Is the travel guidebook on the verge of extinction?

Have user generated content and new online formats like apps sounded the death knell for traditional guidebooks?

The future of the guidebook – a series of guest posts by Mark Henshall

This is the second of a series of five guest posts – today answering the question:

Is the travel guidebook on the verge of extinction?

I’d rather look at the new and innovative ways we are now able to access travel information than talk of extinction. I see publishing evolving and opening up in an extraordinary way for travel content across different platforms. Agreed, though, there is a valid question on print to address here first about the future for the traditional guidebook.

The book market
In 2011, value sales for physical books overall were down 6.3% to £1.6bn in the UK year-on-year, according to Nielson Bookscan data. ‘The Atlases, Maps and Travel’ category which has consistently declined since 2007, saw sales fall by 8.1% to £70.5m.

There are some bright spots. The children’s sector has proved robust and overall the ASP (average selling price) has begun to increase once more, as discount levels plateau or drop off. To put it in context, if we look at the first half of 2011 in the UK market, Frommer’s was one of only a small handful of publishers which achieved year-on-year sell-through growth in world travel guide sales, according to the independent Travel Publishing Yearbook.

Categories such as Adult Fiction have been really hit hard. Hardback adult fiction sales are down 8.5% in value and paperback sales down 12.2%. This sector is perhaps one of those most susceptible to immediate e-book migration.

All of which brings us back to travel publishing…

Content mindset
Will the decline in traditional book sales, a migration to e-books and other formats, and a downward trend overall in print guidebook sales mean a redundant format pretty soon?

A Publisher betting its house on pure print travel guides will find it tough, no question. The pressures exerted are plain to see: bricks-and-mortar bookstores (witness Borders in 2011) under stress; a decline in retail space; a move to online sales; the increase in digital competition (e.g. Google/Zagat, TripAdvisor); new digital products; a digital savvy customer; younger travellers who have grown up on digital; the economy… the list goes on.

Publishers who retain a legacy “print vs digital” mindset and don’t adopt a more platform-neutral approach and sell format-agnostically will struggle. For Publishers who have print guides as a part of their wider offering (and more importantly think in these wider terms), I still think this format – as long as it doesn’t stand still - has an audience in the foreseeable future, albeit a much more modest one as part of the overall travel content experience.

 Value in Gutenberg
So, travel guides may not last as the dominant form of content for the travel experience, but I think they can still be an important part. Some consumers will baulk at the time lapse of the printing process - necessarily taking up a number of months – but others will not let that impact their purchase as it still holds value. This value is in a guidebook’s rich content and contextual application with other forms of information (add as appropriate: online travel features/forums/advice; mobile apps, enhanced e-books, UGC, video on tablet; blogs; Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter; travel operators/agents info; and friends/family’s advice).

You use a book in a different way to these other forms of information. Its weakness is really its strength. The way that some people actually prefer the simpler Kindle reading experience to that of the more complex smart phone or tablet is an interesting comparison - the fact that you can’t play around and click on links means you focus on the pure enjoyment of just reading. Seen in this light, the conventional travel print guide becomes a different kind of purchase: something to savour and reflect upon perhaps more than other formats, something more thoughtful. Also, just as it’s reductive to speak of “digital” as one homogenous lump, the same applies to “print”. I think it’s probably premature to assume that print doesn’t still offer the reader some variety of experience they may find useful. Indeed in self-publishing we’re sometimes seeing this come full circle: e-books to print books, and new-found, highly successful collaboration between publishers and self-publishers

The proliferation of new platforms for travel publishing may even add value to the humble book - who knows? As Tom Chatfield recently noted: “It’s a welcome paradox of a digital age that the ease of virtual communication has increased the emotional impact of physical objects such as letters and journals, placing them apart from the maelstrom of other media.”

Technology is transformative in that when it works well it helps to inform us, add enjoyment and enrich our travel experiences. It’s not hard to look up from a book and liberate ourselves to see a place for its own sake, without needing to be productive in any way; to record the moment or get a result, but instead just see and take pleasure in absorbing it. Cathy Haynes captures this rationale by saying: “A photograph can too easily become a substitute for the larger memory it was intended to protect.” Any smart alternatives to print guides will need to provide genuine improvement on travel experiences; be an aid to enjoying the destination rather than a gauze that removes the reader completely from the curiosity of the moment.

Some people also like the smell of books. (Okay, I like the smell of books…)

A combination that works
So, on a good day, the conventional guidebook definitely still works. Not always, and not everywhere, and it will be out-gunned in many areas to come, but as Tamsin Bishton-Hemingray outlined in an earlier guest blog post, the alternatives - take apps for example - are not there yet. And I’m saying that as someone involved in developing apps.

So in my opinion a combination of say, guidebook and Android or iPhone capabilities is a great arrangement, for the present time. If we discount data and roaming charges for now (which will certainly come down but are prohibitive at present), and/or assume data/maps being on the handset, and take it that the app data/content isn’t just a truncated version of the book but made to be a unique experience, it is still a different proposition. The app user experience is excellent for some things (immediacy, maps, finding a place of interest quickly) but for a more in-depth, rich, compelling and reflective read, the small screen delivery is far from perfect.

The tablet does offer a better experience for some of the above and, for stuff I’ve seen created for the children’s market in particular, there’s some incredible work being done. E-books/apps/tablets/online also offer both writers and publishers more instant feedback, on top of a great new experience. For now though, a physical guide still works well as a supplement, and the positioning of different platforms together can work for readers.

Underlying all this, of course, is not just how content is delivered but how it’s gathered, something Donald Strachan hit upon on Twitter recently, be that social, search or peers. A New York Times piece touches on this challenge, outlining convincingly the moves being made by tech companies in hardware at present, to try to cultivate ecosystems where consumers are offered a one-stop shop solution.

Have guidebooks had their day? What do you think?

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