The end of the guidebook?

I am in Tate Modern with no Baedeker. Nor Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Time Out or any other type of guidebook. For Lucy Honeychurch, heroine of EM Forster’s Room with a View, this would be a desperate situation. Without a guidebook in Florence’s Santa Croce, she is bereft, close to tears, unsure what she should be looking at, unable to recall any of the building’s history and upset at having no one to tell her which of the sculptures and frescoes is most beautiful.

I, however, am supremely confident. I may not have a guidebook but I am equipped with “Google Goggles”, and thus have at my fingertips more information than exists in any guidebook ever written – perhaps more even than the combined wisdom of all guidebooks ever written.

Disappointingly, Google Goggles are not physical goggles, or glasses of any kind, but an app that will soon become available for iPhones and already works with Android smartphones. Put simply, whereas Google lets you search the internet using keywords, this allows you to search with an image. You use the phone’s camera to take a photo of something – a church, a monument, a painting or a sculpture – then wait a few seconds for the image-recognition software to scan it, before being offered a full range of information about it. The implications for travel are huge.

These are early days for the technology, but already the results are impressive. I snap a picture of Matisse’s “Snail” and immediately the phone brings up descriptions from several art websites, biographical information about the painter, and news about exhibitions of his work. Darker, less distinct and less well-known paintings work too – Max Ernst’s “Forest and Dove” gets a similarly quick result.

To date, technology still struggles with the nuances of sculpture – Googling Joan Miró’s bronze-and-steel “Tightrope Walker” brings up lots of pages about chihuahuas – but it will improve as more people use it and more photos are uploaded on the web. Ultimately you might pause on your walk through the countryside and use your phone to snap a picture of a fallen leaf then identify the tree it’s from, or perhaps use it to recognise animal tracks and flowers, then give you the history of the churches and monuments you pass.

And it can talk. Speak a sentence into the phone and, using another new app called Google Translate, a lifelike voice will repeat it in whichever of the 34 available languages you choose. After five minutes of asking for directions in everything from Welsh to Swahili, it dawns on me that this is that staple of science fiction – the babel fish in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Star Trek’s Universal Translator – but it’s actually here, today, for real, and such is the pace of technological advance that no one seems to have bothered to make much of a fuss about it.

But even that is trumped by the new generation of “augmented reality” apps. Outside the Tate I stand on the Millennium Bridge, holding up the phone and surveying the view on its screen, as if looking through the viewfinder of a camera. As I slowly pan around, different arrows pop up above the buildings, showing me the nearest and best hotels, restaurants, pubs, nightclubs, post offices, or whatever else I choose to look for. I decide to seek out a hotel, pick one that the phone tells me is 800 yards away, and am shown reviews from other websites plus rates and availability. All of which seems fine, so I hit another button and the phone’s sat-nav brings up an interactive map to take me there.

Oh yes – and all this is free. So why would you ever need a guidebook?

“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.

Perhaps it didn’t help that the recession and drop in tourism coincided with a whistleblowing account revealing the short-cuts undertaken by some travel writers – such as not actually bothering to visit the country they are writing about. In Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? published in April 2008, Thomas Kohnstamm, a Lonely Planet freelancer, detailed how he had sold drugs to make ends meet as he researched a guide to Brazil, taken freebies in return for positive coverage and recommended a restaurant at which a waitress had invited him to return for sex on a table after closing time. The guidebook later noted that the restaurant “is a pleasant surprise ... and the table service is friendly”. Kohnstamm also said he had written chunks of a book on Colombia while living in San Francisco: “I got the information from a chick I was dating – an intern in the Colombian consulate.”

Lonely Planet quickly dismissed Kohnstamm as a lone bad apple and said his work had been checked by other authors. But the story spawned hundreds of newspaper pieces and a spotlight had been shone on guidebook writing in general. Other authors confessed to “desk researching” countries rather than visiting them, or complained that poor pay was making it impossible to maintain standards.

The halo had slipped, but far more damaging was the fact that people were getting increasingly used to finding their own information online. It dawned on travellers that guidebooks didn’t have a monopoly on information, that their own research from the internet might even be better. And it would certainly be more up-to-date.

“Publishers are asking themselves how much of the fall in sales is a result of the recession, and how long the recession will go on, but the even bigger question is will people go back to the same buying habits as they had pre-recession, or will they have found other ways of finding information?” says Stephen Mesquita, the former managing director of AA Publishing and now an industry analyst and author of the Nielsen BookScan Travel Publishing Year Book.

Mesquita suggests there’s already some evidence hinting that younger people in particular are shifting their habits. Sales of books to Australia and New Zealand, traditional gap-year destinations, have fallen faster than the number of visitors to those countries, presumably because young travellers are happy to stop at internet cafés, researching their trips as they go.

“The challenge for travel publishers is re-inventing their business model, but because of the recession, they are having to do it far quicker than they probably thought they would have to,” Mesquita says.

Already one publisher has decided it will cease printing books altogether. Since its launch in 2001 Nota Bene has produced beautifully illustrated guides to some 50 different destinations, distributing them to its 5,000 subscribers, but it is relaunching this month, and will henceforth publish only in digital form, via the iPad. “I agonised for a long, long time about dispensing with the books because people absolutely loved them,” says Anthony Lassman, Nota Bene’s founder. “We started looking into building a website, but then the iPad came along and everything suddenly made sense.”

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.

Jonathan Knight, founder of Punk Publishing, a partner with Ellingham in the Cool Places apps, says it’s vital to find a niche. “Our most mainstream title to date was Taste Britain, all about the best farmers markets, wonderful delis and so on. You’d think that would have wide appeal, but it’s actually been our worst-selling book.”

Even those driving the digital change get a little misty-eyed about books. Everyone I spoke to stressed their love of print – everything from the portability of books to the smell of the pages. What a tragedy it would be, they all said, if guidebooks did disappear.

But would it really? Perhaps being less devoted to them might actually improve our travel experience. The new technology requires far more active involvement on the user’s part. You have to seek out information from an app. You use Google Googles to give information on something that has spontaneously caught your eye. So perhaps the death of the guidebook might at last teach us, just like Lucy Honeychurch, to experience foreign countries for ourselves. If not, then at least the new technology will, according to Ellingham, “make it an awful lot easier to find a good pub.”

Tom Robbins is the FT’s travel editor

Cool Places apps cost £1.19;

Lonely Planet Compass apps cost £3.15;

Footprint apps cost £3.99;

Nota Bene operates as a subscription service, costing £1,500 per year including concierge services;

‘The message was clear – anything but print’

Over the course of last year I saw the guidebook industry switch to digital, first-hand and in real-time, writes Dan Linstead.

In January, I had the idea of an accommodation guide for travellers who enjoy staying with local people. I’d visited homestays from India to New Zealand, and marvelled at the welcome, cultural insight and value they offer. In Rajasthan, for example, I’d spent luxurious nights with an aristocratic family who overwhelmed me with home-cooked curries and Raj-era photographs – all for £30 a night. No guide to these authentic, affordable places to stay exists. I envisaged a book capturing the post-crunch zeitgeist in the way Hip Hotels did for more indulgent times.

Fired with enthusiasm, I approached travel publisher A, producer of a bestselling recent series. Their reply set a tone that was to become familiar: “I can see this being a beautiful book and a truly original concept for a travel guide. [But] it’s an idea that lends itself much more to online than print.”

Convinced that the right format was a book, I went to publisher B. They praised my “fantastic sample pages” but were “seeing a big drop-off in accommodation guides”, and suggested it would make a “great online resource”.

With publisher C, though – a household name – I finally found a kindred spirit. The proposal went down well. Over several months, meetings took place; an editor was appointed; chapters sketched out. But then, on the brink of the deal, a new head honcho joined the firm, and all went ominously quiet. The eventual rejection email, like its predecessors, praised my idea as “a unique proposal” but admitted they were “not convinced that its ideal manifestation is as a book”.

I tried one more time, with publisher D, but was frankly unsurprised when a flurry of enthusiasm gave way to the announcement that “we’ve decided to invest our limited resources into development of our digital products”.

Guidebook publishers, it seemed, were desperate to avoid publishing any actual books. They all seemed delighted with the originality of my idea, but wanted it digital, downloadable, direct. Anything but print.

But there was a happy ending, of sorts. Last week, one of the founding fathers of UK guidebooks, a bookish kind of fellow, approached me. Would I like to write a guide for his new series, he wondered, about my home town of Windsor? He reached into his briefcase to show me the first few titles, and produced, with a flourish, the medium for his new endeavour. An iPhone.

Dan Linstead is the editor of Wanderlust magazine

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