Sales of travel guidebooks boomed in the 1980s and 1990s but are now falling away fast. Here, a travel publishing expert says firms must move online, while the meaning of the travel publisher changes to include websites such as TripAdvisor
- Stephen Mesquita
From 1960 to 1990, eight committed travel publishers changed the landscape of travel guide publishing, from a business still rooted in the Victorian era of Karl Baedeker into what we know today. Some of them followed the hippy trail and wrote about it. Two Americans wrote for a growing US market. Two were publishers wanting to bring new standards of design to travel guides.
Mark Ellingham brought us Rough Guides. Tony and Maureen Wheeler created Lonely Planet. The German photographer Hans Hoefer brought us colour with the Insight Guides. In the US, Arthur Frommer and Eugene Fodor were publishing their guides. And, in the 1990s, Peter Kindersley and Pierre Marchand brought us the highly visual DK Eyewitness Guides.
The world was travelling more. Our eight travel publishing entrepreneurs were all taken over by multinational publishers (Lonely Planet is now owned by the BBC; DK and Rough Guides by Pearson). Travel publishing became a global business, able to ride out local difficulties such as changes in destination preference.
But in 2006, there was a small fall in sales. The fall was repeated and was steeper in 2007. And again in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 – and 2012.
By the end of this year, sales of printed travel guides will have fallen by around 40% in the UK and US since the 2005 peak. In 2005 the average unit sale of the top 100 international travel guides was 9,372; in 2011 it was 6,199. The best selling international guide from a major publisher sold 21,028 in 2005; 10,201 in 2011.
People have had less money to spend on travel. Buyers also started shopping online. Before, small travel publishers had relied on their guides being visible in bookshops. We had also entered the era of digital travel information, much of it free and with the added attraction of reviews and advice from like-minded travellers.
Where does this leave our travel guide publishers? Some will disappear. A few with strong brands (the top two or three and a few smaller niche ones) will survive, converting themselves from book publishers to providers of digital content who also publish books. And the meaning of travel publishing will change to include the likes of TripAdvisor and couchsurfing.org.
• Stephen Mesquita is author of the Nielsen BookScan Travel Publishing Year Book and the Bowker UK and US Travel Consumer Report. He was managing director of AA Publishing