The travel guidebooks we still love | Travel
IIt was in 2011 when a friend of mine returned to the UK having traveled ashore from Thailand, and comfortably stated that he had made the entire trip using only his iPhone – no maps and certainly no driver. When he had to make a detour around Myanmar to find out what time the Delhi Central Post Office closed or to book a cheap hotel room in Istanbul, he turned to travel forums, Google and TripAdvisor.
It was around this time that articles began appearing in the press reporting the driver’s death. Since its peak in 2005, sales have fallen by about 40% in the UK and US between 2005 and 2012. Seeing the writing on the wall, several freelance publishers sold to multinational media companies, including Lonely Planet, which was bought by BBC Worldwide for around 130 130 million. Less than three years after the market was completed, the BBC commercial arm sold it for just 50 50 million, acknowledging that it was not a good investment. In 2012, Frommer’s, the leading brand of travel guides in the US, was sold to Google, which said it would stop publishing print editions.
Once-in-a-lifetime travel guides prove to be the most durable
The drivers seemed to have their day. Their golden age in the 1990s, when backpackers were impressed with a good thumb up copy of Alex Garland’s The Beach and a Lonely Planet guide, is over. However, as Mark Twain may have noted, reports of the driver’s death are exaggerated. While the major brands have suffered in the digital age, it turns out that there is another side to the story. Some drivers simply refused to die.
Titles that defy the odds are the product of small, independent publishers and passionate writers. Bryn Thomas, founder of Trailblazer Guides, cites two of his Internet-resistant titles: The Adventure Motorcycle Handbook and The Trans-Siberian Handbook, the latest now in its 30th year and tenth edition, with 140,000 copies sold.
Photo: book jacket
“As an original writer I would like to say that everything depends on me,” he says, with a smile. “But it probably has more to do with busy writers updating it by re-traveling the rails for any updates.”
Thomas believes that the success of a driver lies in his authentic voice. “You need a certain kind of writer, someone who deals with the ideological, but can also convey information in a fun and readable way. A suitable writer, not a team or committee. Someone with deep knowledge and trustworthy views you can trust – a real guide.
These types of titles – once-in-a-lifetime travel guides – prove to be the most durable. Travelers may no longer bother to buy a driver for a weekend city break or even a fortnightly summer vacation, but if you are planning the Big One, a trip that involves many months or even years of preparation is still crucial piece. Buying a driver is often an important moment – it marks the commitment to the idea, the moment the dream comes true.
There are many, often uncontrollable factors that determine the success of a title. Hugh Brune, head of sales and marketing at Bradt Guides, cites the company’s guide to Iran as the best-selling and worst-selling title, depending on the diplomatic situation. Thomas at Trailblazer also wants to point to another factor: the growing demand for trustworthy editing amid the dubious quagmire of Google critics and TripAdvisor ratings. Give the example of a burger which is the No. 1 restaurant with a TripAdvisor rating in Paris. “Obviously not the best restaurant in Paris,” he says. “But their public relations firm is clearly doing a great job of making people ‘like’ them.”
While great or specialized adventure guides may come first, they are not the only success. As the pandemic has shifted domestic sales to UK-focused books over the past year, David Mantero, chief buyer at Stanfords Travel Bookstore in London, is evolving from a different list of consistent top sellers: “Japan by Rail has something classic for us. Reeds Nautical Almanac – is a must in this scene. And the Wainwrights. “
“A thing of beauty”… The seventh volume of Alfred Wainwright’s walking guide for the Fells. Photo: Martin Godwin / The Guardian
“The Wainwrights” is a reference to the seven-volume illustrated guide To The Lakeland Fells, the much-loved illustrated Lake District hiking guide created by Alfred Wainwright between 1955 and 1966. With sales of over two million, they serve as the perfect example of Thomas’s “voice writer” theory.
Andrew Dawson, public relations officer for the Wainwright Society, agrees: “The signatures are written as if Alfred Wainwright was speaking to you personally and wanting you at the summit,” he said. He also believes that a recent boom in their popularity reflects the growing need to reconnect with the tangible in an increasingly virtual world.
“Wainwright books are a beauty in themselves. It’s like reviving the popularity of vinyl records. Yes, we all love to download music, but nothing can replace the feel of a real record. The same goes for books. Digital mapping, applications, GPS are fantastic, but what can defeat walking, a Wainwright fell and literally followed in his footsteps, reading his whimsical descriptions? “
One criticism for drivers in the pre-digital age was that they charted a predictable course in which backpackers bounced between the same hostels and cafes, experiencing nothing like a lonely planet. The surviving titles are of a different race, as much artwork and narrative as a simple “where to” guide.
It’s like reviving the popularity of vinyl records. Yes, we all love to download music, but nothing can replace the feel of a real record. The same goes for books
When it became clear that Google had no intention of printing further Frommer guides, company founder Arthur Frommer bought the brand again. The guides – described by the daughter of Pauline Frommer, the company ‘s editorial director, “were not intended to be encyclopedic but meticulous … made to guide the reader into the most authentic, refreshing travel experiences” – they now have restored among the top travel titles.
While travelers no longer need to carry about half a kilo of paper to find the train station in a distant city, they will always long for a spark of inspiration and a connection to like-minded people. These niche titles excel here – they are not intended for road managers, but something that sparks the imagination. They wander for pleasure during the journey they dream and plan, when we read the words of others they have before, and they believe, yes, I will do that too.
These human-scale books, written and published by people who really know and love their subject, are ideal for the post-pandemic recovery journey.