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Lonely Planet Successful Publishing Company

Updated on December 29, 2017
Anita Hasch profile image

I live on a homestead in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Writing and reading are my passion.

A flourishing publishing company, ‘The Lonely Planet,’ was sold in 2007 to the BBC for 89 million pounds. Tony and Maureen Wheeler sold 75% of their company and retained 25% of the shares in the company. In 2011, they sold the remaining 25% as well, for 42 million pounds.

What makes this so amazing is that this company was started with a little 96 page booklet, ‘Across ASIA on the Cheap,’ now a collector’s item, which came out in 1973. It was written, laid out, and hand stapled on the kitchen table of their Sydney flat.

Nine months after leaving London the Wheelers arrived in Sydney, Australia, down to their last 97 cents. Their original plan was to find jobs for three or four months until they had earned enough to pay for plane tickets to return to the UK.

But in Sydney, many people hearing about their travels were eager to copy their journey. It was this demand for knowledge of their journey that motivated them to write a guidebook.

River and Mountains in Asia

First Printing Sold Out In 10 Days

The first printing of 1,500 copies sold out in ten days. Another, larger print run followed, then another. It was the right book at the right time. In the free spirited 1970s, young men and women were wandering all over the world in growing numbers. There was a tremendous demand for a good guidebook to the so called Hippie Trail, and the Wheelers’ compact volume was the first to meet the demand. In retrospect, this happy outcome should not have been a surprise. Navigating exotic cultural places on a limited budget was what they were good at.

Lonely Planet guidebooks, advertised as ‘travel survival kits,’ are distinguished by witty, meticulously detailed advice on everything from appreciating erotic Hindu art to giving money to beggars. Baffled by the difference in Western and Pakistani plumbing? How much should you tip in Nairobi? A Lonely Planet guide will tell you what you need to know. And the chapter under the heading ‘avoiding offence,’ was very helpful when dealing with different cultures.

Market In Nairobi

All They Planned To Do Was To Travel

The most popular Lonely Planet titles have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. In addition to a stable of contract authors, the company employs almost 150 full time staff, including editors, cartographers and designers, maintains offices in Melbourne, London, Paris and Oakland, California, and generates huge annual revenues. Yet Tony and Maureen had no intention of founding a publishing empire. All they wanted to do was travel.

Tony was born and bred in Bournemouth, in the South of England, and met Maureen on a London park bench in 1970. They got talking and were married a year later. Tony was offered a good job with Ford, Maureen went to work for a London wine importer. But in 1972, they decided to take a year off and travel across Asia, thereby getting the travel bug out of their system and settling down for good.

Baby Elephant Getting Fed In India

South East Asia On A Shoestring

They withdrew their life savings and bought a small second hand van. Then they took a boat across the Channel and just started driving east. Their route took them across Europe, the Balkans, Turkey and Iran. In Afghanistan they sold the van and continued by bus, train, boat and hitch hiking, meandering through Pakistan, Kashmir, India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.. Tony had travelled before but it was Maureen’s first experience of different countries and cultures. When she first saw Asia, she was amazed at the richness of so many different cultures.


They Decided To Do Another Trip

Encouraged by the success of their first publishing venture, Tony and Maureen decided to do a another trip, and write another guide book on their return. They bought a 250cc motorcycle and spent 12 months riding through Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, Laos and Thailand. Their trip was published as ‘South East Asia on a Shoestring,’ which was published in 1975. It sold almost twice as many copies as ‘Across ASIA.’ Over the next few years, operating from Melbourne, Lonely Planet went on to publish guides to Nepal, Africa, New Zealand and New Guinea. But even though the books were selling, it was not enough to support the two of them.

First Edition Sold 100,000 Copies

Their breakthrough came in 1979 when the Wheeler's with more than a dozen books already published, decided to publish a book about India’s splendor and diverse culture. Despite enlisting the services of two other writers to help them, it turned out to be infinitely more daunting than they had imagined. The book ran to 700 pages, four times as long as our previous books, which meant it had to be priced four times as high as well. Nevertheless the India guide made a big splash. The first edition sold 100,000 copies, won the prestigious Thomas Cook Guidebook award and went on to sell half a million copies in more editions. It placed the Wheeler's on to a much higher level. Lonely Planet then expanded to television, with a 12 part series under its name on British TV’s Channel 4.

Not everyone believes all this is a good thing. Critics complain that off the beaten track travel guides ultimately destroy the very places they celebrate. The Wheelers remain convinced that their books do more good than harm. The money spent by travelers in the local economies of poor countries improves the standard of living, In Nepal, for example, it’s no coincidence that the regions with the most trekkers also have the best schools, more hospitals, and lower infant mortality.

Maureen acknowledges that the undeveloped world is changing fast and that change is inevitable. In remote Bhutanese hamlets, primitive homes have battery or solar powdered video cassette player.

Guides Banned From Several Countries

The Lonely Planet guides were banned from several countries after the Wheeler's reported frankly on repressive political regimes, They have donated a percentage of their revenues to aid projects in Southern Asia, Africa, India and Central America since 1986.

After they sold 75% shares to the BBC, they still published ebooks, phrasebooks, a range of gift, food and children’s titles, and a magazine. They also created a website to give travelers the tools to plan their next trip, with in depth information on destinations, ideas on what to see and do, as well as The Thorn Tree forum to connect with other travelers and travel guides.



© 2017 Anita Hasch

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    • Anita Hasch profile image
      Author

      Anita Hasch 6 weeks ago from Port Elizabeth

      Thanks for reading Mary. I love stories of successful people, especially those that build an empire starting with nothing but their brains and willingness to just do it..

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 7 weeks ago from Brazil

      How fascinating, although I have of course heard of their books, I didn't know the history of it. Necessity is the mother of invention they say. Like you said, the right book for the right time.

      I am certain these opportunities still exist, it is just a matter of staying open-minded and observant.

      The people who criticized them are probably desk bound whiners who are too afraid to go on an adventure like the two of them.

      Interesting article.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 10 months ago

      You're welcome.

    • Anita Hasch profile image
      Author

      Anita Hasch 10 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      Thank you for your comment Robert. I love success stories.

    • Anita Hasch profile image
      Author

      Anita Hasch 10 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      Yes Nadine, they certainly are a success story. I would imagine the fact that the BBC could use the content in their books for years to come, contributed to the high selling price. People are always wanting to travel.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 10 months ago

      This is an interesting article about an amazing success story. Thank you.

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 10 months ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Great Hub Antia. I've heard about the publishing company but never knew about them selling it for such a large sum of money. Gosh, what a success story. It would be great if somebody offered us a large some for our publishing company that started in 1993. We do not have the quantity books sold that they had, but we love what we do, publishing books that make a difference to people's lives.

    • Anita Hasch profile image
      Author

      Anita Hasch 10 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      Thank you Marlene, what the Wheeler's achieved, is an inspiration to writers everywhere. Their kindness shows their integrity.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 10 months ago from USA

      The Wheelers are living my dream life. What a fascinating life story. They are such good people of the planet. The fact that they still donate to countries even where their books are banned is a tribute to their lovely souls. No wonder they have been so blessed with their endeavors. I truly enjoyed reading about them.

    • Anita Hasch profile image
      Author

      Anita Hasch 11 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      Hi Thelma, Some people are just born lucky. But I must say they are an inspiration to those that hope to sell lots of books one day. Their story really motivates me to try just a little bit harder.

    • Anita Hasch profile image
      Author

      Anita Hasch 11 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      Yes I wish my first little book turned out to sell that much. Some people are just born lucky. They are obviously good business people.

    • clivewilliams profile image

      Clive Williams 11 months ago from Jamaica

      Thanks for the history lesson on this publisher

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 11 months ago from Germany

      Wow! This is an amazing hub. I have not heard about the owners of this company but I have read some of what they have written.

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