The Story Behind Rick's Books
|The first edition of Europe Through the Back Door, released in 1980.|
Throughout the late 1970s I traveled lots and taught my "European Travel Cheap" class at the University of Washington's "Experimental College" in Seattle. Realizing a teacher needs a textbook, I put the lectures on paper, compiled my favorite discoveries, and in 1980 wrote the first edition of Europe Through the Back Door. I rented an IBM Selectric, sweet-talked my girlfriend into typing it and my roommate into sketching the illustrations. I gingerly drove that precious first pile of pages up to Snohomish Publishing (an hour north of Seattle) and, on my 25th birthday, returned to pick up 2,500 copies.
Through my travel classes, I sold all those first editions of Europe Through the Back Door. In 1981, I got a bit more professional with the second edition, taking out the personal poems and the lists of most dangerous airlines. Pacific Pipeline distributed the book to bookstores throughout the Northwest. The third edition, even though typeset now, still looked so simple and amateurish that reviewers and talk show hosts repeatedly mistook it for a "pre-publication edition."
Throughout the 1970s I was a piano teacher. By about 1982, my recital hall was becoming a travel lecture classroom, and I needed to choose Europe or music. I chose teaching travel over piano, let my students go, and began building Europe Through the Back Door, inc.
In 1983, Carl Franz, author of People's Guide to Mexico, helped me find a real publisher. Carl's publisher, John Muir Publications (of How to Keep Your VW Alive fame, not the naturalist) was looking for books with a vagabond soul similar to Carl's. John Muir agreed to publish the fourth edition of Europe Through the Back Door. Happily, I could now focus on researching and writing rather than publishing. The current 24th edition — the result of over 25 year's experience of traveling independently, tour guiding, teaching and lecturing-is the best selling Europe guidebook in the U.S.
Taking advantage of the teaching experience gained after years of leading small groups through Europe, I teamed up with friend and fellow tour guide Gene Openshaw to write and self-publish Europe 101 in 1984. This art guide takes travelers on a practical sweep through the story of Europe from the Pyramids to Picasso. We wrote it for smart people who slept through their art and history classes before they knew they were going to Europe. Now they have a trip coming up and they wish they knew who the Etruscans were.
While Europe 101 was for pre-trip reading, the natural follow up was a collection of museum tours. So, in 1988, Gene and I researched and wrote Mona Winks, a collection of take-you-by-the-hand walks through Europe's 20 most frightening and exhausting museums.
By the mid-1980s, I was guiding more and more groups through Europe. Slowly, a handbook for my "Europe in 22 Days" tours evolved to give tour members more information about sights and logistics. To promote tours, I displayed samples of this not-for-sale tour handbook at my lectures. People stole them. This book — the only thing people have ever stolen from me — was driving decent people to theft. It needed to be available for sale. I published an expanded edition to give independent travelers the blueprint for the best and smoothest 22-day tour of Europe. Now they could do my tour on their own-and much cheaper — with the help of this book. The self-published first edition of Europe in 22 Days sold well.
In 1985 John Muir decided to publish my Europe 101 and the Europe in 22 Days guide. From the start, my publisher wanted to turn the 22 Days guidebook into a series. Each year I added a 22 days itinerary planner to our growing series: Great Britain, Germany/Austria/Switzerland, Spain/Portugal, France, Scandinavia, and Italy. The series evolved from Europe in 22 Days to 22 Days in Europe, to 2 to 22 Days in Europe to, finally, simply Rick Steves' Best of Europe. In early 1999 we published our first city guides covering Paris and London. A Rome guidebook followed in 2000.
With twenty books in print by the mid-1990s, I was learning the importance of collaboration. Old travel friends (Gene Openshaw and Francophile Steve Smith) co-authored books. Risa Laib moved into the office next to mine to oversee the series and give it a consistent and professional level of quality. Dave Hoerlein has contributed his uniquely user-friendly maps for all the books. Brooke Burdick launched ricksteves.com, one of the most popular websites for European travel. And my growing staff of fifty helps run with projects I could have never handled in the past.
In 1993 we developed the "Rick Steves" phrase books. I speak just one language (English) and have struggled with Berlitz guides and the language barrier for over 20 years. Translated by native speakers, these practical and entertaining phrase books are designed for the independent budget traveler. Berlitz knew his languages but he never slept in a hotel where he had to ask "At what time is the water hot?"
Through the 1990s I helped write and film the Travels in Europe with Rick Steves public television series. After four successful seasons, the 52 episodes are still airing across the country. In 1999, I established my own production company and have produced about 60 episodes of Rick Steves' Europe for public television — including a PBS Christmas Special in 2005. Rick Steves' Europe airs on public TV throughout the country, and a new season debuts every other September. As a nice bonus, the Rick Steves' Europe programs have been and will continue to be a leading pledge drive money-maker for public broadcasting.
In 1999, I gave myself the creative pleasure of writing an anecdotal book, weaving my favorite travel experiences and lessons from two decades of travel fun into a fantasy trip following my favorite three-week circuit around Europe. Packed with travel stories and experience (rather than hotel and restaurant listings), Rick Steves' Postcards from Europe is also a guidebook in disguise introducing you to the enduring magic of my favorite continent.
Inevitably, my small and friendly publisher (John Muir) realized small publishers need to join bigger ones to survive in the book business. In 1999, the publishing wing (Avalon Travel Publishing) of my national distributor (Publisher's Group West) bought John Muir. I couldn't have ended up with a better fit: communication is great and our vision is in sync. And, we feel like partners with the same statement of purpose: to provide good and accurate information so travelers can enjoy maximum travel thrills for every mile, minute and dollar in their next vacation.