Outside | August 2013
Can guidebook companies survive in the digital age? We take a look and try some new alternatives.
By Kate Siber
Since Arthur Frommer published his first guidebook in 1957, globe-trotters have stuffed dog-eared volumes into their packs. But last March, Google announced that it would dissolve the series—which it bought in August 2012—after mining it for content. It appeared to be one more spasm of a dying industry: sales of travel books dropped 19 percent last year and 10 percent the year before. Last March, BBC sold Lonely Planet to a reclusive tobacco magnate at a loss of more than $100 million.
Blame crowdsourced sites like TripAdvisor and Wikivoyage, along with a swarm of innovative digital travel guides and tools like Wanderfly and VerbalizeIt. In the past few years, though, guidebook companies have started to respond. “Traditional publishers need to be platform neutral, so they can repurpose their content for whatever channel their customer is on,” says Mark Henshall, content director for digital agency Propellernet and a former Frommer’s editor. “The guidebook isn’t dead. It’s just evolving.”
Lonely Planet now has 500 e-book editions and in May launched Fluent Road, an online language program. Both Lonely Planet and Fodor’s offer apps and e-books loaded with news and links to maps. The work is starting to pay off: Lonely Planet doubled its e-book revenue last year, helping push overall revenue into the black, and sales of Fodor’s e-books grew 642 percent in the past two years. But electronic guidebooks still make up only 5 percent of the companies’ overall sales—and all digital platforms, including apps, make up no more than 30 percent.
To survive, say industry experts, guidebook companies will need to offer their content in more formats with more features, quickly. Some of that is in the works—animated illustrations and audio phrase guides for e-books are on the way—and startups will push the envelope further. “Travel publishing has been shot in the arm with adrenaline,” says Brice Gosnell, VP of publishing for Lonely Planet. “All these things we’ve wanted to do for years, we now have the tools and platforms to do them.” While it remains to be seen whether companies like Gosnell’s can catch the tide quickly enough, he’s right about one thing: “On the consumer end, it’s all great.”
Lonely Planet City Guides: Customers can search attractions and services alphabetically or by theme (“parks and gardens,” “sweeping views”). But at $4 a city, they’re pricey for an app.
Fodor’s City Guides: Splashy photos illustrate reviews, and events and shows are bookable from the app. Plus: it’s free. Unfortunately, it kept crashing on us.
Rough Guides City Guides: An interactive map shows lodgings, restaurants, shops, and sights on command. And slide shows link directly to reviews of attractions. One bummer: reviews are organized into neighborhoods, but the app doesn’t show you where they are.