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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Death of the guidebook?

That's the headline of a story in The Age yesterday written by former Lonely Planet writer Chris Taylor who recounts his discovery that the author who'd updated the China guide before him hadn't visited places himself, but had sub-contracted a cafe owner (who subsequently recruited his cousin!) to do the research instead. Taylor argues that due to increasing competition, guidebooks can't generate the sales revenues to justify the high fees required to ensure the kind of legwork and first-hand research that results in personal recommendations. That Lonely Planet's fees aren't high enough is true, but good writers will still do the legwork. So, is the guidebook dead? Kind of. But this isn't the first time it's been suggested: see The Death of the Guidebook? (The Observer/The Guardian, 2006) and Guidebooks: RIP (The Times, 2007). And I certainly don't believe the Internet killed the guidebook. There are travellers who still prefer discerning critical information written by experts who travel for a living over 'reviews' by people who take holidays once or twice a year. And there are still travellers who prefer carrying a guidebook to printing reams of paper off a website. I don't think all guidebooks will die, just the Lonely Planet style, and by that I mean the mainstream, one-size-fits-all continent and country guides, although I think LP is on the right track with the Encounter guides, as they were with their 'Best Ofs'. As anyone with any kind of marketing sense knows, rarely does one book (or film or CD for that matter) appeal to everyone, and the ones that do, like blockbuster movies or airport novels, tend to be bland, flawed and lack complexity and style. One guidebook can't be all things to all types of travellers, whether it's budget, mid-range or top-end, old or young, singles or couples. When they try to please everyone, they don't do very well at pleasing anyone. However, guidebooks have been taking a different direction for a while now. Consider the success of niche series Wallpaper, for travellers into architecture, art and design, and Luxe, focused at a style-conscious set. Aimed at a narrow target audience, they contain travel content created with their readership firmly in mind. The phenomenal success of Cool Camping, one of the UK's top-selling guidebooks last year, and the outpouring of emotion toward the enchanting hand-crafted Love travel guides are further evidence that travellers want more from their guidebooks. They want guidebooks produced for them. Well, don't we all? What do you think?

Whenever I travel around the Middle East, I always find it interesting that tourists from the region don't use guidebooks. Admittedly, they're often pilgrims visiting sites of religious significance, such as these Iranian women in Damascus. But they still visit museums, go shopping, and eat out. They don't speak Arabic but somehow they manage, they find their way around, and they still seem to have a good time.


Alexander Santillanes said...

It's a small point, but I agree with you about the Lonely Planet Encounter books being a good step. When I worked at a travel bookstore, I almost never recommended Lonely Planet- but on my recent trip to Hanoi, I used the Encounter guide, and found it extremely useful. -X

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Xander! I'd be keen to know what you liked about them? My husband Terry and I wrote and shot two before we stopped working for Lonely Planet, and we really enjoyed doing them - I love that they're driven by experiential travel, doing things and experiences, as well as directing people to sub-cultures and themes they might be interested in exploring. And of course their handy size. Although I've noted that they're still inconsistent in style and content (they vary depending on who writes them) and so they're still speaking to too many audiences - more creative control is needed I think.

I'd love to know why you didn't recommend Lonely Planet before...? And I'd also love to hear what books you like on Bangkok.

Sean McLachlan said...

You're right that the Internet won't kill guidebooks. It may eventually kill print guidebooks, and people will have their guidebooks on mobile phones and PDAs, but the publisher will still need people like us to research and write the content.

Hear hear about the legwork! Avalon underpaid me for the London guide, but I still did all the legwork. It's called professionalism.

I've used a lot of Lonely Planet guides, especially in the early Nineties when they were often the only books for certain countries, but I've always been annoyed by the jaded, world-weary style they frequently use. It creates a certain snobbishness in its younger readers.

Overheard statement by British female backpacker at Turkish youth hostel, 1994: "I always avoid people who use Let's Go instead of Lonely Planet. It's how you can tell the difference between tourists and travelers."


Interesting observation about Middle Eastern tourists. I tend not to use a guidebook in countries I already know. I find this leads me to have more conversations with strangers and I end up discovering things I wouldn't otherwise. Deliberately getting lost is a good way to find hidden gems too.

Alexander Santillanes said...

Hey Lara-

I'll admit a big part of why I didn't recommend Lonely Planet was because I was playing devil's advocate. Most people would come into the store certain they should be buying Lonely Planet, simply because it was the only guidebook brand they knew- I tried to get people to see that there were other guidebooks, some that might be more in line with what they were interested in.

I used the Encounter Hanoi while I was in Vietnam, which I loved. The style was a good fit for me, as I liked how it showed so many varied faces to city. In food, for example, it had a great mix of street-food spots and hip cafes. Beyond that, I'm an extremely visual person, so I was partly wooed by all of the glossy photos.

I haven't checked out the Encounter guide to Bangkok, but I'm now curious to do so. -X