13 December, 2007

'Once While Travelling' - Tony and Maureen Wheeler

This is the history of the publishing giant that is Lonely Planet. Now over 30 years old, the company progressed slowly enough towards its current status that this book is primarily concerned with developments, experiments, trial and error: their global success was not cemented until the last third of their history.

Its strength lies in its multi-level appeal. Nearly anyone who has travelled has used a Lonely Planet guide and it's fascinating to learn both how the company grew and to get to know the people who started it. There is a strong business element to the book: it is both inspiring and informative as for the first 15 years or so this was a very small, personal operation. There are also a lot of travel tales, from the Wheeler's utterly exhaustive trips around the world, with descriptions and anecdotes from every continent. Furthermore, Tony and Maureen Wheeler are extremely endearing people so the biography element of the book is just as engaging as the business and travel aspects.

Having read multiple large-print-run works of literature of late with typos and inconsistencies it was a relief to read something so well edited. This is not entirely surprising, since Tony managed the publishing side of Lonely Planet for many years and is an experienced editor. That's not to say it's flawless - there are some overly colloquial sentences that are hard to interpret on the first read and hence appear as mistakes, and the chronology does jump a little bit. This is inevitable though and does not lessen the reading experience: in business the consequences of one decision may not be felt for several years, so on various occasions an event is initially summarised and then explained more fully at the appropriate stage later in the book.

What is so endearing about this book is its truth. The Wheelers must have been asked thousands of times how Lonely Planet started and grew, and here they have a reference that allows them to say 'If you really want to know, read this!'. Importantly it gives a clear idea of how the business grew (and at times retreated), without miring in too much detail, rather than leapfrogging from success to success. It doesn't skirt around hard times or bad decisions. Having bought my first Lonely Planet in 2003 I was intrigued to learn that it was at this time, with profits in eight figures, that the company went through some of its hardest times.

The account is neither verbose, self-indulgent, nor contrarily self-effacing. The company is a global brand and it would ring falsely if the authors pretended it was anything other than that. While not ignoring the extent of their success, the more detailed chapters focus on the development of the company, during which the Wheeler's knew everyone who worked for them and celebrated every staff member's birthday, a tradition I have no doubt they would carry on if their size allowed.

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