News broke yesterday that Thomas Cook is pulling out of publishing, the latest in a long line of guidebook publishing disasters over the last few years. Thomas Cook Publishing hasn’t been one of the biggest players of recent years in comparison to names like Lonely Planet, Michelin or Dorling Kindersley, but their exit really does mark the end of an era because they are probably the oldest and most venerable of all. After all, it was Thomas Cook who invented the package tour in 1841 when he hired a train to take a group of temperance supporters from Leicester to Loughborough for a rally. 500 passengers went for the day. The journey was 12 miles and tickets cost a shilling. It was a huge success, but what would he have made of hard-drinking Magaluf?
Thomas Cook Publishing began soon afterwards. With commercial trips thriving, by 1851, the enterprising Mr Cook was soon producing an advertising newspaper, Cook’s Exhibition Herald and Excursion Advertiser, as a way of attracting passengers. Modern travel writing was on its way.
In March 1873, Cook’s Continental Time Tables was published for the first time – the forerunner of today’s Thomas Cook’s European Timetable, detailing all rail and ferry services across Europe. Inevitably now overtaken by the internet, for over a century it was the bible of European travel, much thumbed by everyone from trainspotters to interrail enthusiasts, businessmen to station porters. Dry as dust at first glance, it was a miracle of research and offered endless adventures. These convoluted tables led from Andover to Zagreb via Istanbul, Moscow or Madrid. Everything was possible. Just thinking of it now makes me want to grab my backpack and head for the nearest station.
Thomas Cook and me
My own history with Thomas Cook publishing began in the late 1980s when the AA hired me as series editor for a new series of guidebooks they were creating, to be sponsored by Thomas Cook, the Thomas Cook Traveller Guides. They were to be aimed at people doing a one to two week package holiday, were 60,000 words long, strictly formatted, with lots of colour pictures, suggestions for restaurants, hotels, walks, tours – and really good maps. It all seems obvious today, but at that stage it was part of a revolution in guidebook publishing that was exploding onto the world scene. In the space of five years, I commissioned and edited 54 titles in the series, working with many of the world’s finest guidebook authors and photographers to shape the books and take them through to the finished product. I also wrote the titles on Kenya and Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan myself (editor’s privilege, cherry-picking destinations I had always wanted to visit). It was hugely satisfying, intensively busy and not always easy. I remember doing deals with other editors. It was one of three major new series being created by the AA alone and we had to juggle schedules to make sure that there were enough good writers to go around.
“If I do the Sicily in this batch and Rome in the next one, then she has time to write both…”
Those were the days! We got paid a living wage if not handsomely, had expenses, enough time to do good on the ground research, backed up by verifiers and editors, very different from the spiral of internet updates which has helped contribute to the downfall of the guides. But that’s a different story…
I later went on to do other work for Thomas Cook, helping to create the blueprint then editing the first editions of On the Rails Around Europe and various other companion volumes.
Both the Traveller guides and On the Rails Around Europe (now called Europe by Rail) have survived and continued to sell around the world to this day, running into many editions and helping thousands of travellers enjoy and remember happy holidays. I am hugely proud of that and of the work put into them by the many writers, photographers, editors, cartographers and others who created them. I hope that they may have some sort of future. The splendid team behind Hidden Europe magazine have been editing Europe by Rail for the last couple of editions and they are hoping to save it, so watch their website. As for the rest?
The last few years have seen the AA pull out of guidebook publishing; Frommers sold to Google, then the name sold back to Frommers; Lonely Planet sold for a fraction of what the BBC paid for it. The list goes on. Guidebook sales have plummeted, thanks to the internet. But I do believe there is still a market out there eager for properly researched, properly assessed, properly organised, professionally written and maintained, objective information. It doesn’t matter in the end whether it comes in book form or electronically, but it’s just a matter of persuading people to pay for it.
So farewell, Thomas Cook Publishing. You helped to change the world. Not many people can say that.