Friday, August 13, 2010

Death of the Printed Travel Guidebook?

Financial Times recently looked at new technology and how new gizmos may eventually replace printed travel guidebooks. While it seems inevitable, I'd say printed guidebooks will remain dominant for the near future until the technology is sorted out and ebook readers and IPad clones bring down the cost significantly.

A few notable comments here, but do read the entire article and be prepared for some technology headaches.

“The publishing world has been talking for years about how we are going to follow the music industry down the pan,” says Mark Ellingham, founder of the Rough Guides series, which has sold more than 30m books worldwide.“I don’t think that is going to happen tremendously quickly for publishing in general, but travel guidebooks are absolutely the front line. In travel it makes much more sense to have digital rather than traditional paper books.”

And the latest news from the front line is not good. In fact, over the past two and a half years, guidebook sales in Britain have fallen off a cliff. Sales for 2009 were down 18 per cent on 2007, and if the second half of this year follows the first, 2010 will be down 27 per cent on 2007, according to data from Nielsen BookScan. If the current rate of decline continues, the final guidebook will be sold in less than seven years’ time.

Lonely Planet’s Australia guide sold 20,015 copies in 2008, and just 13,530 in 2009 – a drop of a third (again, the figures are from Nielsen BookScan, covering sales from British retailers). The Rough Guide to France, which sold 11,943 in 2008, fell 45 per cent to 6,561 the following year. Worse is that these are considered bestsellers.

Of course, the fortunes of individual titles fluctuate with the launch of new editions and the fashionability of destinations, but average sales across the whole range paint an equally bleak picture. Last year, the average UK sale of each title from the leading five publishers was around 1,500 copies.

The reasons behind this sales collapse are all too apparent – a combination of new technology and recession. Fewer people are travelling so buy fewer guidebooks, while those that do still go away are more likely to download free information online rather than spending money on a book.

Sales figures may be dire, the challenges mounting, but this summer there’s a buzz in the world of travel publishing, a sense of being on the verge of a totally new era. The internet allowed people to research their trips themselves before setting out, but smartphone apps and iPads travel with them. Suddenly the guidebook publishers, who for years seemed to be looking on from the sidelines, unsure of how to make websites work for them, have found themselves with a medium that makes sense.

“I could see that if you got in early and created the most compelling products then it could be fantastically lucrative as well,” says Douglas Schatz, who last year gave up his job as boss of Stanfords, the venerable London travel book shop, to become Lonely Planet’s managing director for Europe, Middle East and Asia.

Remember those guidebook sales figures? The average title selling just 1,500 copies a year? Compare that with the fact that during the volcanic ash crisis, 4.2m Lonely Planet apps covering 13 destinations were downloaded within four days. Admittedly they were being given away as a free promotion to help stranded passengers, but it hints at the potential.

Selling apps online also lets publishers cut out conventional retailers, who have been squeezing margins aggressively and often dictated at what price a book will be sold.

Of course, over the past couple of years have seen many travel-related apps, some from airlines, hotels and others in the travel industry; others as extensions of travel websites, and lots of them free. But this summer publishers are piling into the app market, hoping to persuade customers that it’s worth paying for an app that comes with the guidebook brand’s trusted tone and voice.

Last month Ellingham, who sold Rough Guides in 2008, launched Cool Places, a series of 30 slick apps to UK destinations, including St Ives, Brighton and Whitby. In June, Footprint Travel Guides released its first apps, with 50 being rolled out by the end of this month. Rough Guides’ new apps debut later this year, and last week Lonely Planet launched its new Compass app – the first augmented reality app from a mainstream guidebook publisher. Their jostling for position is given extra impetus by the assumption that the market will explode as mobile roaming charges fall.

So will the printed guidebook disappear altogether? One scenario sees print becoming the preserve of photo-led “inspiration” books, for armchair reading before you go away. But even that market could be squeezed by the iPad. Lonely Planet, for example, recently released 1,000 Ultimate Experiences, an innovative iPad book for pre-travel inspiration that mixes photos, text and video.

Another theory is that books will become niche products covering special interests or remote, developing destinations without mobile coverage or the visitor numbers to merit an app. Bradt – known for its guides to almost comically uncommercial destinations, including North Korea and Iraq – actually saw sales rise by 2.25 per cent in 2009. And one of the few real success stories of recent years has been Punk Publishing, which produces the Cool Camping and Wild Swimming series, and saw sales double in the last four years.

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