Sales of guidebooks have taken a hard hit in recent years with the rise of the internet. Twitter tips, blogs and apps are all bursting at the seams with up-to-the minute travel advice and seem to be pushing our old companion to the wayside. But does this really sound the death knoll for the guidebook?
The figures seem to suggest so. A small fall in sales in 2006 has snowballed in subsequent years. By the end of 2012, sales of guidebooks had fallen by 46 per cent since 2005 in the UK alone. Even more telling, the bestselling international guide from a major publisher sold 21,028 in 2005, but only 10,201 in 2011.
Couple these figures with the fact smartphones account for 50 per cent of phones in the UK and worldwide and 20 per cent of Google searches come from a mobile device, and it is easy to see where the trend is leading. Who would want to drag around a 500 page tome in their baggage when they can get all the travel tips they could need on their phone or tablet?
The past few years have seen the rise of sites such as TripAdvisor, couchsurfing.org and Foursquare. Foursquare, an app which use GPS to find your location and provides tips on what to do and see, alone has 30 million users and three billion check-ins at 50 million locations.The internet has infinite channels of wisdom, and these sites are just a few which offer instant access to a wealth of local knowledge, up-to-date recommendations and interactive maps. Guidebooks take months to research so can be outdated as soon as they are published.
Ben Lanyado, founder of a user-generated travel site, Young in Europe, highlights the biggest issue for guidebook publishers: ‘why on earth would I want to know what a travel writer thought was great when I could find out what 200 people like me thought was great?’ And that’s the biggest problem—people now want guides curated to their tastes, not to the masses as big guide books do. ‘I learned more about a city in two hours with a local than I did reading the entire city section in a guidebook,’ claims Lanyado.
But, the internet hasn’t won the fight just yet. The web has become a notoriously unreliable way to get a travel recommendation. We all know not to take Wikipedia at face value, so is its travel section ‘Wikivoyage’ really that trustworthy? Guidebooks offer that authoritative view which reader-generated content just can’t compete with. TripAdvisor-style sites are great resources (despite having received some slack recently) but lack perspective. One user may say X restaurant or Y museum was the best in the city, but who actually visits every museum or restaurant to provide some point of comparison other than a guidebook author? Roaming charges are also an issue, but there have been recent proposals by the EU Digital Agenda Commissioner to ban them altogether. Would that be the final nail in the coffin for the guidebook?
Frommers, a travel guide giant, was recently sold to Google, which wants to add the digital archives to that of its previous acquisition, Zagat, a respected restaurant review series. Google+ Local are curated online guides to cities like London, New York and Tokyo, with 135 million active users. “We can’t wait to start working with them [Frommers] on our goal to provide a review for every relevant place in the world,” Google said. Maybe this is the future instead, digital guides which can be updated constantly, tailored to user’s needs and easy to access.
As summed up by Jason Clampet of Skift.com, ‘professionally created guides will always have a place in the traveller's toolkit, but they aren't going to be limited to paper anymore and the next generation of guidebook brands will need to make the business work sooner rather than later.’
Printed sales may continue to fall, but the ‘travel guide’ will adapt in its digital form to become up-to-date, portable and relevant. The guidebook isn’t dead yet—it’s just having a rebirth.