Thursday, February 22, 2007

eBooks As the Future of Travel Guidebooks

* Do you stuff a couple of complete, 600-page guidebooks to Europe in your pocket, when you just want the dozen pages covering Prague?

* Are you frustrated with the book you bought in 2007 which was published in 2005 and probably researched from 2002 to 2004?

* Do you find it next to impossible to find lodging options when you know that hundreds more, and better, exist that aren’t listed in your guidebook?

* Do a third of the restaurants listed in your guidebook no longer exist? Are another third full only of other guidebook-toting tourists? And is the food in the final third terrible and overrated?

There have recently been a lot of articles, blogs, and comments about the current state of the guidebook industry. Some commentators suggest that conventional, printed travel guidebooks consist of old, inaccurate, shoddy work by underpaid and disinterested writers. Other folks suggest that guidebooks are still far superior to doing travel research on the internet.

One of the most damming comments appeared in an article on the Times (UK) Online headlined “Travel Guidebooks Slammed.” Here is a short excerpt from that article:

A senior editor at a leading publisher, who also requested anonymity, said that he found young writers often produced “quite embarrassing chunks of prose”. Some also accepted “freebies”. “A writer may have stayed in a cockroach-infested heap, but if it’s free, it will be given a glowing write-up.”

For several years, we’ve felt strongly that traditional, printed travel guidebooks are excellent tools for general travel planning – for armchair travel, if you will – but are much less effective on the ground. Our biggest complaints concern the listing of lodging and dining establishments in the guidebooks, for all the reasons other commentators have noted: Listings are limited, out-of-date, full of guidebook-toting tourists, inaccurate, and subject to favoritism. We generally suggest that the best lodging and dining recommendations come from research on the internet, from personal recommendations from friends (and maybe even from websites such as TripAdvisor), and (in the case of dining) from talking to real locals and even just wandering the streets and taking your chances.

We have also found fault with guidebooks listing unique attractions and activities which are surely personal favorites of the authors and not based on what the general traveling public would enjoy. (One exception is with Rick Steves. In general, we like his personal suggestions and opinions. But then Rick very pointedly always says that the opinions are his alone.)

Finally, we also generally have found that the guidebooks covering the smallest region (a single city, only part of a state or country) are the best and most accurate.

Our vision of where the travel guidebook industry should be going is toward eBooks. Combined with internet research into lodging options, the potential of eBooks seems immense. eBooks offer the opportunity for constant updates, detailed analysis, and even other travelers’ views and opinions.

Imagine an eBook travel guide to England. The initial book could cover everything that’s already been done in Fodor’s or Frommer’s or Lonely Planet or whatever. But an eBook could also have a section with far more details about hiking in the Highlands or historical sites in London. Additional special sections could be added at will. Changes could be made as soon as the publisher could post the new information, and readers could download new versions of the book or new pages as soon as they’re published.

We’ve never felt bad about ripping apart printed guidebooks and stuffing the 12 pages on Notting Hill in our pocket, while leaving the rest of the two-pound book behind. With eBooks, readers could simply print out those same 12 pages and carry them on their journey. eBooks could also be downloaded to a PDA or other device, so the full book would be available if those 12 pages aren’t quiet enough.

Another huge advantage of eBooks is the ability to include updated travel news. Are subway stations closed for repair? Is the museum you planned your trip around being remodeled for the next two years? Are there travel warnings to the region you’re considering visiting?

Of course, no book, even a travel guide eBook, can or will have the latest breaking news about every aspect of a destination, but the odds of having updated information are so much greater with eBooks. Combined with an associated travel website, an eBook publisher could provide a worthwhile on-the-ground book with timely travel news.

Also, eBooks (and that associated website) offer the chance for reader comments and suggestions. The good eBook publishers will moderate and filter those comments, so they don’t sound like a sniping tech bulletin board. Conversely, of course, eBooks could lend themselves to the same complacency, inaccuracies, and outdated information in a printed book.

Still, it seems to us that for destination guidebooks, eBooks should be the wave of the future. Printed books will probably be with us forever (and never run out of batteries), but many travelers to many destinations might be better served by timely eBooks.

Why aren’t there travel guide eBooks out there in any quantity? We’d suggest several reasons. 1) Traditional book publishers have a lot invested in infrastructure, distribution networks, and the like. 2) Book distributors and bookstores are dependent on traditional printed books. 3) eBook publishing is still facing a few challenges regarding distribution, piracy, security, printing, and such. 4) Marketing systems for traditional printed books are firmly established. eBooks may require a new marketing paradigm. 5) There needs to be a few “breakthrough” travel eBook to show the potential of the model.

What else are the benefits of eBooks beyond what we discussed above? Cost. eBooks should be much cheaper to produce and distribute. Research and writing costs for the eBook publisher may be the same or slightly cheaper, but marketing costs may be a lot less. And distribution costs (wholesales, bookstores) are nearly non-existent. Thus, the final cost of the book to the consumer should be significantly less than for a printed book. (A printed book at $20 retail might cost the bookstore $10 and the distributor $6, and cost the publisher $3 to print and pay the writers and photographers.) Our guess, and it’s only that, is that an eBook should generally cost the consumer about half what a printed guidebook currently costs.

We would also be remiss if we didn’t note that several traditional guidebook publishers have made their books available as eBooks. This is simply re-packaging an existing guidebook and hoping folks will buy the electronic version rather than a printed book. To us, that does NOT constitute a “real” eBook. If a traditional publisher simply offers an eBook version of a printed book, it should cost no more than half the printed version, in our opinion. Otherwise, what’s the point? eBooks aren’t much fun to take into the bathroom, so make them cheaper or don’t make them at all. And remember, an eBook version of a traditional guidebook still has ALL the limitations of the printed book – lack of timeliness, inaccuracies, limited entries, etc.