Printed Guidebooks: Can Frommer’s Be Successful Again?

Candice Gaukel Andrews December 3, 2013 24

Nature and adventure travelers tend to visit remote places where getting a signal is often impossible. ©Jan Wigsten/Nomadic Journeys

There’s no doubt that the print publishing world is rapidly changing, and perhaps nowhere is the revolving nature of the industry being played out more visibly than in the travel guidebook genre.

Last year, in August 2012, Google purchased Frommer’s travel and unofficial guides for $22 million — more than fifty-five years after an ex-GI named Arthur Frommer kicked off his series with the first edition of Europe on 5 Dollars a Day. The popularity of the Frommer’s tomes grew until one out of every four guidebooks sold in the U.S. were Frommer’s. Even today, the Unofficial Guide: Walt Disney World is one of the best-selling guidebooks in the nation.

After Google made the acquisition, it was announced that the venerable paper guides would soon be a thing of the past. A month later, however, the Frommer family bought back their guidebook line and released word of plans to start the presses rolling again.

This circular story points out a travel head-scratcher: can print guidebooks still be successful in today’s world?

Reinventing the paper guidebook

Churchill tundra vehicle and bears

However, being able to send real-time photos of your adventures helps you share your travels. ©Eric Rock

Although I have a smartphone, I still like to buy at least one printed guidebook when preparing to visit a place I’ve never been to before. I’ll conduct an online search — especially to plot out my routes using applications such as MapQuest or Google Maps — before leaving home; but when I’m in places with no Internet access, I find that printed books really come in handy.

When travel guidebook guru Arthur Frommer and his daughter and travel expert Pauline Frommer reacquired the rights to publish their long-standing guidebooks, Arthur stated that he did not accept the conventional wisdom that print guides are dead. According to him, a “significant percentage of the public wants to carry a book with them.” That doesn’t mean, however, that the Frommers are ignoring the changing world. The 500-page, jumbo books of past series are gone. The new guides are light, packable reads. The Day by Day volumes (for locations such as Cape Town, Honolulu, and Vancouver and priced at about $10.00 each) are organized around neighborhood itineraries and the arts, the outdoors, and shopping and are a slight 200 pages or under. The new Easy Guides which cover destinations such as Alaska, Costa Rica, and the national parks and which cost under $10.00 each — are about 250 pages and fit into pockets and purses. The initial thirteen titles became available in November.

Will apps win out?

Some say, however, that a smartphone with access to apps and the Internet is capable of trouncing any printed travel book. A phone has the ability to contain an almost infinite quantity of continuously updated information; it can provide access to crowdsourced advice from thousands of people rather than recommendations from one person who happened to write a particular book; and because it knows where you’re standing when you’re using it, it can suggest the nearest destinations and tell you how to get to them. It’s difficult for paper to compete with that.

Frommer’s new “Easy Guides” cover destinations such as Costa Rica. © Patrick J. Endres

Even Arthur Frommer himself advises that travelers take advantage of the power of the Internet to connect with locals. There are all kinds of meet-ups and clubs where you can sit down and talk with longtime residents. If that doesn’t work, he suggests calling all of your friends ahead of time to ask if they know of anyone in Croatia or Cambodia or wherever it is that you are going. Offer to take these friends of friends out to dinner.

I still think, however, that despite the advantages of electronic devices, if you’re a nature or adventure traveler, often those instruments fail to get a signal in the remote places you prefer to visit. And the many benefits of being totally unplugged in such environments are well documented.

A dinner with locals, though, is appealing. That’s something that a paper guidebook has never been able to set up for me.

Do you think print guidebooks will eventually disappear? Do you still purchase paper guidebooks before leaving home, or do you do all of your pretrip and on-trip planning online?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

24 Comments »

  1. Mary December 3, 2013 at 10:22 am - Reply

    We definitely use both resources. For initial groundwork, I like to go online, but when we have settled on a specific destination, I always want printed material – small enough to bring along and enjoy, as well as mark and enter notations.

  2. GinC December 3, 2013 at 6:13 pm - Reply

    I agree that both have their place. This year we travelled as a family in Europe – using only tablets for our information. Having travelled 30 years ago with a guide book, almost daily I regretted that I had not bought one, but did not see any readily available. We did find a map and found that was much more helpful than relying on the web.

    It isn’t just being out in remote places where you can’t get info on line- in cities you have to have access to wi-fi…. and that usually n meant having to do research only at night at accomodation where the wifi is available. When between cities, there was no wifi for us, so we found ourselves having to spend more time in info centres than would otherwise have been the case.

  3. John December 4, 2013 at 5:07 am - Reply

    We use both. Having just returned from a month long trip to France and Spain, I can say both are helpful. I did the majority of my pre-trip planning on line and chose carefully the books I wanted to take to minimize the amount of space and weight. Sometimes cellular connections could be weak and also expensive. AT&T charges 120mb for $30. You can go through that quickly trying to download a map or find a review.

  4. Stefanie Payne December 4, 2013 at 6:00 am - Reply

    I buy a guidebook each time I book a trip. It’s my introduction to a place. I read bits before bed to enlist understanding, then do my hearty research online. The books live on my shelf long after the trip concludes and I’ll glance at the binding from time to time and think back to the day I bought the book and how excited I was; and the trip itself. Online research just doesn’t give you that.

  5. Shinan Earnshaw December 4, 2013 at 6:04 am - Reply

    I still like a printed book–for reading and for travel. I can refer back to pages I want to reread or for maps I want to follow–since I don’t want to follow a tiny map on my telephone. I like Lonely Planet in particular. Also, I put the book in my “library” for future reference or for travel again to places I really liked and to get new ideas. Also as Jan says, adventure travelers are often in remote places where a book is also something to read in the leisure and/or evening hours. Furthermore, I like the feel of a book. But then, I am not a member of the cyber age……

  6. Carlyn December 5, 2013 at 12:46 am - Reply

    Our overloaded book shelves contain a collection of guide books with personality, reminding us of that swamp we inadvertently dropped it in, of our fellow traveler who was a bit careless with his coffee cup, of the underlined paragraphs denoting really special places. Technology is fine if all you want is (sometimes inaccessible) basic information, but give me a real book for the memories.

  7. Kurt Repanshek December 5, 2013 at 4:57 am - Reply

    I don’t know why they can’t be successful…as long as the printed guide is just one aspect of a multi-platform approach to park guides. A big downfall of printed guides is some of the information can be outdated by the time the books hit the stores. But if you pair a printed guide with a phone app, flipbook, and website….you can cover all the bases.

  8. Lewis Bosworth December 5, 2013 at 4:59 am - Reply

    I sure hope Frommer and the Rough Guide, among others, succeed because I sure as hell am not going to tour minefields or sand dunes carting a kindle or iPad!

  9. Stephen Russell December 5, 2013 at 5:00 am - Reply

    See Rick Steves Guide to Europe he pushes on his PBS TV show.

  10. Lawan Bukar Marguba December 5, 2013 at 5:01 am - Reply

    Guide books are still very useful in the field. I don’t go out without one.

  11. Mark Demyan December 5, 2013 at 5:03 am - Reply

    Thanks for the Link… I agree … a good Starting Point like Frommer is very Important.
    I also buy a local Map.. When I was in Gulu Uganda Africa… the Map … helped and took me places I would have never gone. Also having a Local Priest ( that is why I was in Gulu ) was my Tour Guide for most of the trip. As Mr Frommer states a Long time resident is Critical to Learn and dive into Local Culture and Activities ! !

    thanks Again great INFO… and glad $$$$ don’t always Rule ! ! His family buying back the rights of paper Copy… will be successful… I think.. at least for 45 and older Crowd !! Younger Generation we will see !!
    Also a our Local Aud Soc … everyone has a Paper Bird Book with them.. because of Signal ( Service ) in the Woods ! ! and I am in NE Ohio, USA ( Cleveland Area )

    MJD
    Mark J. Demyan
    Consultant
    &
    President
    Audubon Society of Greater Cleveland
    ASGC
    &
    Owner MDCC

  12. Jim Kennedy December 5, 2013 at 5:03 am - Reply

    I’m an on line detective when it comes to travel. . My wife a book person.
    But I always enjoy her paper guides.
    Good luck to Frommers it was always one of the better researched travel books.

  13. Nick Harman December 5, 2013 at 10:18 am - Reply

    On the other hand you don’t need a guide book that may be out of date, and they always are as far as prices etc are concerned. If you’re going to a really remote place then by definition there wont be much written about it in any format. Granted I have used guide books as toilet paper and that definitely doesn’t work with a Kindle

  14. Bernhardson Wayne December 5, 2013 at 4:19 pm - Reply

    A good guidebook (such as mine, I would hope) will contain durable information that allows readers to find their way around a destination even though certain facts may have changed. An older book by a regional specialist will be more useful than an amateur’s update.

  15. Claire Coulter December 6, 2013 at 2:15 am - Reply

    I tend to buy a printed guidebook before travel. I bought one last year on Kindle, thinking that would be lighter than carrying a heavy guidebook. But I found that I preferred the printed version. It was just easier to browse through and the maps were easier to use. I also use the net a lot, especially for finding accommodation and up to date reviews.

  16. Donald Fink December 6, 2013 at 6:25 am - Reply

    We do quite a bit of traveling and use both. We’ll start our research of a particular destination on the internet, then settle on a good guide book, then back to the internet, and so on.

    The advantage of using guide books compared to the internet is that they tend to be written by professionals who don’t have a particular ax to grind about a place, event, or whatever. The books overall tend to be more disciplined in their approach. They are usually thought out in advance before the author puts it all together. On the internet, you’re getting all your information “raw” and unrefined so you end up spending quite a bit of time weeding through a bunch of irrelevant information.

    Both are useful (the internet and printed books), but we find that the printed books are more trustworthy.

  17. Stuart Wasserman December 6, 2013 at 12:23 pm - Reply

    I agree with Nick. Last year I traveled all over Argentina and Bolivia. I did some general reading in the library or travel bookstores in Portland before heading out. After that I found by staying in hostals I gathered all the information I needed from their bulletin boards where travelers posted their favorite spots north and south. I like to travel lightly.

  18. Nick Harman December 7, 2013 at 7:55 am - Reply

    It’s all weight though. The budget airlines barely allow you a change of clothes these days before charging you extra.

  19. Bernhardson Wayne December 7, 2013 at 7:56 am - Reply

    If you choose follow crow-sourced bulletin boards and never get outside that comfort zone, you’ll miss much more than you see.

  20. Nick Harman December 7, 2013 at 7:57 am - Reply

    Well I rely a lot on local bloggers, who are after all do live in a place and know it well and are up to date, and using bulletin boards seems a good idea. It’s all research after all, it’s how you apply it that counts.

  21. Sarah Cameron December 8, 2013 at 8:46 am - Reply

    Oh Stuart – next time you are travelling spare a thought for the writer who was paid peanuts for the travel guide you read in the library or book shop. We depend on you actually buying the book (or at least borrowing it from the library and taking it home to read) for our royalties or PLR payments. I’m sure Wayne Bernhardson would agree.
    By Oh Stuart – next time you are travelling spare a thought for the writer who was paid peanuts for the travel guide you read in the library or book shop. We depend on you actually buying the book (or at least borrowing it from the library and taking it home to read) for our royalties or PLR payments. I’m sure Wayne Bernhardson would agree.

  22. Nick Harman December 8, 2013 at 8:47 am - Reply

    I wouldn’t rely on Library PLR. It’s 6p a borrow last time I looked and library copies are usually years out of date. I just borrowed one on Malta and it was last revised in 1982. The photos were clearly taken in 1962! So apart from a few basic facts, ‘Malta is an island’, it was pretty unreliable and will probably remain on the shelf now forever.

  23. Ben Box December 8, 2013 at 8:48 am - Reply

    This argument is going to run and run until either the trees run out or the internet implodes. As a guidebook writer I am on Wayne and Sarah’s side, but isn’t the key to this that we are travel writers of one sort or another, sharing our experiences and encouraging others to explore. We should be working together, making the different media work for us. And Nick, hope it wasn’t one of my guidebooks you used; if you have only got your Kindle, newspaper works OK.

  24. Bernhardson Wayne December 8, 2013 at 8:50 am - Reply

    “A Walk in the Woods” is due to become a movie shortly: http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=39262 .

    A digression on an earlier comment about guidebook prices: they change the day you leave a town, and that’s unavoidable (and many websites are even more badly out of date). But relative prices usually remain the same. It’s the sights and services that no longer exist, due to business failure, fires or earthquakes, that can be misleading. But even then, the book provides some context.

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