Is it the end of the road for paper guidebooks?

by , Senior Travel Researcher Transport & Travel 3 January 2013
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Guidebooks are like a faithful companion you can rely on to give you advice you can trust. But with the rise in digital ebooks and mobile apps, will you change the way you read guidebooks in the future?

A stack of travel guidebooks with a map in the background

Guidebooks have been on holidaymakers’ checklists for years, but sales are on the decline. In fact, a survey in 2012 revealed that guidebook sales have dropped by almost 40% in the last five years.

In contrast, the digital revolution has taken the publishing world by storm, as Amazon reported last summer that Kindle ebook sales had actually overtaken their print sales. And let’s not forget mobile apps. With a host of travel guides available to download directly to your smartphone or tablet device, it’s possible to get up-to-date and even real-time location information at the touch of a button.

Journey’s end for the humble guidebook?

There’s no denying the appeal of the ebook reader for holidaymakers. They allow you to travel with more books than you could possibly read packed into a device of similar weight and size to a typical paperback book. But for me they have their drawbacks when it comes to guidebooks.

I love the simplicity of the traditional printed guidebook and the speed at which I can access the information I want. I also don’t have to treat it with too much care when it’s whipped in and out of my rucksack multiple times a day and even caught in the odd rain shower. And most importantly for me, I don’t need to worry about dropping or losing my printed guidebook, or even having it stolen.

I have similar issues with mobile apps. Again I can see the advantages, especially when it comes to getting up-to-date info. Some apps helpfully use your current location to get information about tourist sites, restaurants and hotels close to where you are.

Yet the drawbacks for me remain the same when it comes to security, loss and damage. Not to mention the additional worry about how much of a bill I might be racking up while using the 3G on my phone or iPad to access information remotely via the internet.

Guidebook fans still out there

It seems I’m not the only one who isn’t ready to give up on the printed guidebook just yet. We ran a guidebooks survey to find the top guidebook brands and found that nearly six in ten (59%) people had bought and used a printed guidebook in the last year, while only 8% had downloaded a travel guide app and 6% an ebook.

While I think there is a place for modern technology to enhance the travel world, I still feel print titles have their place. Do you think the printed guidebook has had its day? Would you rather travel with a paper guidebook or use an ebook reader, smartphone or tablet?

Do you still use paper guidebooks when you travel?

Yes, I use a paper guidebook (60%, 200 Votes)

Yes, I use a paper guidebook and travel apps (22%, 75 Votes)

No, I don't use any sort of guidebook (12%, 41 Votes)

No, I use travel apps or ebooks instead (6%, 15 Votes)

Total Voters: 336

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16 comments

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dieseltaylor

I could vote for most of the options in the poll but it does seem that there needs to be a clarification between travelling in the UK and countries where it is more difficult. By more difficult I mean language, wi-fi,coverage, wi-fi cost, and charging any device.

In the UK we are happy to rely on a smart phone for information on the locality etc. We also always have a UK mapbook. If staying for a long period in a locale I would also probably be tempted to download information from Wikipedia and other sources to my 10″ Boox e-reader as it exceedingly easy to read and maps make sense.

Travelling abroad also needs to be split. If I travel by cruise liner from the UK my baggage allowance is 100lbs er person so taking multiple travel books is no problem. If I go camping weight and bulk make a huge difference in what I am prepared to pack.

In any event my Boox would be brought along as it’s battery life, as for most dedicated readers, is hugely better than a smart phone. Currently on my Boox I have many items relating to our visit to Canada including all the Wikipedia articles for the ports and Provinces we were to visit. I even have the yearly docking schedules for several ports and even the various costs to a cruise ship docking.

There is also Wikitravel which is very up-to-date, free and aimed directly at tourists. It of course like any Wiki has to have a grain of salt added as a particular contributor may have different life experiences and interests : )

Vote may be more a reflection of type of travel rather than anything else.

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Mia

You led me to believe in your Which Update (‘But which leads up our polls – print guidebooks, ebooks or mobile apps?’) that you have already held a survey to determine which of them leads your polls. When I clicked on ‘print guidebooks, ebooks or mobile apps?’ as I was invited to do, I was expecting to get the answer, not to be asked for my preferences.
There are other ways of asking for help with your polls. Please use them.

Hello Mia, thanks for the comment. The results of our survey are included in the post. Here they are if you missed it:

‘We ran a guidebooks survey to find the top guidebook brands and found that nearly six in ten (59%) people had bought and used a printed guidebook in the last year, while only 8% had downloaded a travel guide app and 6% an ebook.’

We just thought we’d ask our community members on Which? Conversation what they think as well.

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dieseltaylor

“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.” Guardian article quoted by Which?

So it is all rather small beer here if the total sales are, and it is not clear from the article, the combined UK and US sales are 62,000. If we make the assumption the journalist means it is UK only then Which? readers are exceptionally well represented by buying 1500 copies.

What remains unanswered is whether the remaining 40% were the ones who bought the apps etc or are included in the 59%. And if you did not buy a travel book in the last 12 months but borrowed from a library or a friend are you represented or ignored in the survey?

Is it possible to for members to review the original survey to see how it was constructed?

Hello dieseltaylor

Thanks for your post. Just to give you a bit more information on the survey itself. The questionnaire was pretty simple in its construction, asking members if they had bought and used a print guidebook, downloaded a travel guide app for their mobile, iPad or tablet, or bought and used a digital guidebook (eBook) in the last year.

Our research showed that 59% of people who responded to the survey had bought and used a print guidebook, 8% had downloaded a travel guide app for their mobile, iPad or tablet, and 6% bought and used a digital guidebook (eBook).

The guidebooks are rated on a number of factors including how up-to-date the information is. For this reason we asked members to only rate guidebooks bought in the last 12 months so that, as far as possible, the survey would include the most recent titles from each publisher.

The plan is to make this an annual survey so we can track future changes in buying behavior and report back.

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dieseltaylor

“The questionnaire was pretty simple in its construction, asking members if they had bought and used a print guidebook, downloaded a travel guide app for their mobile, iPad or tablet, or bought and used a digital guidebook (eBook) in the last year. ”

Thank you for your reply Kate. I must admit I am still unclear on whether your questions were either or. For instance looking at the above poll I have no way of saying I bought an app, an e-book and a paperback. And no way to say I downloaded a free e-travel guide.

“The guidebooks are rated on a number of factors including how up-to-date the information is. For this reason we asked members to only rate guidebooks bought in the last 12 months so that, as far as possible, the survey would include the most recent titles from each publisher.

The plan is to make this an annual survey so we can track future changes in buying behavior and report back.”

Whilst I understand what you are doing I am not sure the depth of your survey means you can make any claims as to how much guide books are used and is more a snapshot of buying behaviours.

Unhappily for some countries there are few travel guides and because of supply and demand they are not up-dated frequently. I note that for Sweden Lonely Planet up-dates every three years. In a comment on one guide it seems up-dating is not very thorough anyway.:
” Aug 2011, Brigitte Tenni,
Skarholmen flea market; This flea market is listed as being in the car park of the
Skarholmen Centrum however I looked for quite some time and couldn’t find itafter
asking a few people I finally discovered that this market had moved about 5
years ago to Varberg which is the next station out from Stockholm. It is in the
basement of the square directly in front of the exit to Varberg station- according to
the stall holders the market is similar but smaller to the original version.”
The version she was using was 2010.!

Where the survey readers asked to provide any instances of major misinformation?

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Em

I trust it’s not the end. I always buy an Eyewitness guide book before setting off to a new place. Not only is it convenient and accessible on holiday, but it’s a nice reminder of places I’ve either been, or might have gone to if more time was available. What is £10 for a guide book, when a poor meal or uninteresting day trip could cost awful lot more than that?

And I don’t see a program called “Great British [Continental] Railway Journeys” being made in 100 years’ time based on some app. Although I’m not anti-computer, the short term persistency of today’s digital information is going to leave a hole in the record of early 21st century culture. The term “disposable society” isn’t confined to material goods, but everything we do and know (including this conversation on Which?).

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lambourne

When asked if I use an ereader on my travels I always answer that it is useful in terms of size, weight, bulk etc. but yet another thing I would need to worry about being stolen (are books usually stolen – I think not), you can’t make a note in the margin of useful info etc, swap in hotel book swaps and in desperation pages cannot be torn out to use as loo paper!

I worked as a journalist/editor for a well-known guidebook publisher for a decade before I got my present job at Which? One of the problems with this industry is that the generation now in their twenties have grown up with access to free digital content, and so are less willing to pay a tenner or so for a printed guide that they might use for just one trip. And with sales of guidebooks diminishing, the budgets available to produce the guides has gone down too, meaning that many printed guidebooks aren’t as accurate or throughly researched as they used to be. Which has had an additional knock-on affect on sales… so it’s a downward spiral. However, I’ve been struck by the number of people who have lamented to me the decline in the use of printed travel guides. There are certainly lots of people out there – myself included – who still believe there’s a place for them. They’re more practical in many ways – especially for backpacking-type trips where travellers might be away from wi-fi access, or reluctant to carry around expensive electronic items. And many people like to read about contextual information when they’re abroad (e.g. historical/culture backgrounds of a place), and this is in many ways still more accessible from a book than from a digital device that’s more suited to snippets of information or short reviews. So, printed travel guides will probably continue in some form, but they may become more luxurious books (nicely bound and with more colour photos and maps etc) rather than cheaply printed throwaway items.

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Nikki Whiteman

I’m a big fan of printed guide books. Not only do I find it easier to use a printed map when abroad (I don’t want to use my phone and run up data charges!) but I also really like being able to read snippets about the historical aspects of a city as I’m walking around it. I don’t feel like this would be as easy with an app, as I’d worry about turning my phone on/off, running out of battery etc.

I still have a lot of my guidebooks – they’re nice to keep as mementoes of places I’ve been. What’s more, even if they’re out of date they can still be useful. Sometimes restaurants that are recommended have shut down, but the historical info will still be accurate. I’ve used second-hand guidebooks before, supplementing them with bits and pieces I’ve printed from more accurate, recent websites and forums.

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dieseltaylor

I am a great fan of printed media. Travel guides are very interesting in terms of trying to address a mass market by including a huge amount of information and in my view becoming almost directories. I do have great sympathy for the publishers plight as digital downloads are almost inevitably going to take over the mass-market [which at 62000 is not actually that big] and that the travel guide boom is dead.

I am also intrigued by the idea that a single book can be a guide for continental size countries like Brazil, Canada, and China. Having looked at guidebooks for all three it is onlty a very small fraction that most people could or would use. One thing that is very noticeable in virtually all travel guides is much reference to the industrial/ economic life of the area being discussed. I find it interesting to understand why cities/areas are the way they are.

My view is that guide publishers need to provide downloadable modules, particularly suited to being printed, and then people can make up a guide book relevant to them, their interests, and their tour.
For example, guides to nightclubs and drinking spots might be useful to some and a complete waste for others, Details on the public transport and how to use it may be of little use to someone driving …etc.
It should be noted that for and through Wikipedia you can have a book printed of various articles you are interested in. A travel guide publisher could surely do the same with its own material

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Em

Like this you mean? http://traveldk.com/how-to/personalized-guides

I did try this out about 3 years ago and found the options/destinations a bit limited. Not sure if this is an experiment on DK’s part or if they plan to make it chargeable. Otherwise, I can’t see how it will be sustainable.

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Em

As expected, something’s going on at DK; I’ve just had this e-mail notification:

“DK Travel online is undergoing some major changes this month. We’re currently hard at work on a brand new digital product for travel enthusiasts, to be unveiled later in the year.

To make way for this exciting project we’re closing the current traveldk.com website on 31st March. You can continue browsing the site right up until this date, but won’t be able to create any more personalized travel guides. You’ll also need to make sure you’ve saved and downloaded any guides before 31st March.”

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dieseltaylor

Thansk for the link Em. The DK sie does look a little rough. Thinking about the economics of it if there is a band of people providing information, people print their own copies, and adverts or sponsorship accrues then it may be a goer. The loss of physical books and commisions to bookshops or Amazon may provide a different cost base.

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dieseltaylor

” Wikitravel is a web-based collaborative travel guide project, based upon the wiki model, launched by Evan Prodromou and Michele Ann Jenkins in 2003.[4][5] In 2006, Internet Brands bought the trademark and servers and later introduced advertising to the website.[6] This move met opposition from users, with many German and Italian editors leaving for a newly-established wiki, Wikivoyage.

Wikitravel received a Webby Award for Best Travel Website in 2007.[7] That same year, Wikitravel’s founders began Wikitravel Press, a now-defunct project which published printed travel guides based on the Web site’s content.[8] The first print guides were released on February 1, 2008.

In 2012, a large portion of the editing community left and brought their contributions to the Wikivoyage project, which was relaunched as a Wikimedia Foundation-hosted project in January 2013.”

SO now looks like two sites ti go for with Wikivoyage no doubt the long term winner.

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Andy Graham

Entering a city without a Hotel reservation is when you need a paper guidebook, whipping out a digital IPad is a great way to get robbed in about half the countries on the planet. Especially in Europe, Central and South America.

Backpacking has almost been diluted out of existence, so there are almost zero long-term, six money to two year travels out an about, who needed the paper.

I read the guidebook, write down 2-3 hotels on a piece of paper, and enter a city. But, I never walk, I always take a taxi, I am not willing to get robbed with all my equipment on my back.

Again, inexperienced travelers, would be safer with paper.
Andy Graham, 15 years of perpetual world travel, 90 countries.

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