Extra, Extra, Read All About It - Before You Get There

Today's tourists are travelers with an attitude. They take venturing seriously. That's why one of the more popular travel destinations is the bookstore.

Well, before the trip anyway.

Instead of just loading up on travelers' checks, suntan lotion, or other "necessities" prior to a trip, individuals are immersing themselves in the history of their destination by reading the burgeoning supply of travel books. And they can turn to an expanding network of travel writers, publishers, and retailers for the information that will help them get the most they can from their trip.

"If you're interested in travel today, you have to be concerned with sense and quality and history of place," says Herb Hiller, chairman of the Freelance Writers Council of the Society of American Travel Writers.

As Mr. Hiller suggests, many of today's travelers want to educate themselves about the places they visit and strive to immerse themselves in foreign cultures, a beneficial turn of events for the booming travel book industry.

In a study conducted by the American Booksellers Association, the travel category posted the largest percentage increase of book purchases in 1995, though it remains the smallest segment of the market. Traditional guidebooks like the Fodor's and Frommer's series continue to lead the pack.

Bonnie Ammer, president and publisher of Fodor's, a Random House imprint, says that her firm produces 220 titles a year and has been growing steadily for the last five years. Fodor's has lined up a series of joint projects, like "Golf Digest's 4,200 Best Places to Play" with Golf Digest and "A Complete Four Sport Stadium Guide" with USA Today, which ensure that the imprint will stay at or near the top of the guide market.

Meanwhile, another Random House imprint, Vintage, handles the more literary titles, like Peter Mayle's bestseller "A Year in Provence." But Vintage does not dominate the literary market in the same way that Fodor's and Frommer's dominate the guidebook scene.

"Guidebooks are always popular," says Rochelle Jaffe, owner of Travel Books and Language Center in Bethesda, Md. "But there are a lot of new travel anthologies and books of travel literature coming out."

Typically, today's travelers are visiting the same foreign and domestic destinations that have been popular for decades. In a recent Hot Spots Forecast issued by the American Society of Travel Agents, polled travel agents predicted that London, Paris, Frankfurt, Cancun, and Rome will be the top foreign destinations in 1997, while Orlando, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco head the domestic list.

But there are indications that Americans are interested in new destinations and traveling for new reasons. The Hot Spots Forecast takes special note of ecotourists flooding Costa Rica and Belize to observe the wonders of the rain forests, travelers anxious to visit newly reopened Vietnam, and adventurers who are more frequently looking to Alaska and Australia for their thrills.

And according to many experts, the visitors to more traditional locations like London and San Francisco are traveling with a new set of expectations and goals.

"The market has gone from the straight destination guide to a highly varied set of takes on destinations," says Mr. Miller, who is currently working on "The Florida Handbook" for Moon Publishing in California. "There are a lot of us who simply refuse to write another schlock guidebook."

An example of a growing genre, Miller's work-in-progress will contain historical accounts and ecological information as well as the usual guidebook fare, and will be published at the end of next year.

Small, specialized publishing companies like Moon and its fellow California-based houses - Lonely Planet, Access Guides, and Chronicle Books - are perhaps in the best position to capitalize on the growing market for literary and offbeat travel titles.

"The people who are writing unusual, specialty travel publications are finding the spots for themselves and creating their own niches," says Karen Silver, of Chronicle Books. "The market for these books is the slightly more upscale travelers who have the room to bring literature with them on their trips."

One of Chronicle's most popular series, Chronicles Abroad, is a set of literary anthologies devoted to the American traveler's favorite destinations. A recent volume on Berlin includes passages by writers as varied as Franz Kafka and Josephine Baker. The book's small trim size is accommodating even to the traveler burdened by a stuffed suitcase.

In addition, the advantage of this new breed of specialty travel book over the more-traditional guidebook is its appeal to the nontraveler who has an interest in distant lands.

"We're trying to market not only to the traveler but also to the person who wants to read about a place as well," says Jason Mitchell, publicity representative for Chronicle Books.

But even the specialty publishers cannot satisfy the combined demand of travelers and recreational readers. At the moment, the market appears inexhaustible.

Writers who have had difficulty selling their work to publishing houses in the past are now considering self-publishing as a viable option and are experiencing a small measure of success.

Jeanette Belliveau, author of "An Amateur's Guide to the Planet," an account of her travels to Madagascar, Borneo, Burma, and other exotic locations, did not despair when the big publishers rejected her manuscript. She successfuly published the book under her own imprint, Beau Monde, and took it straight to the niche markets.

Every major city in America now boasts at least one travel bookstore, prompting some of the more successful stores to organize into a new trade group, the Independent Travel Book and Map Store Association. Ms. Jaffe, cofounder and treasurer of the association, calls it a "consortium of travel bookstores throughout the country, for a stronger voice in the industry."

If the recent trend in travel books continues, emphasizing history and culture and deemphasizing the guidebook format, Jaffe and the new association of travel writers may soon find that voice.

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