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?

21 thoughts on “Is the travel guidebook on the verge of extinction?

  1. True ... with so much info available through blogs, I do not see any reason why anyone would need books in the futures. Just take your tablet along ... In most cases the blogs are also formatted for mobile device use ... Hopefully there is a way to consolidate blog posts by destination at one common website ... That would make it interesting.

    Nice article!


  2. Have to agree with the general thrust of the article - being able to publish on different platforms IS essential. But I think there is also a difference in the TYPE of destinations being featured in travel guides. Our experience with the Brit Guides (now available for the first time on Kindle - plug!) is that the complexity of the destination still means people look for a book first and online info second.

    It just isn't possible to refine, say, the Orlando experience into a few hours online (the time it might take to read a book), especially when the online info is so varied and confusing.

    From our own research of the destination (OK, it helps that we live here), we're able to keep in touch with the kind of info that people want and distil it into a 350-page, easily-digestible form.

    OK, so that's TWO factors at work, i.e. a complex destination and finger-on-the-pulse attention to the destination. It's the kind of thing not many guides can pull off consistently. But those who can (and I'm also thinking of other long-haul destinations like Australia and South Africa) should have a long and viable future.

    In some ways, the more info that is available online, the BETTER some guides will do, as many people will feel it's hard to cut through the internet 'noise' to the REAL info.

    The real message is, therefore: stay focused, stay accurate and stay in touch. The readers WILL notice and they WILL stick with a traditional format (be it in paper form or eboook).

  3. Madhu - there is a lot of info out there, and this will make it even more important to curate high-quality content. Travellers will seek out those that they trust and that have expertise, be it individuals, bloggers, publishers etc.

    On gathering content/consolidation, I'm looking at the bigger picture here of travel content; the lock-in and incompatibilities that the music industry had to overcome.

    If we take e-books, there isn't a single e-book format right now that will work on any electronic reading device with DRM protection. Amazon's Kindle, for example, supports its own format but not EPub, a format used by other devices (e.g. Apple's iPad, B&N's Nook). My point was really about these separate ecosystems being cultivated, given that e-book files aren't MP3 song files yet.

    Is there a game changer ahead? Heard of Pottermore? The J.K. effect is worth keeping an eye on, and may come to have as significant effect on digital as print. Rowling will bypass the big e-book stores and sell Harry Potter e-books direct to the consumer.

    Given that it's inconceivable Kindle readers wouldn't be able to get their hands on Harry, Rowling could exert pressure on Amazon to start supporting EPub books on the Kindle. It will be interesting to see how it develops.

    I'm bound to say, that a physical book you can pass to a friend no problem, which is harder with an e-book right now. That said, I'm a massive e-book fan, so I hope we can find a way to make things easier for travellers/readers. And like I say physical/digital can work alongside each other; although they're different experiences, it's just the evolution of the guidebook concept.


  4. Simon - thanks for commenting, you make some really good points. I agree the type of destination a guide covers can have a huge effect on the kind of tools a traveller needs. Somewhere like Marrkech say, is such a different city to New York in the way one approaches it. Then there's the type of traveller you are, and the type of experience you're looking for. The point is that it's not a cookie-cutter exercise.

    It's interesting the experience you've had with Orlando, there's so much churn there (and it is a complex trip - so many permutations to theme park visits) you really need to be on the button. I can see why truncating that amount of info doesn't always work and how the physical guide can help contextualise a destination. Could it be that travellers use the book and then supplement with an app on the ground for this kind of trip?

    As well as theme parks destinations we could also look at cruise, ski, safarai, group travel.. All of these spaces will have different needs for each part of the traveller's "arc". Done well though I agree high-quality, accurate physical guides can still help cut through the "noise" online and offline.

    One area I find is somewhat neglected is the post-trip element of a traveller's arc/journey. I think there's an opportunity here to do something quite radical. There's a lot spent on planning/holiday, but not so much on the curation of stories and what travellers remember. The kind of things they'll speak passionately about to freinds years later. Maybe it's best off in our heads! But it's another area where it will be interesting to see the interplay of physical/digital.


  5. Roaming charges are the big saviour of print books at the moment, but they're not the only one.

    The 'guide' part is crucial for guide books. Sure, you can get all the information you want from the internet, but finding your way through the mass of it is horrendous. Time counts - people will increasingly find that they don't want more choice; they want concise expert guidance towards the *right* choices.

    Another thing that I don't think Apps, e-books etc have got right yet is usability. For all the limitations of a book, they're far easier to flick through and annotate. If you're anything like me, you end up scrawling asterisks and information culled from other sources all over maps. Now that should be easier electronically - but it isn't yet.

    I don't think the print guidebook will die. I think it may evolve to be used alongside electronic sources of information, but I know I'd still carry a book around with me and use it to navigate around than constantly be staring at a phone or iPad with shabby battery life.

  6. David - thanks for your thoughts. I do think it goes beyond just the expense of roaming charges, too. Time does count, no question, and there's going to be so much more info out there to come (arghhh!), that expertise you can trust will be crucial. Going back to Marrakech, you really do need a good 'guide' element to that kind of destination, rather than relying on bits cribbed from sources that just happen to be available, to get the most out of it. It's just so much more satisfying when you've got the right choices as you point out.

    I'm happy you mentioned your scrawling! I always thought it might just me, or other writers at least, but let's face it, something tangible in this way does add value. And isn't easily replicated through other devices. Usability (or rather the lack of it) is also an issue, something I touched on in my 1st post. If it's not working, then people will use it for some things but not others.

    "Staring at a phone or iPad." Yep, we all do it enough that sometimes it's nice to take a break from it (and I include the non-glare devices in this). I don't think there's anything *too* antiquated in saying that (*kicks back and cracks open some Werther's orginals*). And after all, like you mention, it's the evolution of the guide alongside other digital innovations, that make it exciting.


  7. Interesting again Mark.

    I'll tell you what's weird. I no longer write out a shopping list when I go to Sainsburys. I gmail it to my iphone. And a couple of times I have deleted the bastard thing round the back of the carrots. And there's no vodafone reception in Sainsburys Green Lanes. But still I haven't gone back to a shopping list (which I used to lose/forget all the time). This, I accept, is a bit Peter Beardsley.

    The point being that when people want to use electronic means for info, they will do inspite of it not being as good as the olden way (ee arr stick to the path...).

    Saying that I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable hopping on a plane to India at the start of my RTW with just a kindle/ipad. I'd want my hefty papery unbreakable guidebook with an unlimited battery. However what would be useful is to have the following RTW destinations (SE Asia, Bali, Australia etc) in an electronic format, allowing me to do some research and reading.

    King of like an electronic guidebook lite. Not the same same, just a bit different...

  8. Stuart - well, that's your fault for not going to the numerous good Turkish food shops, outside, on Green Lanes!

    But I take your point, there is an element of head-banging in all of us, despite our best efforts to navigate an effective way through life and carrots. I guess we all live in hope that our next experience will be better, and maybe it will, as technology gets better at meeting our needs. For books though, I still believe there's an element to them that is different enough that people will still find value in them.

    I'd probably have the same reservations about taking away an expensive piece of kit on a trip, but as tabets/kindles etc become widespread I don't think this will necesarilly weigh too heavilly on people. Certainly researching your trip on an e-book in advance though I can see as a trend making a lot of ground. Another scenario might be a print guide for some research (on your couch, flicking in and out when you have a moment over a couple of months)but then loading up a couple of specific chapters on to your e-book alongside your holiday fiction for the trip.


  9. Stuart - Hot Nuts *and* Sainbury's carrots! It sounds like an international working metaphor for the physical/digital space in the future. Travellers like good choice in any case!

  10. Interesting debate. I for one would never do a new destination without a guidebook. I really enjoy researching without looking at a screen and like David and Mark I love the tactile nature of a physical book. For me part of the excitement and fun of a trip is the planning and buying a guidebook is as afundamental to it as packing my bag and passport.
    The scribblings and jottings in the margin create something that is actually uniquely yours - memories of a great trip that scraps gleaned from 20 different websites will never retain in the same way.
    I think the guidebook format needs quite serious rethinking though. Michael argues in his post linked to above that guidebook listings of hotels and restaurants are a waste of time. I'd agree but I'd still include a top 5 or 10 places that are consistently good and dependable - as sometimes the vast amount of user generated info available on Trip Advisor etc is just too difficult and frustrating to navigate. ('Oh. They hate the place, but they love it... hmm now what?')
    I'd offer more background info and context, more gorgeous photoghraphy, more ideas for constructing your trip like say themed walking tours and space for your own jottings and thoughts alongside. So the book becomes a bit like a journal - something unique, yours, special.
    Oh and a damn good map! I've tried using an app in situ on an iPhone to find my way around and it's great for getting from A to B when you know that's where you want to go. It's useless for seeing relative distance between places and trying to plan a route.

  11. Accommodation for me is just one part of a decent guidebook. The number of listings could be reduced I agree, as the real value is in the expert's feel for the place, the experiences and opportunities they can recommend, the frame of reference and background.

    I do see the value in UGC and crowd sourcing as part of a traveller's kit, but it can be hugely frustrating as Jeremy points out. My main point though is that there's so many different types of traveller out there, so many different destinations to go to and types of trip to take, that for some people a physical guide still adds value. They may take a tablet/e-book/app/online/UGC info too, but a book remains a fun and useful contextual/planning resource, and can be a unique souvenir to capture the atmosphere as outlined already. It's not one size fits all and a combination can work.

    On bulk, is a city guide in the back pocket of your jeans any more cumbersome than a tablet or e-book?

    On cost, there's lots of guidebook publishers who do provide free content online, but I also think that excellent content from an expert you trust is worth paying for IMO.

    That said, guide books can't stand still and need to keep getting better, experimenting more to give travellers the context they need for a trip, and offering smarter ways to experience a destination. I think exploring ways to personalise and make guides more like a journal as Jeremy suggests is also a valid point. For me, a wider choice of travel content across platforms is a good thing, and physical books remain a useful part of the overall package for travellers.


  12. I think people who see a guidebook as nothing more than a compendium of places to eat and sleep are largely missing the point of a guidebook (and travel for that matter) -- for those looking for something more out of a trip than cheap meals and WiFi'd bedrooms, a guidebook remains the preeminent starting point to the learning process of travel.

    Sure TA fits the bill if paging through hundreds of reviews by complete strangers ranging from loons to luminaries works for you, then more power to you -- just be sure to take a look at TAs history/culture/societal sections before you start digging that grave -- they're generally appalling.

    If I'm on a short business trip, I use Agoda's iPhone app and just filter down or search for places I've heard of or have been recommended to me personally. I ignore reviews. Works for me - but I'm sure may not for others -- doesn't need to be a one size fits all.

    If I was on a more free-wheeling trip to somewhere I wasn't already familiar with, I'd grab a Rough Guide for the intro section and an LP for the listings, sure they'll be a bit out of date, but really, is that that massive an issue?

    Guidebooks don't need electricity, internet connection or a phone signal, and I think, given there will always be those who relish a trip to places that lack electricity, internet and telephones, that they'll always be a market ;-)

  13. Guidebooks will eventually die out.

    This is due to the fact that guidebooks are books. Guides and travel information will live on.

    There is a simple axiom of the internet that has so far proven 100% true: Anything which can be delivered by bits, will.

    We are so far only 2-3 years into the ebook age. In that time we've seen millions of people shift to buying ebooks. Ebook readers are improving, display and formatting are improving and most importantly, the economics of epublishing for both the reader and author trounce traditional publishing.

    It wont happen overnight. It wont happen at the same pace in different countries. Many of the keys to the puzzle have yet to be developed.

    Nonetheless, it is going to happen. Moreover, all the guidebook publishers know it is going to happen.

    I think David is spot on in that one of the things holding back change right now are roaming charges. This too will not last forever. Already you are seeing roaming wifi in the latest spec for 802.11, more hotspots for services like Boingo and eventually I think you see peering arrangements between mobile providers.

    I wrote about this subject 2 years ago and the only real defenders of guidebooks were those who made money from them. Readers didn't seem to really care. Many just used them for pre-trip travel planning, and that function is very much at threat from the Internet.

  14. I still use paper guides, because it saves my time. I hate going through tens of websites to find travel info, it's much easier to just buy a book. However, I became a big fan of online planners (such as Plnnr or Tripomatic.com) and I would love to use a travel guide app on my iPhone to get rid of the heavy guidebook. Unfortunately, the roaming charges are one problem, the second one is that all the travel apps I tried out, had some catches. If the online planners get a bit more complex and there is an awesome app that will suit me, I will ditch paper guide in a second.

  15. Gary - thanks for your comments. Just before I jump to my next post fully, I agree we're at the tip of the iceberg with e-books, as I touched upon in my first post. With ePub3.0 on its way, the opportunities for e-books - or rather enhanced e-books - are huge. I think there's an issue of discoverability right now, but better metadata and supplier simplification/delivery (and time) will improve this and social media will make it a force.

    The UK is 6-months behind the US right now, but as you point out this will wash through at a different rate in different countries. Just taking India as an example, where the book market grew by 45% in volume and 40% in value over the first half of 2011, according to Nielsen Bookscan, you can see the openings. Expansion into new markets at the push of a button is very exciting.

    But travel guide books dying just because they are books? I'm not so sure about that. Migration certainly - and in numbers - and delivery in bits I get. But is digital better on *each* and *every* occasion? I'm sceptical about that still. Also that people won't sometimes pay for it. Looking at demand in diffrent lifestyle spaces/sectors such as Children's or Culinary books, I think the guide that evolves may be a very different experience - a much more modest part of the piece - but still have a part to play. And be something that combines well with digital tools.

    Bara - thanks for jumping in. I think trip planners like Plnnr (which takes content form Frommer's and other sources sich as Picasa) and Tripomatic are an interesting resource. Getting useful, high-quality info when you want it and where you want to help navigate a destination is crucial. We do a lot of itinerary-based travel info but I like the interactive element you hit on, too. It's something we started a while back with maps on frommers.com. It will be intriguing to see what happens next in this particular itinerary niche, who can really innovate here and how travellers adopt it.


  16. As one of the authors of the Rough Guide to the USA, an extremely old edition of which is pictured at the head of this post being crushed beneath a boot, this post is like a knife to my heart.

  17. I adore Lonely Planet guidebooks. I guess, I am addicted to them. I know their layout by now and I feel safe in my research. I begin my trip there, in the section of airport transfer. I keep my guidebooks in a shelf and occasionally browse them. They inspire me to travel. I love coloured photos, that are not included in Rough Guides.

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