, the publisher occupies two floors of a modern office building in suburban Melbourne. However, Mr. Hart recalls that in the mid-1970s, "Tony could fit the whole office in the boot of a Ford Cortina." Those were the days, Hart says, of "microscopic" publishing. Today, he estimates the global market for guidebooks is about $400 millio n retail with Lonely Planet holding about 5 percent of the market share.

One reason for Lonely Planet's success is that its guides are different enough from the others to entice buyers. "We're more adventurous ... we never have been afraid of saying things," says Wheeler. For example, in its guidebook on Micronesia, the authors have no trouble criticizing US policy, which was supposed to provide for self-government and self-sufficiency. "Instead, 20 years of neglect were followed by 20 years of promoting welfare dependency," the book says.

Such candor has not always endeared the guidebooks to local politicians. "Africa on a Shoestring" is banned in Malawi because it criticized President Banda's Youth Corps. The latest edition includes a warning that custom officials will seize the book at the Malawi border and suggests pasting a different book cover over the Lonely Planet compendium. In India and Indonesia censors put black lines through parts which may not fit local versions of events. Maps can be especially troublesome because of border disputes.

Guidebooks that try to give a political perspective can run into more than local problems. In January, Lonely Planet released its first guidebook on the former Soviet Union. "Politically, it's all wrong," says Wheeler. "We've got the Baltic states in it, and they are no longer a part of the USSR so it's a total shambles." The new book will have lots of "Stop presses" (news updates) at the back, but Wheeler concedes "you can't be correcting for every statue that has been knocked down in the last six week s."

Aside from proving how difficult it is to write political commentary during periods of rapid change, the book also illustrates how the travel-guide business has changed. Wheeler estimates that it cost more than $187,900 to research and write the book. The authors made 12 trips to the Soviet Union, including a considerable amount of time west of Moscow. Most guidebooks concen- trate on the eastern or European side of the country.

A major endeavor was producing accurate maps. "The Soviets had deliberately falsified all the maps of Moscow to hide the KGB headquarters," says Wheeler. Official maps were so inaccurate that Lonely Planet threw them away and started from scratch.

The Soviet guidebook is a dramatic contrast to "Asia on the Cheap," Wheeler's first book, written with his wife in 1973. Wheeler had just finished business school, but he and Maureen decided to travel the overland Asia route to Australia. After the trip, so many friends wanted to know the practicalities of the adventure that Wheeler decided to publish a book.

Reflecting the bell-bottom days of the 1970s, the book showed prospective travelers how to go from Darwin, Australia to Istanbul for $179. It informed travelers that the area was full of drugs but added, "You miss a lot from nine miles up."

Within two years, Wheeler was writing sophisticated guidebooks. "People ask who are we writing the books for? The ones I wrote - and I think I set the pattern - I've written for myself. I have reasonably diverse tastes, and I want the books to satisfy my tastes," he says. This means the books don't rave about the beaches ("I get bored sitting on a beach," says Wheeler) and are full of insights into a country's history and culture.

This formula will soon be used on Lonely Planet's first foray into Western Europe. "It will be exciting competing with people who have a good reputation," Wheeler says. Plans include producing separate guides for the Baltics. Lonely Planet also plans to spend more time on Central and South America.

Wheeler says he believes the readers have changed, reflecting the tougher economic times. "People are more buttoned-down, less likely to leave a good job," he explains. This attitude has resulted in a subtle change in the way the books are written. There is more information for "up market" readers, "Hilton hippies," who prefer a good hotel but want independent travel.

Some readers object to this shift. One wrote, "This is supposed to be survival not decadence." Wheeler, who has written or coauthored 17 of the guidebooks in print, now prefers a comfortable hotel to a hostel. However, he occasionally checks in at a backpackers' hostel "just to prove I can still do it."

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