The Beginning of an Era

A group of Moon employees stands outside the Moon office.

The early days at Moon Publications. Photo © Bill Dalton.

I returned to the States in 1976 after an absence of 12 years, having found out in a phone booth on a cold winter’s night in Sydney that my mother had died two weeks earlier. I wanted to make sure that I caught my father before he died. (I didn’t know that he would be so ornery as to live for another 26 years.)

We stayed over my sister’s pottery studio in Birmingham, Michigan, and started work on the second edition of Indonesia Handbook and on a new groundbreaking guide to the South Pacific with David Stanley. After publishing the new edition a year and a half later, we left Michigan with the intention of traveling to the Philippines to write a guidebook to that country. On the way, I stopped to visit an old army buddy in Chico, California.

I ended up spending 20 years in Chico. My Indonesia Handbook was banned for 17 of those years because of what I wrote about the country’s corrupt army and the president’s wife. Copies had to be smuggled into Indonesia. The guide had to be wrapped in a fake cover to get it past customs or else it would be routinely confiscated. I was once detained and interrogated in Sumatra, and in Java, the police followed me around on a motorbike. I considered it a badge of honor to have my book banned.

A tour group huddles around a guide with a map.

Leading a tour in New Guinea in the 1980s. Photo © Bill Dalton.

Back in Chico, Moon Publications was growing, but I left no instruction manual on how to run a guidebook publishing company. With all the time I was spending updating my own guidebook, I couldn’t nurture and grow the company. My focus was always on making my Indonesia guide bigger and better. There were also long absences leading adventure tours all over Indonesia for U.S.-based tour companies. I’ve visited both Komodo Island and the orangutan rehabilitation center Tanjung Puting in central Borneo each 14 times. In the mid-1990s, a group of New Yorkers from hell cured me from ever wanting to lead another tour again in my life.

Even though we were a small press on the fringe of a huge travel book industry dominated by publishing giants like Random House, we produced highly original, innovative products because we learned the hard way, made all the mistakes, learned all the lessons.Finally, in the late 1980s, with print bills mounting and payrolls not being met, I was forced to start selling my interest in Moon Publications to a Hong Kong-based publisher. By 1997, I had divested myself of all ownership shares in the company. Moon Travel Guides are now part of the Perseus Books Group and are based in Berkeley, California.

All That Road Going

Looking back on it all, Moon was not one of the big players, but we had a venerable origin story and a respectable pedigree as one of the early publishers of guidebooks for independent budget travelers. Even though we were a small press on the fringe of a huge travel book industry dominated by publishing giants like Random House, we produced highly original, innovative products because we learned the hard way, made all the mistakes, learned all the lessons.

Bill Dalton and Arthur Frommer stand together looking chummy.

With Arthur Frommer. Photo © Bill Dalton.

Publishing 65 guides under my ownership, we had our triumphs, our bestsellers. At one point in the 1980s, Moon had just as many titles as Lonely Planet and was even the sole distributor of LP guides in the U.S. During his search for a distributor, Rick Steves slept on my front porch in Chico.

In the ’70s and ’80s, Lonely Planet, Moon Publications, and Rough Guides were pioneers of a new breed of guidebooks that emphasized alternative budget travel, which continued the work of opening the world that had begun with the Fodor’s and Frommer’s guides.

This was an era when one lone, determined guidebook writer with a travel compulsion—red-faced and sweat-drenched at the end of each day—could actually “cover” a sprawling archipelago during a three-month trip, working for royalties, retaining full copyright ownership, and competing with virtually no other paper or digital guidebook.

Bill Dalton during the ceremony when he converted to Balinese Hinduism.

Converting to Balinese Hinduism with his wife and son. Photo © Bill Dalton.

Before Indonesia became the largest economy of Southeast Asia, before the terrorist bombings, the tsunami, globalization, and big international investment arrived, my Indonesia Handbook reigned supreme for 17 years as the best guide to the country. Even today, people I’ve never met before come up to me and say, “On my first trip to Indonesia, I traveled with you for months!”

Now I write travel, interview, culture, and book review columns for Tempo—the TIME magazine of Indonesia—and for other regional newspapers and magazines in Indonesia. My Indonesian wife Mita, our eight-year-old son Dian, and I raise cows and Muscovy ducks on our experimental farm deep in the countryside of west Bali. I am still endlessly intrigued by the complexity and diversity of this country.

Read Part Two