Ignore the digital doomsdayers – the printed travel guide is here to stay
Has the death of the travel guide been exaggerated? Greg Dickinson thinks so...
What do Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the travel guidebook industry all have in common?
They all read their own obituaries before they died.
Flick back just five years to 2013 and commentators were sounding the death-knell for the travel guidebook.
“Guidebooks are a relic of a bygone age that have little to do with travel now,” wrote Kevin Rushby in the Guardian. “The guidebook-publishing industry’s demise looks certain,” reported The Economist. “Today most travellers eschew the hefty tomes for online trip planners and smartphone apps,” said Husna Haq for the BBC.
This was uncomfortable reading for anyone like myself who had fallen for the romantic allure of a career editing and researching guidebooks, while fellow graduate friends earned more than double my salary and boasted of “boozy lunches” in advertising, finance and recruitment (I was on €17.5k and commuting 30 miles with a squished sandwich in my backpack).
But it’s true - guidebooks were undeniably facing demise. Between 2005 and 2011 US sales were down 40 per cent, largely due to the financial crisis. Pursestrings tightened globally and people just stopped going on holiday as much, pulling the rug from beneath the travel guidebook trade.
In 2012 AA Publishing announced it was no longer commissioning printed guides. That same year Google bought the US industry leader Frommer’s with the aim of discontinuing print guidebooks. TimeOut’s printed city guides were quietly entering their final years before being bought out by Crimson Publishing.
But what prompted the obituaries was the BBC announcing in March 2013 that it was selling Lonely Planet to a US tobacco magnate for a knock-down price of £51.5 million - £80 million less than it had paid for the company a few years earlier
The hashtag #lpmemories trended on Twitter as a rogue 24-year-old COO was employed and rumours swirled about mass cutbacks in the company.
Meanwhile, as the financial crisis ended and people slowly started booking holidays again, websites like TripAdvisor, Expedia, and a young pretender known as Airbnb were disrupting the way we researched our trips. What’s more, the ubiquity of smartphones and rise in global Wi-Fi meant that, for the first time ever and with the exception of your passport, a holiday could be entirely paperless.
With an infinite bank of recommendations at your fingertips and a map of the entire planet in your pocket - why on earth would you bother paying up to €25 for a heavy book containing information, often researched by just one or a few people, that went out of date the moment it printed?
Beyond offering emergency loo paper (I’ve been there: Cuba 2009, don’t ask) the function of a physical guidebook was looking increasingly void.
Adrian Phillips, Managing Director of Bradt Travel Guides told me that it hasn’t been easy.
“Many have suggested in recent years that the days of the guidebook are numbered, and that the democratisation of information means people will find what they need freely on the internet. For a decade or so there were signs to support this gloomy prophecy, with the industry witnessing a steady decline in overall sales and several guidebook companies falling away.”
However, against all odds, the independent publishing house - founded by Hilary Bradt in the 1970s - is witnessing something of a renaissance.
“The last three years have been the best by far in Bradt’s 45-year history, with sales in 2017 up nearly 25 per cent on 2014. There’s much talk about shortening attention spans, but there will always be people keen to get properly under the skin of a destination,” he said.
You could put Bradt’s strong performance down to its strategy of publishing guides to niche countries like Somaliland and Tajikistan where reliable information is harder to find, and focusing on specific destinations like Istria, the Basque Country and the Vendée rather than country- or continent-wide travel bibles.
But Georgina Dee, publisher at one of the industry leaders DK Eyewitness Guides, is similarly optimistic about the future.
“Travel itself is fast becoming an antidote to the digital heavy world we live in, trust in some online sources is certainly waning, and the Internet can be an unwieldy beast that needs taming. A book is yours but the Internet is everyone’s,” she told Telegraph Travel ahead of the relaunch of DK’s Eyewitness series
“Destination guidebook sales of course vary year to year but the stalwarts such as New York, Rome and Paris are up year-on-year for DK. This year we are also seeing guidebook destinations such as Istanbul and Egypt experience sales growth for DK.”
US guidebook firms are seeing a similar revival. Author of the NPD BookScan Travel Publishing Year Book, Stephen Mesquita, told Forbes: “2017 was the best year for the sale of printed travel guides in the US market for over a decade. Since 2012, the decline has levelled off as a core market of travelling consumers has come to realise what printed guides can offer as part of the information mix that is available to them.”
As someone who travels for a profession, I generally do my initial research through trusted online sources, get everything booked and then pick up a guidebook or two before I go.
Why? The alternative is to either print out piles of articles and stuff them in my bag, or rely on my iPhone while I’m away.
That’s not to say I’m a devout digital detoxer. Having a smart phone obviously comes in handy while on holiday when it comes to booking Ubers, emergency navigation on Google Maps and pulling up booking confirmations from emails.
But sometimes it’s important to put that black mirror away.
Having edited over 50 guidebooks at Bradt, DK and Rough Guides, contributed for Lonely Planet and co-authored the Rough Guides to Scotland and Britain, I know the amount of time, love and painstaking detail that goes into each and every one of those guidebooks you flick through in the airport WHSmith.
It's not just the reliability and depth of the content that keeps me, and so many others, coming back to guidebooks - it's the ritual. Opening the book in a cafe and leafing through, circling interesting sights and dotting your accommodation on the map. This dogeared book becomes part of the trip in a way that a phone never will.
The path won’t be entirely smooth for the guidebook industry. Rough Guides was sold last year and lost much of its staff in the process and is now investing in a digital content marketing strategy, while Lonely Planet is rumoured to be up for sale once again
What’s more, it’s not too farfetched to imagine that e-readers will one day become so pleasant to use (scribbles, folded pages and all) that the printed book becomes a thing of the past.
For now, the demand for thorough, expertly curated guidebooks lives on. And call me a romantic, but like the work of Coleridge, Hemingway and Twain, this is best served on a page.
Read more:Pól Ó Conghaile: Has the death of the travel guidebook been exaggerated?