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Interview: Karen Brown

Karen Brown's Guides Clare Brown, Karen Brown (center), and June Brown hit the road each year to inspect hotels for the Karen Brown Guides.

Karen Brown is the author and publisher of Karen Brown's Guides, a series of guidebooks that focus on "charming inns," bed & breakfasts, and rural driving itineraries. In the interview below, she talks about life as a guidebook author and offers tips for European travel.

 Q. The Karen Brown's guidebook series now has 14 titles, including 12 books on nine European countries. What was the title of your first guide, and when was it published?

French Country Inns & Chateau Hotels was my first book. It was published in 1977. [Editor's note: Since this interview was conducted, Karen Brown's guidebook line has expanded to 17 titles.]

Q. How did you get into the guidebook business?

In the mid-1970s, I switched from Occidental College to the University of California at Berkeley. I'd missed Berkeley's September start date, so I had nine months to play with and decided to study French overseas. My mother, who had a travel agency, said "Karen, you need a project. Why don't you put together a book of inns that I can recommend to my clients?" I took my tuition for that quarter, got a small press in San Franciso to sponsor me, flew to Europe, bought a car, and drove around France researching my book.

When I got back, I'd lost my publisher, which was having financial difficulties. So I went to a bank and convinced them that, if they gave me a $10,000 loan, I could print 10,000 copies of the book and make a profit at 2,000 copies. I published French Country Inns & Chateau Hotels, ran mail-order ads, and shipped books from my dorm room at Berkeley. 

I never dreamed that I'd end up as a publisher with a series. I was just looking for a way to get overseas. But pretty soon I did a second book, and a third, and my mom joined me. Then I bought one of those old airline tickets where you could fly across the country, stopping at cities along the way. I used the ticket to visit book buyers and bookstores that had ordered my book. One of the stores was Scribner's on Fifth Avenue in New York. As it turned out, the person I had an appointment with at Scribner's wasn't a book buyer--she was an editor for Charles Scribner's Sons, the publisher, which had offices above the store. She asked,"Do you think there's any chance that you'd let Scribner's distribute your books?" I said "Yes!"

Over the years, we've been distributed by other publishers--Time Warner, Globe Pequot, and the Fodor's line at Random House--but we've never relinquished our publishing rights, and we're still an independent publisher.

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Photos and artwork from Karen Brown's Guides. Used by permission.