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
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.
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,