Mark Ellingham had always dreamt of becoming a journalist, but when he graduated from university with a degree in English he could not find a job. So he went on holiday to Greece for a couple of months instead. While he was there Ellingham realised there might be a gap in the market for a guidebook that combined practical advice with a real insight into the country’s culture. He wrote a couple of chapters and when he returned home managed to find a publisher who agreed to pay him an advance of £900 to finish it.
Neither he nor his publisher was prepared, however, for the scale of the book’s success. Within weeks of publication, the Rough Guide to Greece had to be reprinted twice. Ellingham, who was brought up outside Salisbury by his mother, a social worker, says: ‘There hadn’t really been a new guidebook series of any note since the 1950s, so in retrospect, it was a golden time to write it.’ The publisher quickly agreed to a series of Rough Guides on other destinations.
So Ellingham wrote the guides to How I Made It Spain and Portugal himself and commissioned friends to write others, editing them in a makeshift office he set up in his housing association flat in Camberwell, south London. Not everyone was enamored with the Rough Guide concept, however. Ellingham says: ‘The first time the publisher tried to sell it to America it got a telex back saying that the name was off-putting. I think if I had planned it, I wouldn’t have come up with a name that was quite so daft.’ However, the title could have been a lot worse.
While he was at university Ellingham started up a student magazine called April Makes Me Vomit. Ellingham was busy editing the fifteenth Rough Guide book when the publisher was unexpectedly taken over by another company. The new owners promptly decided that the Rough Guide imprint did not fit in with its plans and put it up for sale. Fortunately, Ellingham had inserted a clause in his contract stating that the Rough Guide imprint could only be sold with his permission.
So he and a couple of friends, John Fisher and Martin Dunford, who had been Mark Ellingham 123 helping him write and edit the books, decided to buy it themselves. He says: ‘I wanted to have a say in what happened to us. In the end, there was only one bidder that I approved of. And that was me.’
Ellingham was 26. He says: ‘It was a nervy time. I remember the guy who was negotiating with me banging the desk and swearing at me and saying, “I’ll give you £100,000, you just have to sign this bloody piece of paper.”
It was quite tempting because it was more money than I had ever imagined in my life. But I liked the idea of being independent and the group of us holding our destiny in our own hands. Overnight we moved from being writers and editors to being entrepreneurs.