When Jane Smillie and Ben Olins told people that they were going to start a publishing company dedicated to creating travel guides and maps that would be printed on paper, harkening back to a time when travelers didn’t depend on smartphones to navigate the world, they didn’t get a whole lot of encouragement. “Pretty much everyone that we spoke to advised us not to self publish,” Smillie recalls.
You can certainly understand why there would be naysayers. How often do you see someone pull out a map in London or New York City? A lot of travelers are glued to their smartphones these days, turning to Google Maps for directions and scrolling through online guides for tips.
But Smillie and Olins, who had met while working in contract publishing for the U.K.’s Channel 4, believed that there was still a market for thoroughly researched and lovingly designed retro-style print guides and maps, and in 2010, the duo formed Herb Lester Associates in London.
Growth has been slow and steady, Olins reports, and Herb Lester Associates, which sells its products online and in stores, recently got U.S. distribution and overhauled its website.
Tourists who pick up Herb Lester’s clever and compact guides (printed in England on 100% recycled paper) are led to sights both usual and unusual in cities like London, Tokyo, Austin, Stockholm, New York City, Los Angeles, and Berlin.
A sampling: While Writing Manhattan offers a tour of literary sights ranging from former flophouses to posh bars frequented by the likes of J.D. Salinger and Dylan Thomas, Clandestine London is a guide to pubs, gardens and other places that provide privacy in the crowded metropolis. Austin on the Hoof intersperses an overview of the city’s history and cultural attractions with listings for honky tonks and record shops.
All of the guides are practical, but they’re also charming and fun, and they’re ultimately travel keepsakes–the kind of tokens people will hold on to after they’re out-of-date because of the memories attached to them.
Here, Smillie and Olins talk to Co.Create about how they have found success with print products in a decidedly digital world:
Both Smillie and Olins have an appreciation for printed matter, and when they started Herb Lester Associates, they were confident there were others like them. In fact, all along, the duo has relied on their own experiences and instincts in building their business.
“This might be somewhat of an age thing because I didn’t grow up with an iPhone in my hand, but I think it’s much easier to get confused when you’re looking at a digital device than when you’re looking at something printed on paper,” Olins says, noting that the design of each Herb Lester guide also makes information easier to find. “I think you retain the memory of what you read better than when you’re scrolling through endless amounts of information with either the same or almost identical typefaces.”
You’re not buying a Herb Lester guide because you want to know everything about a city; rather, you’re looking for a curated list of sights to see. “I think the fact that we’re quite limited in what we recommend makes it a clearer judgment,” Olins says. “We don’t say, ‘Here’s a thousands things you’ve got to do!’ We say, ‘Here are 40 things we think are really great.’ I think that makes life simpler for people.”
The brand’s website underwent a major revamp this summer. “With the new site, we had a few things we wanted to address. For people unfamiliar with our guides, we felt it would be helpful that the site give a better idea of the type of places that appeal to us, that you find in our printed guides, and also our style–no hyperbole, just considered and truthful recommendations,” Olins says. “For regular or returning customers, we wanted to offer a bit more, to cover areas we’ve not published guides for but also give some extras on places we have.”
To that end, the new site includes, for example, a guide to Brighton, England, a destination Herb Lester hasn’t explored in print, and more online guides are on the way. “This is a place we can do whatever we like without worrying about printing,” Olins says.
Herb Lester is the guiding force behind Herb Lester Associates. That said, he isn’t an actual person. “We felt that in some way it would help us to sort of have an imaginary boss,” Smillie says with a laugh. “We came up with an idea of this guy who’s called Herb Lester, and it actually works. We have quite a clear idea of who he is and what he likes and what he does, and so it actually helps to inform what we do and the places we choose [to make guides about].”
According to how Smillie and Olins see good old Herb, he wears glasses and likes to drink whiskey. He loves cities, and likely divides his time between New York City and London.
Before lining up any formal distribution, Smillie and Olins sold their guides online, and their products got noticed. “We were really lucky, and a few people who were quite influential tweeted about the maps, and other people wrote about them on their blogs,” Smillie says. “Then we just started contacting shops that we really, really liked and wanted to be stocked in, and we’d send out a hundred emails, and maybe get one or two responses.”
Soon enough, Herb Lester products were being sold all around London. “Once you get into certain shops–there’s an independent bookshop chain in London called Foyles–I think once you become visible in those places, it sort of takes on a bit of a life of its own,” Smillie says of the distribution process. “Other people start seeing them, so they start coming to you, and it grows from there.”
Guides can come together and be completed in two months from start to finish, though most do take a bit longer than that. “But they all tend to start in the same way, which is that we have an idea and then we spend quite a lot of time discussing what the title should be, we decide what we want it to look like, and we choose an illustrator,” Smillie says.
Sometimes she and Olins will conduct all of the research and writing in-house. Other times, they commission writers, though they are particular about who they work with. “They’re all people that we know and have worked with before,” Smillie says.
Chances are most of us aren’t going to get a chance to travel beyond the Earth during our lifetimes, but Herb Lester published Out There: The Solar System for Tourists last year anyway. “It was a way to experiment,” says Olins, noting Herb Lester doesn’t have to be limited to standard travel guides.
“Initially, the idea came from a designer that we’d been working with who’s been doing some work at NASA,” Smillie says, “and he sort of had this vague idea of doing a guide book to space, and then we got talking to a science fiction writer that we know, and we decided it should be written in the style of a travel guide to make people feel like they could actually go to these places and [show] what sort of experience you would have as a tourist when you got there.”
Unlike some entrepreneurs, neither Smillie nor Olins is obsessed with ambitious growth schemes. “That’s absolutely something that we try to avoid,” Smillie stresses.
“We’re both temperamentally thrifty. We’re both careful, and we don’t have grand ambitions in that sense,” Olins says.
At the moment, they only have one employee, and Smillie and Olins are perfectly content with that. The duo enjoys being hands on and running a small business that they can easily manage on their own. “We still both really like packing up orders for the online shop and posting them out,” Smillie says. “I think it’s quite important to stay involved with that side of things if you can.”
“I dread not working,” Olins adds. “The idea that you just do something purely to make a load of money and then sit on the beach is just abhorrent to me. I’m not interested.”