`Maps, don't you just love them?'
Conde Nast could scarcely have found a more enthusiastic editor than Sarah Miller to launch its new glossy travel mag. But, Harriet O'Brien asks, do we really want it?
Harriet O’Brien is a travel writer and award-winning author. Her first book Forgotten Land, a rediscovery of Burma was published just before she joined The Independent, her second Queen Emma and Vikings, a few years after she left. She was on staff at The Independent during the 1990s and subsequently worked in Canada and then as managing editor at Conde Nast Traveller before going freelance in order to travel more. She mainly covers the UK, Europe and Asia, where she grew up.
Monday 08 September 1997
"Travel is about culture, food, fashion, people ..." she says, warmly and swiftly conveying a wealth of opportunity. "The American magazine is 10 years old, it's doing incredibly well, and of course it's for an American audience. I'm opening up a new market in this country - for a British audience." She sees this as a trail-blazing venture similar to Conde Nast's launch of the men's title GQ which celebrates its 100th issue in October.
But will the British want it enough for the magazine to achieve its projected circulation of between 70,000 and 80,000? Will the success of its American counterpart translate across the Atlantic? "It has to be relevant," Sarah Miller says firmly, pausing to draw breath. "That's the key word."
How? Through value, she says, a feel for exploration, through treating the reader as a traveller rather than a tourist. There will be great writing, wonderful photographs, of course, and hard facts, information boxes, charts, maps ... "Maps! God, maps. Don't you just love them? Maps are wonderful." And with that you're taken along with her, scooting down an avenue of enthusiasm.
There are, of course, other rather different travel publications that have made their mark here. Wanderlust, aimed at the outdoorsy, backpacker market, for one. "Wanderlust is brilliant," she acknowledges generously. "The trick is to keep the magazine focused." Conde Nast Traveller will be, she adds, "exclusive but not excluding. And what I'm NOT about to produce is simply a destinations magazine. I'm almost saying that this is a features publication about travel. It's not just about where to go and where to stay as is a sponsored magazine such as British Airways' High Life - which is very good at what it does. Or a magazine such as Holiday Which? that gives you all the basics, all the know-how.
"And obviously we are aiming at a completely different traveller from those in the US - only 7 per cent of the American population have passports, as opposed to 64 per cent in Britain. There's a strong tradition of literary travel writing in this country, which hasn't really developed in the States. We have newspapers and magazines with travel sections - travel is really an endemic part of our culture."
Is she a keen traveller herself? "Of course - America (where I lived for a while), Europe, trains, buses, boats, coastlines. I never did the backpacking bit, but I've yomped around Scotland, that sort of thing."
Central to the philosophy of the new magazine is the legend "truth in travel" that, like the American version, will be carried as part of the banner on the front cover. That means total integrity - independence from an industry oozing with opportunities for free travel. There will be no hand-in-glove arrangements with the trade and certainly no courtesy trips. It's a ruling that strikes a big chord with the travel department of The Independent which, alone among national British newspapers, has a similar "no freebies" policy. It was Harold Evans, Sarah Miller explains, who insisted on this rule when he launched the American Conde Nast Traveler in 1987 (touchingly, the US magazine still pays homage to him by crediting him as the founder editor in its masthead). "We must not be beholden," she insists. "The readers must trust us."
With whacking travel costs and a potential cast list of compelling photographers and writers who will inevitably be expensive ("the likes of Bill Bryson, Colin Thubron, Dervla Murphy, great journalists, great reporters" -although Sarah Miller remains short on specifics, details of the first issue being as yet a closely guarded secret), will there be a big editorial budget? "It might be tight," she admits. "Finance won't be on the scale of the American title. And we certainly don't have that number of people working here. (The latest issue of the American version numbered at least 40 editorial staff.)
Yet such thoughts don't dent her enthusiasm. She is lavish in praise of the team, whom she has shrewdly hand-picked and who, in keeping with her wider editorial thoughts, come from features rather than specific travel backgrounds - The Sunday Times, Granta, The Independent, German Vogue. Miller is impressively well-connected. Her father is the architect John Miller, currently working on the new Serpentine gallery. She is often also mistaken for being the step-daughter of Richard Rogers, whose first wife, Su, became her father's second wife. At 38, she is an experienced editor, although this is the first magazine that she heads. Her credentials include Cosmopolitan, Blueprint, Elle, The Sunday Times and the Telegraph's Saturday magazine - where she was latterly features editor under Emma Soames.
Enviably pretty and poised herself, style has clearly been an important part of her life. The design expert and former editor of Blueprint, Deyan Sudjic, is the father of her eight-year-old daughter, Olivia. He is currently based in Glasgow, working on the City of Architecture and Design project for 1999. So has it been uncomfortable juggling the creation of a magazine with the demands of being a solo mother? "Olivia hasn't had a very good summer," she admits. "But at least I'm no longer at Canary Wharf [with the Telegraph]. And I'm able to see Olivia at least once a day."
Currently she is living in a whirl of presentations, between trips to Edinburgh and Manchester squeezing in time for last-minute adjustments to colour proofs for the first issue, which will be a chunky 244 pages (of which 120 will be editorial - although the aim is for a 60/40 editorial/advertising mix) and will retail at pounds 2.70. Most of all, though, she's having fun. That, she thinks, is also a vital element of the magazine. "You must have fun putting the publication together, and that will be reflected in print."
And reactions so far? Business has been good for Debbie Gresty, publisher of Conde Nast Traveller, who is very pleased with the response from advertisers and the news trade. But will they get the monthly readership they want? "Travel has become a non-seasonal event," she says. "Younger people think nothing of going to Thailand in, say, January or February. And we spend an awful lot on travel. So pounds 2.70 a month is not much to pay for advice that will save you a lot of homework."
Meanwhile, Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of Conde Nast, is delighted with the first issue. "Sarah has really caught the two main sides: the places people definitely want to go to - great compare-and-contrast charts on safari trips - and good adventure travel pieces. And the magazine has doubled the projected advertising target, with big support coming from the luxury goods and travel industries. Expectations are high."n
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