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Friday, May 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Books: With backpack of ideas, local author starts tour
By Melinda Bargreen
Remember those halcyon days of yesteryear, when you were an impoverished student, bearing a backpack and a grin through the great cities and the cheap hostels of Europe?
The backpacking trip has become such a rite of passage that former student backpacker Mark Pearson an Edmonds native has edited and published a 384-page book on those firsthand experiences. "Europe From a Backpack," already in its second printing, is enough of a success that all the Borders stores now carry it nationwide, and Pearson put together a 41-stop coast-to-coast book tour this month to promote it.
He did all this himself, with hard work and many phone calls and a little help from orbitz.com, the travel Web site Pearson persuaded to become a sponsor. He raised enough venture capital to support the first printing, while convincing Independent Publishers Group (a Chicago distribution group) to get his book into stores. It doesn't hurt that he also got a nice endorsement from travel guru Rick Steves ("an inspiration and a springboard for some rich travel experiences"). A whole series of "From a Backpack" books (country by country) now is in the works.
Pearson is 23.
Don't hate him because he's already so successful and you are still mulling over that long-mulled idea that might make a great book one day.
Instead, thank the University of Washington Business School, where Pearson took a class taught by communications lecturer Martin Westerman. That class involved Pearson in a publishing project, which gave him the idea to gather and publish stories similar to his own cherished anecdotes from a month-long backpacking excursion in 2002. Pearson not only did so, but also talked his former prof into becoming co-editor of "Europe From a Backpack."
Pearson says he is "passionate about this gap in the market": He found many how-to backpacking books, but no accounts of firsthand, memorable backpacking experiences.
"Starting in February of 2003, I contacted everyone I knew, then called student newspapers across the country and travel writers. I dialogued with 900 people, back and forth. At first, I couldn't believe 10 people would want to do this, but I soon found I was onto something. These stories are powerful to people."
He ended up with more than 400 stories, of which 58 were picked for "Europe From a Backpack." Each contributor was paid $150 and received two copies of the book.
Some of the stories are high-toned and literary. Others are breathless accounts of partying all night, drinking way too much (pervasive themes in most of the book), meeting interesting and sometimes dangerous locals. Some students spoke foreign languages fluently and hung out in halls of culture; others got robbed and insulted and were perennially late for their trains. Some experience the incredible kindness and generosity of strangers, who take them into their own homes and feed them.
There's the obligatory account of running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. There are lots of Paris stories. There's one, "We Were Going to Kill Each Other," about an ill-assorted quartet of young men who get on each other's nerves big-time. You'll read about partying in Ibiza and swaying in Munich's Hofbrãuhaus.
Not all of the stories would get an A in that college English class OK, some of them might not get a B, either. But they're riveting because they are real, and they date from that heavenly time of life where freedom is a given and anything is possible.
No wonder Pearson reports that some of his most enthusiastic readers are the middle-aged, who resuscitate their own fond memories of yesteryear as they flip through the stories. (Baby-boomer backpacking, by the way, is on the rise. A recent Wall Street Journal story reported that middle-aged backpackers now are edging their way into many favorite student haunts and cheap rooms, much to the consternation of younger travelers. Oh, no, it's Mom and Dad and Aunt Judy!)
After approaching publishers who weren't prepared to take a risk, Pearson formed his own publishing company as the Pearson Venture Group because he "felt confident this thing would work. It is so difficult to get your book into a bookstore. But I didn't want to be the person with the great idea who didn't do it. I knew I had to be imaginative and pushy."
Pearson is both.
Crucial to his success was getting the Independent Publishers Group to distribute his books nationwide. Pearson sent them a book proposal and a copy of the book in a bright red backpack. That certainly caught their eye. The company's CEO, Curt Matthews, told Pearson, "I only make two phone calls a year" (to new authors), and one of them was to him.
Now, it's off on the road for the book tour. He is visiting 18 Barnes & Nobles, six Borders and a host of top independents (such as Portland's legendary Powell's). Beforehand, he sent everyone a press kit and a personal cover letter with local facts (e.g. New York University is the largest study-abroad university in the country). What's next? If all goes as planned, Pearson will be turning a profit on his initial $20,000 investment by this summer. He is already collecting submissions for the next "From a Backpack" books: "Italy," "France," "Spain" and "Western Europe" (this time, the pay is $100 per article; visit www.europebackpack.com).
He's also publishing another book by author Dennis Bakke, founder and now CEO emeritus of AES (formerly Applied Energy Services), one of the world's leading independent power producers. The book is about what Pearson calls "the real purpose of business: not necessarily to make the biggest profit, but to serve the world in an economically viable way."
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