English Corner

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The return of travel guidebooks

Von Ben West

Printed guidebook sales have plunged in recent years — yet publishers are beginning to see an increase.

In recent years the digital revolution has caused the popularity of conventional guidebooks to plummet. With sales of guidebooks peaking in the UK and the US in 2005, they fell by around 45% from 2006-14.

An ever-growing, gargantuan appetite for the likes of ebooks, apps and travel websites like TripAdvisor and wikitravel, and an increasing expectation by travellers that their information should be free and completely up-to-date has seen publishers severly cull their print portfolios, and indeed a number of guidebook series and publishers have vanished in recent years.

I’ve witnessed this pretty close at hand, having written several guidebooks myself. Ten or twenty years ago there seemed to be new guidebook series coming out regularly. Today the chances of being commissioned to write a new guidebook, at least with anything resembling decent payment attached, is slim indeed.

The rot set in in 2008 when the recession triggered a sharp decline in travel, and if people did travel, they would be more likely to cut back on such extras as guidebooks in favour of free information. Many publishers responded by reducing costs any way they could: the Lonely Planet guide to West Africa, for example, was slashed from around 1300 pages in 2008 to just over 500 for the last edition, prompting a big decline usefulness, in positive reviews and no doubt in sales. Such actions are only going to encourage the death of the traditional guidebook.

It’s no surprise, then, that many people have been predicting the complete demise of the conventional printed guidebook anytime soon. However, new figures published last month reveal that sales of guidebooks rose in the UK and US for the first time in ten years.

Whereas in 2014 guidebook sales fell by more than 6% in the US, they grew 1% last year. In the UK sales were up 4.45% on the previous year. The figures came from Nielsen BookScan Travel Publishing Year Book, computed from data provided by online and high-street book retailers. Ok, they’re not groundbreaking figures, but it’s a start.

“Good travel guides are stuffed full of interesting bits and pieces”

Increased book sales has been triggered by a rise in people travelling, an increase of around 8% in 2015 compared to 2014, in both the UK and US. This is coupled with an end to the rapid rise in popularity of ebooks. Whilst ebook sales grew quickly after 2007 that growth has now stopped, and in the UK they presently only represent around 7% of the travel publication market.

Perhaps more and more readers are realising that now any Tom, Dick or Harry can easily put out an ebook on Amazon or another ebook platform, quality can be extremely variable unless you stick to the well-known imprints.

Travellers are also increasingly realising that while there’s a huge amount of free travel reviews and advice on the internet, a good deal of it is not particularly authoritative, is cliched, cloned, generic and characterless.

“The great thing about a paperback travel guide is that it carries a degree of authority and credibility that most travel websites are miles short of achieving,” says guidebook writer Richard Trillo on The Guardian website. “Good travel guides are stuffed full of interesting bits and pieces that the author has unearthed and wants to pass on. They’re fun to read, they occasionally give you pause for thought.”

Another reason guidebooks may be making a comeback is that a number of mobile- and computer-friendly versions of guidebooks have proved difficult to navigate. Also, when travelling, some readers may prefer to carry a traditional guidebook as it doesn’t render itself useless as a digital version may if the battery runs out, if wifi is inaccessible, or roaming charging are too high.

Niche publishers and niche areas - especially off-the-beaten-track destinations — have continued to fare well through the guidebook downturn. The UK’s Bradt Travel Guides, for example, founded by Hilary and her then husband George Bradt in 1974, has dedicated guides to a large range of countries few travellers visit, including Iraq, North Korea, Sierra Leone and Colombia. Yet the company is thriving: it now published more than 200 guidebooks, including one of mine, to Cameroon, soon to go into its fourth edition.

The kind of people with the time and disposible income available to travel these days, especially the baby boom generation, are most likely to pick up printed guidebooks again. Not weaned on apps and the web, they are likely to fondly remember backpacking with a Lonely Planet or Rough Ruide in their rucksack, and are happy to continue that tradition.

And that can only be a good thing, as far as guidebook publishers are concerned.