The travel guidebooks we still love | Travel

IIt was in 2011 when a friend of mine returned to the UK after traveling overland from Thailand and casually mentioned that he had made the entire trip with just his iPhone – no maps and certainly no guidebook. When he had to visit Myanmar to find out when the main post office in Delhi was closed or to book a cheap hotel room in Istanbul, he turned to travel forums, Google, and TripAdvisor.

Around the same time, articles appeared in the press announcing the guide’s death. After peaking in 2005, UK and US sales declined an estimated 40% between 2005 and 2012. Several independent travel guide publishers sold to multinational media companies, including Lonely Planet, which was bought by BBC Worldwide for around £ 130m. Less than three years after the deal closed, the BBC’s commercial arm sold it and conceded it for just £ 50million that it hadn’t been a solid investment. In 2012, Frommer’s, the top-selling travel guide brand in the United States, was sold to Google, which would stop publishing print editions.

Guides for one-off trips turn out to be the most resilient

It seemed like guides had their day. Her golden age of the nineties, when backpackers galore left off with a well-designed copy of Alex Garland’s The Beach and a Lonely Planet guide, was over. But, as Mark Twain may have noticed, the accounts of the guide’s death are grossly exaggerated. While mainstream brands have suffered in the digital age, it turns out that history has another side. Certain guides simply refused to die.

The titles that stand up to the odds are the products of small, independent publishers and passionate authors. Bryn Thomas, founder of Trailblazer Guides, names two of his titles as internet-resistant: The Adventure Motorcycling Handbook and The Trans-Siberian Handbook, the latter for the 30th time and the tenth time with 140,000 copies sold.

The Trans-Siberian Handbook. Photo: book cover

“As an upstream writer, I want to say it’s all up to me,” he says with a smile. “But it probably has more to do with hiring like-minded writers to keep it up to date by getting back on the rails with every update.”

Thomas believes that a travel guide’s success lies in the author’s voice. “It takes a certain type of author, someone who is almost obsessive but who can also convey the information in a fun and readable way. A real writer, not a group or a committee. Someone with deep knowledge and solid opinions that you can trust – a true guide. “

It is these types of titles – guides to one-time trips – that prove to be the most resilient. Travelers no longer have to go through the hassle of buying a guidebook for a weekend city break or even a two week summer vacation, but if you’re planning the big one, a trip that involves many months or even years of preparation, it still is a crucial piece of equipment. Buying the guide is often a significant moment – it marks the commitment to the idea, the moment when the dream becomes a reality.

There are many, often uncontrollable factors that determine the success of a title. Hugh Brune, Head of Sales and Marketing at Bradt Guides, names the company’s Iran Guide as both a bestseller and bestseller, depending on the diplomatic situation. Trailblazer’s Thomas would also like to point out another factor: the increasing demand for trustworthy curation amid the dubious swamp of Google reviews and TripAdvisor reviews. He gives the example of a burger bar that is currently TripAdvisor’s No. 1 restaurant in Paris. “It’s obviously not the best restaurant in Paris,” he says dryly. “But her PR firm is clearly doing a great job of getting people to” like “her.”

Travel guides for big or special adventures are high on the list, but they are not the only success story. While the pandemic last year shifted domestic sales towards books with a focus on the UK, David Mantero, principal buyer at Stanford’s travel bookstore in London, runs a diverse list of consistent top sellers: “Japan by Rail has become a classic for us. Reeds Nautical Almanac – a must have in this scene. And the Wainwrights. “

The seventh volume of Alfred Wainwright's Guide to the Fells“A Thing of Beauty” … The seventh volume of Alfred Wainwright’s Hiking Guide to the Fells. Photo: Martin Godwin / The Guardian

“The Wainwrights” is a reference to the seven-volume Pictorial Guide To The Lakeland Fells, the popular illustrated hiking guides to the Lake District, written by Alfred Wainwright between 1955 and 1966. With sales in excess of two million, they serve as a perfect example of Thomas’ theory of the “author’s voice”.

Andrew Dawson, advertising officer for the Wainwright Society, agrees: “The descriptions of the fells are written as if Alfred Wainwright were speaking to you personally and inviting you to the summit,” he says. He also believes a recent boom in their popularity reflects the growing need to reconnect with the tangible in an increasingly virtual world.

“The Wainwright books are beautiful in themselves. It’s like the resurgence of records in popularity. Yes, we all love to download music, but nothing can replace the feel of a real record. The same goes for the books. Digital maps, apps, and GPS are fantastic, but what can beat for a Wainwright to follow in his footsteps and literally follow in his footsteps as he reads his quirky descriptions? “

One criticism of travel guides in the pre-digital age was that they had embarked on a predictable path in which backpackers hopped back and forth between the same hostels and cafes, experiencing nothing remotely like a deserted planet. The titles that survived are of a different race, as many works of art and stories as a simple guide.

It’s like the resurgence of records in popularity. Yes, we all love to download music, but nothing can replace the feel of a real record. The same goes for the books

When it became clear that Google had no intention of printing any more Frommer guides, company founder Arthur Frommer bought the brand back. The travel guides, which his daughter Pauline Frommer, the company’s editor-in-chief, described as “not encyclopedic, but curated … designed to guide the reader to the most authentic and invigorating travel experiences” have now re-established themselves among the leading travel titles.

While travelers no longer have to carry half a pound of paper to find the train station in a distant city, they will always crave a spark of inspiration and a connection with like-minded people. This is where these special titles stand out – they are not for administrators, but something that stimulates the imagination. They are searched for fun while dreaming and planning before the trip as we read the words of others who have gone before and think yes I will too.

These human-scale books, written and published by people who really know and love their subject, are perfect for those who travel to recover from the pandemic.

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