Despite the general increase in travel and tourism we have so far seen in the 21st century, guidebook sales have plummeted since 2006. Observers say the rise in digital travel information is causing this decline. But are digital platforms and professional travel blogs killing guidebooks, or is something more revolutionary at play?
The decline of guidebooks
Guidebooks have been in trouble since the start of the millennium. The Telegraph published a chart illustrating a downward trend in guidebook sales from 2006 to 2017.
But what is causing this decline?
A confluence of forces have caused the collapsing of the guidebook market over the last 20 years.
On one hand, global turmoil has halted travel and affected guidebook sales. The Great Recession, for example, grounded travel and sent guidebook sales tumbling.
On the other hand, the rise of freely available digital travel information has been harming guidebook sales. As The Guardian reported in 2012, we have “entered the era of digital travel information, much of it free and with the added attraction of reviews and advice from like-minded travellers.”
The rise of travel bloggers and digital content creators
There is no question that apps, professional travel blogs, and other forms of digital travel information have transformed the travel publishing landscape, no less because they supply fast and free content supported by advertising revenue, affiliate marketing, and direct sales of products or services. Why pay for a cumbersome guidebook, the refrain goes, when a world of online information is at my fingertips for free?
It is a legitimate question.
The amount of free online travel information is staggering. The total number of websites and blogs has skyrocketed over the last twenty years, and travel websites and blogs have increased in number accordingly.
Are travel blogs killing the guidebook?
But is an increase of travel blogs the cause of a decline in guidebook sales? Or is the evidence correlative?
Anecdotal evidence supports the theory that travelers are ditching the paper guidebooks in favor of free online resources. Ask around and you will see how uncommon buying and using physical guidebooks is, especially among milennials. Or, the next time you travel, just look around to see how many travelers are thumbing through guidebooks versus thumbing their phones.
All signs point to digital travel information killing the physical guidebook. But those who argue this point perhaps need to reframe the question. Are guidebooks going extinct? Or are they evolving?
What’s at play is the economic theory of creative destruction – the “process of industrial mutation that continuously revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”
Just as travel guidebooks have long been an important feature of the tourism industry, so now have travel apps, websites, and professional travel blogs taken their place.
Are professional bloggers and creators of digital travel information killing the good old guidebook? The short answer is, no — they are helping revolutionizing it. Professional travel blogs and digital travel information have become the new guidebooks.
Perhaps we should use the term creative r/evolution instead of creative destruction.
The new guidebook revolution
If travel apps, professional travel blogs, and digital travel information are leading this revolution, it is more the French kind than the bloodless kind.
Their credo is that nobody has a divine right to rule the travel publishing industry, especially if the absolute kings of guidebook publishing–Lonely Planet, DK, Fodor’s, Frommer’s, and the rest–are exploiting the writers who serve as the foundation of the entire publishing endeavor and shoulder the biggest burdens.
Power once rested in the hands of a few publishers. Off with their heads–travel content is now democratized, digital, and in the hands of a large army of professional bloggers and content creators. Liberty. Fraternity. Equality.
Guidebooks have been forced to go digital. In her Talking Travel Writing newsletter, Lottie Gross, the former Web Editor for Rough Guides, noted that “a large chunk of their content strategy revolved around easy-to-digest listicles that got readers onto the site.” Gross cites the economic imperatives for doing so: “In blunt economic terms, there’s a really good reason for this: they bring in readers. And what do readers mean? Well, revenue and the resources necessary for that publication to stay alive.”
Professional travel bloggers are leading the revolution against the ancien régime. In a 2017 pop shot at Lonely Planet, one blogger noted its “desire to be a ‘content company,’” its “rapid decline in quality,” and its “terrible website” as its key problems, while also citing “rumors and whispers” about ethical questions into its journalistic practices and business model.
But professional travel bloggers would march on Versailles, wouldn’t they? Imagine how much the travel blogging community would benefit from Lonely Planet and the rest going under. Power and website visits would be in the hands of the people.
Can we really trust criticism from professional bloggers who have horses in the race and have copied content strategies from the same playbook? Or, is this a “rumors and whispers” campaign to plant the seeds of doubt and suspicion by the so-called “friends of the people”?
A Reign of Terror
The revolution has backed guidebook stalwarts into a corner and forced them to change their tune.
Guidebook loyalists and publishing conservatives are cautioning us that all is not as it seems. Pauline Frommer, Doug Stallings, and other guidebook editors have been returning fire and calling into question the ethics, accuracy, and reliability of digital travel information.
The Boston Globe reports Pauline Frommer as saying, “’When you take advice from a user-generated website, you’re taking advice from a person who has probably only been to one place […] Our writers have visited all the hotels. They’ve eaten at all the restaurants. So they can be opinionated in an informed fashion. It’s not just an aggregate of information, but a person whose voice and opinion you grow to trust.’ Guidebooks ‘are trying to remind people of the importance of journalism.’”
Forbes reports Doug Stallings of Fodor’s as saying, “The web allows travelers to plan and anticipate their travels in amazing and useful ways, but the proliferation of paid, planted, and unvetted reviews and content online makes it impossible to know who to trust. You can trust us. All Fodor’s reviews come from our writers and editors rather than from anonymous users, and businesses cannot pay to be listed in our guides. We include establishments in our guidebooks that are recommended by locals and vetted by travel experts.”
Can we really trust the new order? Are we to trust a professional travel blogger who spent a week in Paris or Bali to give us an account of “the five best” fill-in-the-blanks? Can we trust a “content company” that farms out an entire catalogue of posts inspired by keyword research? How do we know reviews on apps like TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Google have not been bought or written by a spiteful competitor?
And, for that matter, can we really trust the old guard? How do we know that a hotel or a restaurant has not bought off or given guidebook writers kickbacks or freebies for glowing reviews, as Thomas Kohnstamm admits to doing in his book Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?
Perhaps the best thing to do, Seth Kugel reminds us in his book Rediscovering Travel, is to be a travel information anarchist, so to speak, and have “organic experiences” that ditch our dependence on over-planning using guidebooks, blogs, and all. It sure sounds nice, a bit like youthful idealism.
The future of the print guidebooks
A confluence of forces have created an opportune moment for a revolution in the world of commercial travel writing. In 2001, the attacks on 9/11 threatened the travel industry. In 2008, the prolonged financial crisis of 2008 kneecapped it—the guidebook industry has not been able to stand up straight since. Now, the coronavirus pandemic is throwing its own haymakers.
Lonely Planet announced the closing of its Melbourne and London offices and reducing its staff. Though it will continue to publish guidebooks, time will tell what impact these closures, furloughs, and reductions will have on the future of the business.
Yet as publishers, magazines, and commercial content farms furlough staff and tighten their purse strings, the professional bloggers will be the ones to weather the storm.
Tim Leffel notes, “bloggers have long had some big structural advantages over big media companies. We’re fiscally lean and nimble, for a start, which came in especially handy during this downturn. When you’ve got 100 people on your masthead page and an array of tech workers and sales reps to pay, a big loss in revenue can be deadly. When you’re a one- or two-person operation that wears multiple hats and outsources, you can just quickly lower your expenses and ride it out.”
But as people are becoming more conscientious about screen fatigue and silencing their notifications, we may see a revival in guidebooks much like we have seen a revival in vinyl, whose sales and revenues have reached in numbers the music industry has not seen since the 1980s. Can we expect a similar guidebook rebound at some point?
For now, all we can say is that print guidebook sales are not what they used to be, and the jury is still out on what the coronavirus rebound looks like, if it happens at all.
Will the coronavirus pandemic be the final guillotine to fall on the traditional guidebook industry?
Probably not. There will always be a market for printed guidebooks, but it may look more like the Kingdom of Tavolara than the French Empire. And there is a good chance that the professional travel bloggers and creators of digital travel information will be running the rest of the world.
Last Updated on 24 November 2020 by Travel Writing World