Real life: Guidebooks

Your trusted 500-page travel companion is out of date as soon as it's printed, and outmoded in the internet era

By Donald Strachan
Published 19 Apr 2013, 16:42 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 13:33 BST

It's a tale told in gory detail by the numbers. UK sales of international guidebooks have fallen 45% in eight years. Guides covering where to eat or stay have fared worse, down over 60%, says analyst Stephen Mesquita, citing Nielsen BookScan data. Bowker data suggests something even more depressing: only 20% of current buyers are expecting to rely on guidebooks as much in the future.

The age of the Rough Guide in every rucksack is over. The end is nigh. Or is it?

There are reasons to think that interpretation is too pessimistic. For starters, the sales decline is far from uniform. According to Mesquita, UK sales of guidebooks covering UK destinations rose 18% between 2005 and 2011. The global picture is patchy — Lonely Planet has seen strong growth in sales of Japan guidebooks, for example.

Sales in new formats must also be considered. Italy's restaurant guide, Osterie & Locande d'Italia, sold 13,000 apps during the life of its 2012 paper edition, according to publisher Slow Food Editore. A 2013 edition is available in the App Store, priced £6. Elsewhere, the AA's apps, including electronic versions of guidebooks such as The AA Hotel Guide and The AA Restaurant Guide, have been downloaded three million times in the past 18 months. "Raw figures show print sales only, and some publishers are getting good sales of digital information," says Mesquita. "All travel guide publishers are having to reinvent their business model."

App publishing has its problems though, as Derek Lamberton, founder of independent app and map publisher Blue Crow Media, explains: "An app cannot be priced properly, whereas a book can. Who is willing to spend £10 on an app? Surprisingly, production costs are very similar. Apps are not hugely profitable… yet."

Unlike in other publishing categories, travel eBook sales haven't ridden to paper's rescue. A fiction title can expect a paper-to-eBook sales ratio of 60/40 in a market like the US, yet eBook sales "account for about 10% of Lonely Planet's total guide sales", according to LP's managing director of publishing, Stephen Palmer.

"The biggest challenge is that travel guides are not used in a 'start at the beginning, finish at the end' linear narrative structure. People hop about, reading about places of interest, seeing where they are on a map. Navigation on many devices does not make this easy. Also, the map is a core utility of any travel guide, and many eReaders struggle with maps."

Nevertheless, as eBooks become widely read on tablets, sales numbers are rising. Lonely Planet's 2012 eBook sales were up 200% on 2011, according to Palmer.

There's plenty more evidence of the travel guide's unexpected general health. City guides are an essential part of almost every travel publication, including this one. The online travel pages of the GuardianTelegraph and other newspapers are designed like guides; no more lists of recent articles, once the standard format. You'll find destination guides on the websites of airlines, villa companies and tour operators. Google bought Zagat in 2011 and Frommer's last year, and clearly sees a future in guide content. Wikimedia's latest venture, Wikivoyage, aims to create the world's biggest travel guide. 

Small is beautiful

It's not all gloom from small companies working in travel publishing, either. "Being small allows us to take risks that big guide publishers would not," says Alex Evans, director of Vespertine Press. His company began in 2009 with a guide to independent cafes in Brighton. The book sold out its entire print run within a month, a feat he was hoping to repeat with the recently published Craft Beer London.

"These bigger companies have done a great deal for travellers, but if you're looking for a really in-depth and insightful overview of a particular cultural facet, such as the best coffee shops or bars in a city, big-name guides aren't often the best. The more the industry steers away from niche publishing, the more it opens the door for companies like ours. The possibilities in the guide sector are enormous."

The tools are there for innovators to use. Say Kimchi! Korean Food Comic is a Manga-style pictorial guide to eating in Korea. It was co-created for the iPad by Daniel Gray of food blog and made possible, in part, by money raised on crowd-funding website Kickstarter. Florida newspaper the Orlando Sentinel uses a Pinterest page ( to point readers to local guide-style information on its site. The Traveler's Handbooks series covers themes such as volunteering, luxury and solo travel, and turns to an old-media format to do the job. Jodi Ettenberg, author of The Food Traveler's Handbook, explains: "It would have been foolish to ignore paper copies. Many of our readers read blogs online, or receive updates via email or Facebook, but they still prefer to read a book on paper. It was never a discussion to limit the media used — it was natural to want to make the book accessible to the maximum amount of readers."

I've had a go myself, with The Smart Phone Traveller's Guide to…, £2 Kindle-only guides that show visitors how to avoid mobile phone roaming bills in destinations such as the US, Canada and Australia.

According to Derek Lamberton, "the big names have been overly focused on the change in medium rather than changes in consumer habits. It's not a question of digital and smartphones versus print. Rather, it is a shift in what consumers want. Anyone can find dozens of affordable hotels in any major city now — they don't need a guidebook for this — but most people would prefer a handful of quality picks within their price range.

"The bigger guides pretend people haven't heard of TripAdvisor. Users want a travel guide curated to their taste, not to the masses."

There's an elephant in the room, of course: the World Wide Web. Why bother with anything as old-fashioned as a travel guide when you can have almost every scrap of human knowledge served up immediately — and for free — with a quick search? The problem with using Google as your guide has always been trust. As Alex Evans suggests, a web search is a "notoriously unreliable" way to get a travel recommendation.

Yet fixes are in the works. Upgrades to Google's search algorithm codenamed 'Panda' and 'Penguin' consigned low-quality content to the bottom of search results — in theory. Google's new Authorship tools help link web pages and experts in a particular field. Try Googling 'data SIM Italy' and somewhere on the first page you'll see a thumbnail identifying me as the author of an article. Click through and you can view my public Google+ profile and judge whether I'm a trustworthy source of advice on Italian SIM cards.

AJ Kohn, search expert and owner of marketing agency Blind Five Year Old, explains: "In the last few years the internet has given nearly anyone the ability to produce content. This makes it increasingly difficult to determine good from bad. Authorship is a way to identify who is behind the content and, long-term, may allow Google to understand if you have expertise in that area." Eventually, better authors will float higher on the search pages — good for those authors, obviously, but also good for readers. Kohn lists the benefits of this scenario: "A re-ranking of search results based on the expertise of the author on that topic. You wouldn't see nearly as many glaring errors."

Another Google innovation helpful to sightseers is the Knowledge Graph. Search for 'museums in Florence' and at the top of the screen appears a gallery identifying the most popular places. You can link from the photos straight to more search results, or just note the list and visit them, safe in the knowledge the world thinks these are the must-sees. I've written several Florence guidebooks, and it's hard to argue with the list Google suggests. It's not curation on the scale that guidebooks do it… but it's a start.

All this, and more, is accessible from a mobile phone. Smartphone penetration stands at around 50% in the UK. About a fifth of all worldwide searches to Google originate on a phone. Both those proportions will grow — and rapidly. The current high cost of roaming with your mobile will come down. Will that cause a further fall in sales of paper guidebooks? Absolutely. But it will also spread the 'travel guide' in its various digital forms.

Lonely Planet's Stephen Palmer says: "Having your travel guides on a smartphone makes travel lighter. We can update or make them more tailored when we don't have to worry about the economics of the physical supply chain. As long as the traveller is able to get the quality information they need, the format is kind of irrelevant." Among the available formats is the web itself: traffic to is 12 million unique visits per month, up 25% on last year.

New players, new frontiers

Foursquare is one mobile web service that has been invading the world of travel guides. The company launched in 2009 as a social game in which friends compete to 'check in' to locations such as bars, cafes, museums and restaurants. Users, including travel brands like Time Out London, Spotted by Locals and Wallpaper magazine, also leave tips and advice, and as these accumulated in their tens of thousands, Foursquare saw their value as a travel resource. The addition of the 'Explore' function organised this advice inside their smartphone app, and suddenly made Foursquare smarter than your average book. Explore creates personalised recommendations and places them on a local map — and it becomes cleverer the more you use it.

"If you have checked in and liked a lot of coffee shops where you live, Explore will suggest coffee shops when you travel," explains a Foursquare spokesperson. "But it is even smarter than that. We take into account the types of places your friends go in different cities. Foursquare knows when you are travelling and will suggest more touristy locations when you arrive in a new city, places that a local might be less interested in. Explore also looks into things like the weather, time of day, and what types of places are popular in different neighbourhoods."

Services like Foursquare are not for everyone. Urban travellers on a weekend of coffee, craft beer, and contemporary art could perhaps ditch the traditional guide, but you might struggle if you're hiking in the Hebrides or wine tasting in Romania. It's also a 'free' service that has to make money. Rather than the up-front price charged by a guidebook or app, part of Foursquare's financial model involves 'Promoted Updates'. For a fee, some businesses can buy a bit more eyeball time from users. "People only see promoted updates that would have appeared in their Explore results — promotions are just pushed slightly higher than they would have been," according to Foursquare.

Looking to the future, the digital frontiers keep shifting. Google's Project Glass aims to build, on a commercial scale, glasses that place information about the world literally in front of your eyes. The wearable guidebook is almost here, perhaps.

And improvements in search are ongoing. The little box we type into still can't understand queries written in natural language. For example, if we want to know if there are any films showing nearby suited to a six-year-old and beginning within an hour, a search engine won't tell us. But so-called 'semantic search' is coming, and the better it gets, the better guides will become at solving real-life travel problems in real time. Before long, search will answer a question, not just suggest a list of links.

Is the travel guide dead? If so, it's a funny kind of dead. A kind of dead that has seen it spread into formats and media reaching way beyond the bookshelf, and into homes and pockets across the planet. And the moral of this: don't believe everything you read — on paper, on a screen, or anywhere else.

Digital Destinations

Foursquare Explore
Ingenious mobile and web guide created by a combination of user tips and clever curation technology. Demographic sweet-spot: the 25–35-year-old urban hipster.
User base: Almost 30 million users, and three billion check-ins at 50 million locations.

Google+ Local
Curated online guides to cities like London, Tokyo and New York. A Google spokesperson confirmed they "have begun to integrate (recent acquisition) Frommer's content into Google+ Local."
User base: Google+ has 135 million active users, and is growing fast.

Lonely Planet
Just because you were a leader on the old landscape, doesn't mean you can't master the new one, too. LP has a significant advantage over new arrivals: it is sitting on a mountain of professionally gathered content and detailed local mapping.
User base: Over 100 million guidebooks sold, and 10 million apps downloaded, since 1973.

Blue Crow Media
Doing one thing — making curated and beautifully designed iPhone and iPad guides to food and drink spots — and doing it well. Is there a sustainable business in it? "Give me a call in 2014 and I'll let you know," says founder Derek Lamberton.
User base: Won't divulge download numbers, but key apps sell in their thousands.

More info

The Food Traveler's Handbook, by Jodi Ettenberg. RRP: £12.99. (Full Flight Press)

Craft Beer London, by Will Hawkes. RRP: £10. (Vespertine)

Say Kimchi! Korean Food Comic, by HeeJeong Sohn, Daniel Gray & Jia Choi. RRP: £1.49. (O'ngo Publishing)

Published in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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