Last month, three things happened that were interesting to me as a guidebook writer: After Google purchased the venerable Frommer’s guidebook series, they announced that they would no longer keep them in print. I read an article about the “rapid decline of the printed guidebook.” And I got my biggest royalty check ever in payment for my guidebook sales.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a coffee with Arthur Frommer at the Washington DC Travel and Adventure Show. While he sold the guidebook series with his name on it a long time ago, Arthur still gives spirited talks at such shows all around the country. The first edition of his GI’s Guide to Traveling in Europe, which eventually became the groundbreaking Europe on $5 a Day, was published the year I was born (1955). I have a copy of it on the bookshelf in my office as a kind of personal and thankful reminder of how Arthur’s work gave people like my parents the confidence to travel independently through Europe back when that was a new thing for middle-class Americans. You could make a case that without Arthur Frommer opening that door for my family in 1969, I’d still be teaching piano lessons.
I loved traveling with Arthur’s book for a decade (along with the backpackers’ guide, Let’s Go: Europe). Arthur’s personality — his sass, elegance, and Ivy League respect for culture and language — along with his passion for making Europe accessible (first to his fellow GIs, and ultimately to a whole generation of American travelers) inspired me. Way back in 1984, Arthur invited me to appear on his cable TV show and introduced me as “Rick Steves, the new Steve Birnbaum, Eugene Fodor, Temple Fielding of the travel guide industry.” At the time, his prediction seemed a little wacky, but — in part because most publishers have found it’s cheaper to write and update guidebooks by committee rather than employ individual personalities — my generation has failed to produce a class of well-known guidebook writers. Arthur Frommer’s endorsement was a huge break for me, and even though I had a hard time believing it, I used the quote a lot.
In an age of consolidation, when only big is viable, guidebook publishers are big and few in number. The major guidebook series in the USA are Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, Dorling Kindersley, and Rick Steves. And for many of these, the future looks shaky. Lonely Planet was owned by BBC in London for less than six years before they unloaded to a tobacco tycoon it for less than half what they originally paid. Its fate is unknown. Frommer’s was purchased in August of 2012 by Google, who recently announced that they will let almost all of their 350 titles go out of print — leaving the company with piles of data to shuffle into its searchable banks, but no bookshelf presence. Dorling Kindersley (or “DK,” publishers of the glossy, illustrated Eyewitness and Top 10 series) is owned by Penguin, and Fodor’s is owned by Random House — and now that those two publishing giants have agreed to a merger, DK and Fodor’s are likely to merge with them, creating more uncertainty.
And the Rick Steves line? We’re as strong and determined as ever. This week, I’m setting out with a band of 25 fellow researchers with the goal to visit in person virtually every sight, hotel, restaurant, launderette, train station, boat dock, and other place mentioned in our guidebooks, as we make them up-to-date for next year.
I think guidebook publishers are challenged in the same way news corporations are. It’s expensive for news services to pay for individual correspondents to bring home the news when it’s just out there on the Internet for all to scarf up — and viewers don’t necessarily respond to more costly, higher-quality journalism. And, in the case of TV news, the limited funds are much better spent on a good-looking anchorperson to read the news rather than quality people to gather it. That’s why top-notch investigative journalism is at a critical low point these days.
Considering the modest profit margin for publishing a guidebook, publishers have a similar problem in hiring trained researchers to actually research their books in person. And new crowdsourcing alternatives to guidebooks (like TripAdvisor, CruiseCritic, Booking.com, Yelp, Urbanspoon, and so on) give travelers the impression that they have all the reviews they’ll ever need from other consumers. With the increasing popularity of these options, a tough business equation has become even tougher.
All of these review-based websites are certainly useful and informative, and I use them myself when traveling somewhere new. But I believe that — just as you wouldn’t want to get all of your news from amateur bloggers — casual online reviewers take a hit-or-miss approach that isn’t always an improvement on an experienced guidebook researcher with a trained eye. Most users reviewing hotels on TripAdvisor have experienced a few dozen hotels in their lives; a professional travel writer has inspected and evaluated hundreds, or even thousands. And, while these sites are particularly helpful for sleeping and eating, they do virtually nothing to explain what you’re seeing when you get there. Guidebooks’ sightseeing advice, self-guided museum tours, and neighborhood walks help you engage with and understand the place you’ve traveled so far to see, with a depth that crowdsourced websites don’t even attempt. For all of these reasons, I find crowdsourced sites a handy tool to enhance, but not replace, the information I learn from a good guidebook.
Complicating matters is the advent of digital, non-print formats, which challenge traditional book-business thinking. But, while ebooks seem exciting, print sales still dominate (for now, at least); only about 15 percent of total guidebook sales are electronic.
Are guidebooks dead? Not yet, that’s for sure. I’m flying to Egypt and the Holy Land as I write this, my bag heavy with Lonely Planet, DK, and Bradt guides to Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories. The question can be interpreted in two ways: Will people still be traveling with good old-fashioned print guidebooks in tow? And is the entire concept of a guidebook (whether in print or electronic) still viable? My take: For another decade, travelers will be toting print editions of guidebooks. Slowly, print will be replaced by digital. There will be a battle between various electronic information services, including guidebooks. Many users will opt for GPS-driven, crowd-researched apps. But plenty of others will still use guidebooks in their futuristic digital format — probably souped up with streaming video and GPS features. And, God willing, I’ll still be out there making sure mine are accurate and up-to-date.