The National Geographic Society has 300 maps working and adds 15 new titles each year.
By DENIS HORGAN
Looking for ancient maps at a museum, you'd likely follow a map for directions. Amid paintings and statuary, jewels and relics, the lofty warehouses of history display early maps as the works of art they are, and use modern maps to guide you to them.
Collectors pay great fortunes for ancient parchments and vellums and follow a map to the auction or showroom. Old, they are rare and treasured; new, they are as common as dust, glove-compartment stuffers, but more valuable than diamonds to the traveler puzzling how to get from here to there.
Since the first caveman drew a line in the dirt with his toe to indicate where the dinosaurs were, to today, when the cave-descendants can follow an accurate course across an entire continent, maps have guided us along and spared us from having to ask for directions. Stark or stylized, rich and detailed or direct and plain, we love our maps, and it's an enormous enterprise to provide them in the staggering numbers we consume.
Few trips, long or short, are begun without the requisite supplies: Clothing, cash, guidebooks and a good map. Maps have changed and evolved, they have improved and grown even as new technology is available to help the traveler. All the high-tech computerized direction finders haven't caused the mapmakers to lose their way.
"There is still a great desire for maps in print," says Stuart Dolgins, president of Langenscheidt Publishing Group in New York, one of the nation's largest publishers of maps and atlases. "Whether travelers are low-tech or they just feel more secure being able to survey a whole map and picture an area in the proper context, they're buying maps, and sales are good."
"Maps today are as relevant as ever," says Jim MacPherson of the American Automobile Association, which distributes tens of millions of maps each year. "When people hit the road, they still want a foldout map."
The map industry
The map game is a $700 million-a-year retail industry in the United States, Dolgins says, and that's separate from guidebooks and other travel literature. It is both vibrant and evolving as computers and new skills are joined with old-fashioned cartographic shoe-leather to constantly upgrade the quality and service of this most serviceable document, a map.
"We keep our maps updated in a very thorough and comprehensive manner," he notes. "We have maps that fit into your pocket; they're laminated so you can mark them up; we've tried some revolutionary formats, and customers like them. We have large-scale editions for baby boomers so they can see the details. These maps are, frankly, easier to read than anything on a computer screen."
There are maps for everything: continents, countries, communities, street corners. Dolgin's operation publishes 3,000 maps and atlases, selling more than 50 million a year. The National Geographic Society has 300 different maps working and adds 15 new titles a year.
According to the society's Cindy Beidel, they distribute 28 million magazine supplement maps annually and 11 million premium maps for new members, selling an additional 600,000 a year.
The travel giant AAA distributes 34.5 million sheet maps a year and 15.5 million customized TripTiks maps. You could wonder how anyone could ever get lost with so many maps around.
Maps, of course, are not just lines on paper. For all the specialized graphics and color printing, laminates and other improvements, it still always comes back to being accurate and up to date. This is not always easy when countries change borders and governments change street names and route numbers.
"We employ a full staff of 90 cartographers," says Dolgins, whose firm has offices in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, Georgia, Florida and Illinois. "These people are continually in touch with local community boards, municipal clerks, transportation departments and highway commissions, and many more officials.
"When they cannot locate an answer by e-mail or phone, they get in their cars and drive the routes themselves. If we press a button today, we can produce a map in a period of 12 to 15 months."
The National Geographic's most popular maps (it published its first, "North Carolina - Tennessee - Asheville," in October 1889) are overviews of the world and the United States, while the AAA, not surprisingly, moves the most maps of where regional customers are likely to be driving.
Many people predicted that computers would wreck the commercial map market. But, in fact, after a brief sag, it is bouncing back to record numbers.
"Our demand for maps saw a falloff briefly and is still a bit behind, but is coming back," MacPherson says. He noted that AAA's maps are generally updated every two years and that there is a sawtooth pattern to their distribution: It goes up with the new maps and slips back in the off year.
Dolgins said the challenges from new technology have been less of a factor than many people had anticipated. "We didn't feel the competition per se from online maps, car-navigation systems and hand-held units until 2002," he says. "But after 2002, technology eroded sales a bit for the first time ever. Then, in 2004, we experienced a turnaround. Sales are up."
He attributes the rebound to the Langenscheidt Publishing Group's marketing of maps more aggressively than before. He also cites a direct distribution program at Hess Convenience Centers, Borders bookstores, Staples, CVS, Wal-Mart, Hudson News newsstands and 100 popular restaurants and airport and train stations.
But you have to have a good map to sell, so computers and old-fashioned high standards and skills make the bigger difference.
"When a publisher digitizes its database seamlessly, it gains tremendous flexibility and can print revisions quickly and economically," Dolgins says. "The hundreds of thousands of entries in our database are manageable, which means we use them in new products. With proper management, you can create maps designed to the way people travel.
"If you want to take a map of Manhattan and the Bronx and combine them seamlessly along with parts of New Jersey, that's possible. There is great flexibility in manipulating your database when it's set up right."
And it pays off, sometimes in measures more important than dollars and cents.
"We've gotten letters from people who thank us for our maps: They would not have gotten to the hospital in time to deliver their babies or they would not have captured a real-estate deal, if it weren't for our painstaking good directions."