Where have you been, Arthur Frommer?
No, we don’t mean where in the world, although we’re curious about your latest wanderings. But where on the bookshelf?
For the past few years, we’ve been watching the Frommer’s drama, an unwelcome shake-up after more than five decades of knowing exactly where to find the trusted travel guides: in bookstores throughout North America. In August 2012, Google purchased the Frommer’s series and seven months later threatened to halt the publication of future books. But then in April, the globe-trotting founder swooped in and bought his brand back. Frommer saves Frommer’s!
To find out where Arthur has been and where he’s going, we caught up with the 84-year-old in early December at his home in New York to hear the story of his career and his latest business moves. Edited excerpts:
A GUIDEBOOK IS BORN
The day I graduated from Yale Law School, I was drafted into the Army. I was trained to go to South Korea, but before our unit shipped out, I received orders to go to Berlin.
During the time I was stationed in Europe, I couldn’t believe my good luck. I utilized every weekend and every three-day pass to go sightseeing. I would go out to an Air Force base and cadge a seat on a plane going somewhere in Europe. I was doing this while all my associates in the Army stayed in the barracks.
In the last three weeks of my service, I wrote a little book called The GI’s Guide to Travelling in Europe, which I published myself [in 1955]. [Back in New York,] I got a cable that the book had sold out on virtually the first afternoon it was put on sale.
When my first vacation rolled around, I said to myself, “I think I should do this for civilians.” I had a one-month vacation and I returned to Europe and went running from one city to the next. I came back and wrote a book called Europe on Five Dollars a Day.
FIVE DOLLARS GOES FAR
I had 5,000 copies of Europe on Five Dollars a Day printed, and the book literally sold out within an hour after it appeared in the bookstores. Over the next three, four, five years, the book became a monster. I was in the meantime working 16 hours a day for a law firm, and then I’d stay up half the night writing guidebooks. We started publishing other Five Dollars a Day books —to New York, to Japan, to the Caribbean. Eventually, I had no choice but to give up the law. I went into the full-time practice of travel publishing.
[After reacquiring my brand], my daughter [Pauline] and I had seven months in which to relaunch the travel guides. We called all the authors, who are scattered all over the world. We’ve published 30 separate titles of 2014 editions.
The guides go completely against the recent trends in travel publishing. The trend was to print ever more voluminous guides. It became commonplace for a guidebook to be 800 or 900 pages long — one of them is even 1,100 pages! They started weighing three pounds; they’re like doorstops. The whole publishing industry was drowning the traveler in too much information.
I felt that people needed smaller books containing the preferences of the authors. We decided to issue a new type of guidebook that would be limited to 256 pages. We call them EasyGuides. On the cover, we say that they are “quick to read,” “light to carry” with “expert advice in all price ranges.” In other words, they’re lighter than a tablet.
We’ve also published what we called Day by Day guides. We give you itineraries and walking tours that you can pursue for one, two, three or four days of travel. They are about 180 pages long.
There’s been a tremendous emphasis in our current guidebooks on substituting apartments and vacation homes for standard hotels. Not only do you save money, but you enjoy a more authentic experience. These are some of the tactics people are using to avoid the conveyor belt of travel.
One of the other things that distinguishes our guidebooks is the seriousness with which they are written. We have fun writing them, and there’s humor and personality, but we regard travel as a very serious enterprise — as not mere recreation but as a means of learning and something that’s very important to a civilized life. We encourage our authors to deal seriously with the culture, the lifestyles and the politics of the countries that people are visiting, to emphasize the rewards of putting yourself in a situation where everything is completely different. We regard that as part of the adventure of life.
LONG LIVE PRINT
The evidence is apparently in: The public still desires to carry a print guidebook. You have the phenomenon of e-books, but the print guidebooks are still outselling the e-book 8 or 9 to 1. Now that’s not to say that we’re not going to bring out electronic versions. But the print guidebook is alive and well.
A GROWTH SPURT
We are already planning for the fall of 2014, at which time the number of our guidebooks will double. We’ll have close to 60 titles. I’m 84 years old; I never thought that I’d be working as hard as this again in all my life.
TRAVEL IN THE 21ST CENTURY
The world is getting smaller, and travel is becoming more difficult. There are many destinations that are overwhelmed with tourism, and it’s very difficult to enjoy them. More and more people have got to travel off-season. There’s always a desire to find new destinations that aren’t touristed, or at least to travel in them in a way that permits you to avoid the worst excesses of tourism.
I have a picture of myself when I was in the Army. I was in the middle of the Piazza San Marco [in Venice]. I am virtually the only person there. Today it’s like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
SPIN THE GLOBE
I still travel. I just got back from an area of the United States of which I was completely unaware and which is known as the Eastern Shore of Virginia. We had a delightful time in an area that is finally being touristed. It used to be solely agricultural, and now you can see hotels going up.
My wife and I are going back to Oxford this July. She’s taking a course on the human brain, and I’m taking a course in political philosophy. We did that a year or so ago when we studied Virginia Woolf for an entire week. It was a fascinating intellectual adventure.
I think I’ve been virtually everywhere in the world. I went through 30 or 40 years of being in a different place almost every week of my life, hopping around like a madman from one place to another. There are only a couple of places that I haven’t gotten to. I haven’t been to Antarctica or Tibet yet, or Sri Lanka. But I enjoy going back to various cities. I love vacationing in Paris, my favorite place on Earth.