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Move over Google. Travel publishers are teaming up for grittier city intel

A map included in “Los Angeles,” a Wildsam Field Guide
A map included in “Los Angeles,” a Wildsam Field Guide edited by Taylor Bruce and illustrated by Caroline Tomlinson.
(Wildsam Field Guides)

At the beginning of the decade, the travel guidebook seemed destined to become another casualty from the one-two punch of the Internet Age and the Great Recession. From 2005 to 2011, U.S. guidebook sales dropped a funereal 40%. Many reliable institutions, such as Frommer’s, Fodor’s and Lonely Planet, bounced around the marketplace in that tumultuous time.

Such setbacks didn’t bode well for the romantic travel guide, but none of that discouraged Taylor Bruce, a former travel editor for Southern Living who’d just finished his MFA in fiction at Brooklyn College in 2012.

Neck-deep in a novel, he wanted a break. So he started Wildsam, a line of field guides. The slim volumes are inspired by John Steinbeck, particularly this line from “East of Eden”: “The world was peopled with wonders.”

Now, seven years and 14 field guides later, Wildsam has joined forces with Arcadia Publishing, best known for its hyper-local dives into place and the “Images of America” series stocked with photos from outside the public domain.

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Launched in 2012, Wildsam Field Guides are pocket-sized volumes that include interviews, essays and expert recommendations to Los Angeles and other cities.
(Wildsam Field Guides)

Arcadia, which publishes 500 new titles annually, with a back catalog of 15,000 titles, is hoping that Arcadia’s formidable sales and marketing muscle can jump its new acquisition to the next level.

This fall will not only see the release of Wildsam guides to Portland, Hawaii and Atlanta, but, in one giant leap for all futurists, the moon. Wildsam published a Los Angeles guide last year, following its magazine-influenced formula: short, entertaining tidbits up front and longer thoughtful essays in back.

Arcadia President and Chief Executive David Steinberger first stumbled on a Wildsam guide at a hotel in Charleston, S.C., where Arcadia is based. He marvels at how well Wildsam has done with no official sales force. According to Wildsam’s internal numbers, the guides have sold more than 140,000 copies since 2012. Those numbers, Steinberger posits, are due to the guides’ tidy design, insider tone and imaginative, literary approach.

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Steinberger says, “There’s a depth to what’s being communicated in Wildsam guides. It gets to the feeling of a place.” Wildsam is also tapping into a larger cultural craving. “There’s something going on right now that has to do with people looking for authentic experience. Especially an authentic experience connected to place.” That authenticity is especially embraced by millennials, a core customer for Wildsam. They’re tired of being immersed in the superficiality of the digital world, Steinberger notes, and want to connect to a place on a meaningful, personal level.

Wildsam contributor (and millennial) Ann Friedman puts it this way: “Wildsam leans on stories about a place as a way of showing visitors how to understand and enjoy it. Which is a much deeper travel experience than just checking restaurants and museums off your list.”

Maybe geography and its inspired but haphazard connections is one of the last vestiges of wild, real-life experience that can’t be organized by algorithm. Or, as founder Bruce says: “Wildsam has a soul.”

Each book is written and edited by residents, and with extensive interviews from the people who create the character of the city. The Los Angeles guide features interviews with chef Nancy Silverton, the late Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, punk musician Alice Bag and traffic expert Ed Yu, among others.

Wildsam leans into a city’s “messiness.” The Los Angeles guide includes a partial transcript of a phone call between LAPD Det. Tom Lange and O.J. Simpson during the infamous Bronco chase in 1994 and a brief timeline of the city’s gang history.

“We’re not afraid to talk about what’s complicated or broken about a place,” Bruce said. “If anything, you’re going to gain credibility in the reader’s mind.”

That transparency also goes for reclaiming a city’s so-called flaws. Friedman’s essay, “Sprawl,” is a necessary corrective to the old “19 suburbs in search of a city” saw or whatever Dorothy Parker or some other writer parachuting in from New York said. “Sprawl,” Friedman writes, “is dynamic. It is a moving, changing thing …. Los Angeles refuses to agree on its core. The center is wherever you decide it is.”

Both Friedman and Los Angeles guide editor Jesse Katz say Bruce allowed them to embrace unusual experiences, the kind of intangibles that define what it means to really live somewhere. Friedman spun around the city on a helicopter tour and Katz wrote about the car crashes that occurred outside his window on Wilshire Boulevard in MacArthur Park. His essay, Katz said, “was an opportunity for me to stretch as a writer: to excavate some bigger meaning about life here from an unusually dark and peculiar experience. I can’t think of too many travel guides that would feature an essay about car crashes.”

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As for the future, Wildsam and Arcadia are talking about approaching food on a deeper level, and launching guides to America’s National Parks next year. Whatever might be next, Wildsam will continue to mine the travel experience: “There’s a hunger and an itch to understand where we are,” Bruce says, for tourists and residents alike.


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