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

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

How does the changing guidebook marketplace affect guidebook writers and how do they need to adapt?

The different ways in which a writer can now get their work read have never been greater. There’s opportunity now to experiment with different products/formats as never before. As traditional media (e.g. print newspaper travel sections) suffer with a decline in advertising and the move to digital quickens, other avenues spring up. These are not obviously always easy to monetise, but for those prepared to work hard it’s a pioneering time in travel publishing.

The move to digital means guidebook content can be updated more frequently and a good travel publisher will seek out the top writers to help achieve this. I think the old mould of one writer going to numerous countries and reporting back has now been broken and the overall trend is towards more local writers. However, it’s still about getting the best writer for the job. A local writer has the advantage of economy of travel and local insights, but a good writer coming into town always has a fresh set of eyes, too: both scenarios I believe can work.

The business is evolving rapidly, so if we’re talking about new writers entering travel writing, they need to be adaptable and get the basics right. In print or digital, editorial rigour is vital. You need to be able to write for different platforms to make it work. But, of course, there’s opportunity there to go it alone, experiment and endeavour as the guidebook concept evolves, innovate as travellers demand information in new ways, figure out different partnerships, and find a path that works for you. I see multiple models of working, including writers self-publishing and getting picked up by traditional publishing houses.

Any publisher working in travel will be looking to develop new skills in people passionate about writing and travel, but dedicated in the digital arena. Being digitally aware, competent and having some affinity for it is certainly crucial in the next wave of publishing. Being technically savvy will give you a head-start, but as long as you’re willing to learn, good writing will be the foundation on which to develop I’d hope.

As the migration to digital rapidly increases I still see Publishers as very much a part of the picture. There will be an increase in self-publishing, smaller publishers entering the market and non-publishing outfits emerging as covered in my other posts, but I think the partnership between a Publisher and author can still produce something of high-quality and is worth pursuing. Both Ian Rankin and Anthony Horowitz have commented on this recently. Publishers willing to adapt rapidly and seek new spaces to develop travel content can still form innovative partnerships with good writers.

I back writers as well. I back good writers to be imaginative, innovative entrepreneurs and force change themselves - as has always been the case. Just as Publishing is evolving, content is transforming, and Publishers need to evolve and experiment, freelance writers acting as small businesses will make it happen by asking why? Why can’t I write in this particular way? Partner in that way or forge a new and unique relationship like this? They will question and find unique ways of approaching travel.

Demand for content won’t just come from Publishers, of course. Various other media/companies (e.g. SMEs) and sources will look to distinguish themselves, and writers will be able to meet this need with engaging, creative and inspiring content from words online to video on a tablet. A few of the people who have commented on these posts have already worked on these kind of innovative projects such as the Grantourismo/HomeAway Holiday-Rentals collaboration and Round the World Flights blog content.

Again, I’d reiterate, it’s not one standard business model, cookie-cutter future we’re looking at, but something much more varied and stimulating.

Image: laverrue

43 thoughts on “Adapt or die – the choice for guidebook writers?

  1. You used the word 'passionate' in this piece, deduct ten points.

    Honestly the use of passion and passionate has now reached epidemic proportions and it has lost all meaning. Every job ad demands you be passionate about customer service, bookkeeping, stacking shelves etc. Every blogger claims to be passionate about something and you have to include it at least twice in your CV

    Passion leads people to make mistakes, commit murder, get found in the wrong bed etc. We need less passion and we need to reserve it for the things that matter.

  2. A lovely and relevant article. Guidebook writers are already blessed with a niche - they know one or more countries well, and as such have oodles of content waiting to spring forth into the digital space. Some just need a bit of an introduction to it. In the next few years content online will get honed down and become better - and there's plenty of space for guidebook writers to add real value to the process.

  3. With the ease of self publishing facilitated by the web, traditional publishers need to also demonstrate to smarter 'adaptable' writers that it's worth working with them.'Passion' doesn't pay the rent.
    For now I think lots of travel writers would probably rather do cool smart 'passionate' stuff for themselves and keep any eventual benefit (ie revenue) than give their great ideas to a publisher who is offering nothing in return.
    I've grumbled about this before and suggested that guidebook writers need to be paid royalties. I understand it's not as straightforward as that - but new ways of using writers' content badly needs to be coupled with new models for remunerating them.
    Even if the sum is not that great, it shows willing - shows that the publisher realises that the writer is also taking a risk by - to use Mark's terminology - 'asking why'? (and by doing so, potentially providing that new smarter way to do something better - and making no financial gain from that - whilst the publisher potentially reaps the benefit).
    Publishers need great authors, great authors need publishers - that I agree with.
    What the web has done (amongst many things!) is change the dynamics of that relationship in my opinion. If writers are to participate and add value to the wider debate about new formats, different ways of working, smarter ways to promote etc etc etc then maybe there needs to be a different kind of deal in place between publisher and writer?
    Blimey... I think I might end up writing a blog post about this sometime!

    1. Jeremy - this is just *my* opinion, but I do think publishers (travel or otherwise) need to develop and renew the pact they strike with writers as the business evolves. They need to demonstrate why it's beneficial to have this synergy, invest in the partnership and show willing. They also need to bring ideas of their own to writers. It's about recognising value on both sides. Some experiments with content will work others won't but respect and trust needs to be nutured. There's obviously lots of permutations (different publishers, set-ups, types of content, platforms etc), but royalties isn't going to be a magic plaster and could leave some writers worse off sometimes. However, there could be lots of other types of relationship developed , and on a case-by-case basis - given the writer's and publisher's respective strengths - to identify what each individual partnership can achieve.

  4. Yes 'passion' is not in itself a marketable skill and indeed suggests a degree of flakiness!

    Still it's cheaper than employing a calm balanced professional

    1. Interesting discussion...

      Nick - I concede the word 'passionate' itself may have been devalued and lack meaning for many now. When every fledgling TV Masterchef trainee pronounces their 'passion' for cooking means failure to secure a quarter-final place will propel them into a spiralling morass of despair, it's perhaps time to look at the word again. And that show doesn't have a monopoly on this kind of banality.

      They call it 'semantic satiation' don't they? Words like 'awesome' on an endless loop become jumbled and blank. It's the kind of mental assault we feel watching a Go Compare advert or the mental fatigue induced by a We Buy Any Car commercial... Enough....

      That said, I *have* stacked shelves since you mention it! Compared to that travel is something that switches me on. Excites me let's say, and nothing to be embarrassed about there. Not the passion I feel for those close to me, but then I've met plenty on the road who've become good friends - that's a big part of travel for me - and that stuff does matter.

      My point though is that alongside the editorial rigour needed of a writer, it's also important to be aware of the emotional charge lots of people get from travel; how transformative it can be, and reflect that in the writing. That doesn't connote 'flakiness' and doesn't mean you still can't bring a cool head and pro approach to a feature/book etc. You can still be excited about the travel space as a whole and dispassionate in the execution.

      For me, travel can be a little like poetry in that different people will take different things away from the experience - meanings and associations - as its subjective and depends on your personal history and perspective. But you'd hope a good poem or good trip carries the same emotional charge. *Your* surroundings are *your* surroundings. They relate to *you*. I think those writers who are aware of that power will be the ones capable of something radical.

      On Jeremy's point about writers having an 'online footprint', I'd agree it is a big plus; it adds another dimension and is a marketable skill. But it's not compensation for good writing and that still should be the foundation. I really hope so.

  5. "Publishers need great authors, great authors need publishers"

    I'd agree with the first half of that, but I'd add, "generally they're not willing to pay for great authors".

    As for the second part, it's called the internet and a long-term view. If you're a specialist, quality travel author with an expertise in one particular part of the world, you're absolutely freaking bonkers to still be handing all your work over to the man.


    1. You're right - to a point. It would be missing out big-time for a specialist, quality travel author to overlook the type of successful synergy they could achieve by being present in both conventional and new media. The thing is, some of those who've achieved that status have done so through established conventional marketing that goes with conventional book contracts and publicity. They're either unawares or uncaring about going beyond that. Which is as often as not the inertia or ignorance of an existing agent they have who doesn't understand or care about going across into another frontier. It's not just a matter of bonkers but being able or at least willing to accommodate a universe that's suddenly expanded in ways that intellectual property rights really didn't encompass just a decade ago.

    2. Stuart - why should writers go all in, indeed. It's up to publishers to attract talent and make any partnership worthwhile. Meanwhile, I'd be surprised at any writers with expertise who *weren't* trying new ways of being creative. Experimenting with format isn't anything new (internet or not), and it seems to me if you have a natural curiosity you'll be pushing into new spaces. It's these kind of innovative writers publishers should be looking to work with and invest in.

      1. It was a bit of a quip on my behalf, but given the focus of this post was on how guidebook writers can best survive -- rather than guidebook publishers -- I think anything that helps build an independent platform for the writer is probably going to be an asset going forward.

        I asked around for going rates from traditional publishers for a city guide to a mid-sized EU city and was given figures ranging from $4k (low) to $35k (pretty good, though it would represent multiple books done in the one trip), with most tips coming in around the $10-15k mark.

        What I'm saying it that if you're an expert on, for argument's sake, Milan, and a traditional publisher is offering you $15k to do it, it's certainly possible for you to earn more than that doing it solo -- over the longer term. Probably not in the first year, but after two, a solidly written guide should be doing that -- especially given the cost of hotels (and so commissions). And it will continue to grow.

        So keep writing for the guides for now, but build your own online asset simultaneously.

  6. Agree. Anyway... I've kind of taken things a bit off topic.
    How do guidebook writers adapt to this new environment?
    I'd say one adaption requirement is developing a broader online footprint. I commission quite a lot of writing myself and most of it is for web.
    Increasingly I am looking at a travel writer's social media skills as well as their writing skills.
    Do they get social? On a most basic level do they blog? Do they tweet? Do they have a G+ profile?
    I might even go so far as to choose one travel writer over another because one has significantly more followers on twitter and has a really good blog. Adding to the basic skillset of writing great copy will become increasingly important.
    More on these themes here:

  7. Oh dear Jeremy you do depress me, I hope not all editors are looking for 'social media skills'. I can only really concentrate on my writing, bloggin and tweetin tends to be low on my list

    Guess im doomed

    1. Hi Nick
      I'm sure that not all editors are looking for social media skills in their writers. Only those like me who work primarily on commissioning for online, where, like it or not it has an increasing impact.
      But yes, writing skills trump all the other frilly bits around the edges. For me as an old hack at heart the quality of a writer's prose is 110% more important.
      Which is an interesting point actually. Lots of would be 'online travel writers' (aka travel bloggers) get tweeting and so on really well. They just aren't very good writers.

      1. Yes, a print writer can of course SM that he has an article out but few people reading it will actually go and buy the magazine/paper. On the web it only takes seconds to go and check out the piece.

        I think you touch on an important point. Is a blogger with only average writing ability, but with a large following (and there seems to be no paradox there) more use than a good writer who doesn't 'do' SM? PRs seem to increasingly think so and I suspect many online editors do too.

          1. Actually, the agenda was that they think they're using the "followers". They never really clarify exactly or in detail what that means about how the social media following translates into actual revenue that surpasses what you make in a conventional book deal - they just allude in generalities as in the above. Elsewhere, Jeremy was told by another such blogger "guru" that he could easily earn $1000 a month, and then said guru also told me that there was a "whole wide world of community out there waiting, you just aren't a part of it". Of course, she had some Insider Knowledge of my history or income was, to make such a statement. Right. That's also why you're own question here will never be answered - it would require substantiation and the entire history of events over the past 3-4 years demonstrates that no one "guru" or their clique or their organization holds the secret formula to writing online successfully to produce revenue.

  8. The way I see it is any writer working for a web publication is seen to be more use to the editor if he/she has a large twitter/fb/blog following. He/She will post a link for the finished article in all those SM places and a certain number of people will follow that link, thus upping the site's stats and so helping justify the advertising rates.

    In the old days a writer was not obliged to be part of the marketing department in this way but times change.

    It would be a shame if a good writer was overlooked because he/she had not spent time doing the social media circle jerk though.

  9. As some people have commented, the real focus needs to be on the content - and having differentiated, compelling and accurate travel content - and building a reputation for bringing added value to the travel experience is the key.

    Then it is about repurposing and getting that content out in whatever channel the user needs and wants it.

    If we shift focus off content to the distribution system as the focus, then this is when things will start to go wrong. Get the content right, and then think about the channel to get it out there..

  10. Just wanted to thanks Mark - this article has come at a very appropriate time. I'm runnning a seminar on blogging & social media to a group of travel guide book authors in London this week and will refer them to this post. The comments are illuminating (can I use that word here?!) and shed light - OK metaphor overuse perchance but ... ;-)on the current dilemma and opportunities facing all of us who are passionate (!) about writing.

    Having run my own business for over 20 years and been a leadership coach to others for 10 years, one of the main things I've learnt about success is that being flexible, adapting to changing circumstances and pursuing different avenues is what differentiates the successful from the rest of the pack. This article and the debate it is engendering is fine proof of that.

    Looking forward to the ongoing discussion ...

    1. Thanks very much Zoe. I really appeciate that.

      I've enjoyed this series of guest posts I've been involved in (just one to go now!). Especially the debate/comments that they've thrown up. All good stuff, food for thought and it's interesting to chew over some of these ideas, and try to think laterally about them.

      Good luck with the seminar!

      1. Running seminars and classes on blogging and social media seems one sure fire way to make money out of blogging and social media. The prices of some of them are eye watering but companies are prepared to pay up out of a mixture of genuine interest and angst.

        I remember it was the same with Relationship Marketing, Social Media's precursor, one man I knew made an absolute fortune touring his show which was more like a revivalist meeting than a business seminar. Boy did he get those marketing boys pumped for £550 a head a day plus a sandwich lunch.

        No offence to Zoe of course who I am sure delivers value, just saying there's always smart opportunists in these kinds of times.

        1. Quite understand Nick and agree re opportunists! I'm running this one with Martin Dunford & Richard Trillo for Rough Guide authors and it's VERY reasonably priced. I've been a trainer for most of my professional life and one of the reasons for doing this as well as my writing is because of the poor standard of a lot of training and coaching on offer, with, as you say, some eye-watering prices.

          I am based in Cumbria where no-one will pay silly money for anything AND they expect quality too. As a professional it's what I expect from others and to be honest, part of the discussions with Martine have evolved from some of the appallingly bad courses I have attended where the rip-off/self-promotion quotient was far higher than the content ...

          1. Yes I get so many hard sell direct mail pieces about these kinds of things, they assume that I wont be paying I suppose, that I work in a company. Like Dilbert!

          2. By your own description of yourself and how that differentiates you from others then, don't you also agree that maybe this is why those that are based on propagating the type of voodoo you allude to ultimately cash out and move on? I think what Nick also refers to - opportunists run amok in bad times - is very visible in social media marketing, within the travel sphere you see that with today's announcement that TBEX has been sold to Blogworld.

    1. Hang on though J, the figures on travelblog success can hardly be trusted can they, given the nature of the website?

      Nerdynomad says he gets all this advertising revenue, but the ads on his site look gimcrack to me.

      Unaudited stats are worthless surely?

      1. I trust them. I know Dave who runs that site (well online I mean not personally)
        Agree that if they were audited they would be better, but generally I'd trust them.
        What I think both examples illustrate well is that to make a travel blog work financially you have to pursue multiple revenue streams - not just ad revenue. It's like running a small business. Some more on this from Mike Gerrard here:
        The mindset is quite different from that of a travel writer. Maybe this also explains why many successful (ie they make money) travel bloggers aren't particularly good writers. Their primary focus has to be monetisation - spending time on creating compelling prose has to come further down the list.
        Just a thought...

        1. I have to say that I smell BS a lot with these things, not least because there actually seems so little actual content on these sites. They seem to always be 'about' content and content planning and seminars and somehow we never actually get anything to read. We click along and at every stage actual real content is deferred, always about to be there but never quite arriving. .

          Lots of links to commercial websites, some very ropey looking ads that look like they were not made professionally.

          I cant think what the equivalent here is, but Ponzi scheme is what keeps popping into my mind.

          1. Most of what the above-mentioned sites call "advertising" are actually just link-selling deals.

            I'd credit NerdyNomad's figures as being accurate, but she has a raft of sites and selling links is a primary part of her business on many of those sites. Not something I'd do, but is an easy was to monetise low trafic sites (and, most likely, keep them low traffic).

            Some of the other sites you can read about on TBS I'd certainly characterise as ponzi/pyramid schemes.

        2. Jeremy - You've taken one set of individuals and their revenue credibility to try and bolster the case for an entirely different set of individuals who operate somewhat differently to say the least. If you look at most of the people who absolutely rushed to respond to that Whitley "travel blogger honesty survey" you'll see just the same old circles of people who always respond to his tweets: Matt Kepnes, Gary Arndt, Mary Jo Manzanares who attend the same old blogger industry events indeed are active speaking at them. See above what I said - if their dictates about successful monetization are so foolproof, then why aren't the hundreds of thousands of followers now millionaires? Was TBEX a dying enterprise after its failure to find a solid foothold in Europe in 2010? Just asking.;) So that blog was skewed and fixed, and you've skewed it again here by using other travelbloggers who never even entered into those discussions as far as I can see.

  11. Thanks Stuart, I am no expert but I felt I was seeing something not quite kosher about some of these sites.

  12. Funny, but I think the "adapt or die" message needs to go to the publishers. Writers are pretty good at seeing where the action is and anyone with one eye open has seen lists get slashed and advances & payments shrink.

    Writers used to prefer publishers that assigned copyrights and paid royalties, but those brands are the ones who are falling behind the fastest these days because they can't innovate. This is because they don't own the content writers have created. The solution would be for these publishers to simply buy out the writers (as Lonely Planet did a decade or so ago), but I'm pretty sure they're too far gone (I'm looking at you Rough Guides) to have the cash necessary to pay writers what it's worth. I'd say it's a bit of a Catch-22, but it's not: It's a case of crappy decisions by bad managers at myopic publishing conglomerates. Simply put, if a guidebook company doesn't own its content, said guidebook company is going to be a non-factor in two or three years.

    Meanwhile we see ambitious writers striking out on their own, either as bloggers or app builders or destination experts who write about the place where they live. With this, of course, we're going to get some nomadic hucksters who are crap writers, lie about online metrics, and teach bogus Internet wisdom to wannabe travel writers who are trying to crack the code themselves.

    But for the most part we're seeing the next generation of travel experts finding smart ways to communicate great information to readers who may not be perusing the aisles of their local bookseller. As big of a sea change as it is, I'm really excited by it. I think this is what it may have felt like to Wheeler and Ellingham when they discovered they had a winning formula three-plus decades ago.

    Sidenote: I've found it to be a general rule that the "better" someone is as a travel blogger/social media expert the less reliable they are as a writer/reporter. Klout scores are usually inversely proportional to talent.

    1. Hi Jason
      I agree totally. I understand the complexities of running a big organisation of course... but for me as a writer I feel that publishers are really slow to move.
      As I've said on one of Mark's earlier posts - publisher need to find a new model for paying smart writers too. I agree that to make it all work the publisher needs to own the content... but there needs to be a kick back for the writer too. I have no idea how you satisfy those 2 requirements.
      Re; Klout. I deleted my profile. Does that mean I have stacks of talent or none at all? ;-)
      thanks - great comment!

      1. Publishers certainly should pay writers better. There are many arguments for why they don't, though:

        - they have to compete with "free" content online
        - authors will readily write for less or even for free
        - publishing houses think they can get by with low-quality content

        I log into Klout every month or so to see what I'm an "expert" in. For a while I was authoritative on both camels and polygamy. I cried a little the day I lost my pull in those categories.

    2. Skimmed through before writing my comment below, I agree completely with Jason (who I now see wrote it before I did...) - independent publishers have unlimited options at their disposal for work avenues and monetizing (as many have said here, I think Mark the most... if they are willing to dedicate the time & energy to producing it) but publishers have little choice except to try and appease the needs of writers. Without writers, they are nothing... unless they want to take off the suits and become independent publishers...

  13. Lots of great info, in the post and in the comments. I think it's something that could be framed 'Adapt of Die - The Choice for Publishers' soon, or even now. Or maybe better... simply 'Adapt or Die - Travel Publishing is Just Like any other Biz'.

    Meaning every industry changes, goes through cycles, periods of innovation (and stagnation)... and Mark alludes to this brilliantly with his comments about publishers will seek (or try to) partnerships with independent travel professionals and that independent travel publishers may end-up knocking on traditional travel publishing biz's doors when they can't make it in the online world (for whatever reason other than lack of writing talent).

    Anyone over 30 most likely will have had some type of experience that shows this to be true - corporate layoff, failed (or successful) online venture, freelancing that doesn't pay the bills, etc.

    Wherever they end-up for whatever length of time, if someone doesn't have 'passion' for travel writing, editing or the field in general, it'd be best if they pursued other interests, as that only dilutes the quality of what is out there, what's being produced by folks who do and are trying to present it in a successful way to an audience (online, print or other) of folks who want and need information related to travel.

    1. Molly - thanks for your comments, much appreciated.

      I think you're right in taking that long-term overview. It helps us understand the ups and downs of all business, if not succeed all the time!

      On Publishers, I'd echo Jason's thoughts that they really need to adapt as much (more) than writers, but the quality of destination experts innovating right now is exciting to see.

      1. "...the quality of destination experts innovating right now is exciting to see." That's so key, and I can't comment on what publishers need to do to somehow work with these folks, or maybe it's just a matter of fierce competition that is only going to get fiercer, with both carving out niches.

        I'm rooting for me as a self-publisher, of course, but honestly do not want to see major travel guide publishers go out of buisness (LP, Frommer's, Rough Guide, Moon...). They provide a lot of jobs for folks, one reason.

        1. The key is also in knowing that with the globalization of the world has come the ability for those local guides to come into prominence.

          Speaking for myself only, with my platform I have gone to and physically researched for anywhere from half a year to nearly three years before I've written a guide for a destination, living there and investigating what it really means to live like a local. But for the updates that I have planned for 2012 for the three guides we currently offer, I'm working with local professionals I met on the ground when I was there doing research the first time around.

          I currently don't plan on changing that route. I have two more guides planned throughout 2012 and 2013 and with the readership I've built up over the past year since I started I make far more money than a publisher would have ever offered me. But I also incorporate aspects of my previous career (freelance writer) into it, because I'm not just living off of the sales of my travel guides...it's also about selling ad space, having an affiliate sales force, getting your pages positioned properly in Google and so on and so forth.

          Relevant information and high quality content is the most important thing, but after that it's just a matter of finding an audience. And you don't have to work with traditional publishers or get "approval" from anyone to do it. I'm a firm believer in the indy route myself. I think some of the major players in the industry provide some good community aspects, but for actual, livable information I always tend to go with the hardcore, immersion guides written by professionals living for extended periods of time on the ground, not merely sent on location for 2 to 3 weeks with a camera crew.

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