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Are Guidebooks Dead?

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Photo: Jamie Chung

I was cleaning out my storage space last weekend and found a box of dusty books marked college. Inside were the usual suspects: Kundera; Kerouac; the Old Mr. Boston bartending guide; Atlas Shrugged. The books were dog-eared, in various states of distress, but none so much as the coverless, curry-stained paperback at the bottom of the box. It’s safe to say that no book I’ve owned before or since has received that amount of wear-and-tear, nor the amount of devotion that implies.

The book was Let’s Go: Europe 1990. I’d packed a copy for my junior year abroad. At 912 pages, the thing was a beast, crammed with an absurd amount of info, from the going rate at Lisbon laundromats to current ferry schedules to the Peloponnese. It was like a proto-Internet, except you could sleep on it when you couldn’t afford a pillow. Nine months in bunk beds and backpacks had worn it soft like a baseball glove. The cover fell off on a ferry to the Peloponnese.

Good lord, the sense of possibility that came from holding that tome in your hands. Like a lit scholar with her Norton, or a geek with his Dungeon Master’s Guide, the bearer of Let’s Go felt osmotically conferred with knowledge, and the boundless confidence that came with it. Add a 30-day rail pass, and the Continent was your oyster—Oslo to Brindisi; Bruges to Nicosia. Unless, in the interest of lightening your load, you’d ripped out the 10-page Cyprus chapter back home (“Well, I’ll never wind up there”) so the book now skipped crudely from Bulgaria to Czechoslovakia, leaving you to wander the streets of Nicosia at 3 a.m., hapless and bedless. That might have happened to someone once.

In an age when the entire planet can be mapped from our phones—restaurant tips quickly crowdsourced; hotels booked with just a few taps—we forget how powerless travelers once were without a guidebook to show us the way. And we forget how powerful that humble book was in arranging the landscape. A single blurb in Let’s Go or Lonely Planet could make or break a pensione (or, some argued, ruin it forever). Which is odd, since the guides’ descriptions were terse at best—just a few key words like “centrally located” or “friendly staff.” (In Lonely Planet, lodgings were either “clean” or “very clean,” which said little about the lodgings but a lot about readers’ priorities.) Gleaning the gist of those reviews was like parsing passages of Deuteronomy—yet the faith we placed in the source was implacable. This became clear as soon as you entered the establishment in question, only to find a dozen fellow travelers clutching the same book.

Trust us, guidebooks said, and we did—partly because they conveyed authority, with their glossy covers and smart-looking appendices, but mostly because there was nobody else to trust. For what seemed like forever, travelers and travel guides were happily codependent, never imagining anything might come between them.

Well: you know how that panned out. Of all the years that people have been predicting the guidebook’s demise—through real crises and false alarms—2013 has so far been most anxious-making. In March, parent company BBC Worldwide unloaded Lonely Planet for $120 million less than it paid for the brand a few years earlier. That same month, rumors flew that Google—which had bought the stalwart Frommer’s imprint last summer—was killing off print editions. (Two weeks later, Arthur Frommer himself took back his namesake, vowing to continue in book form.) The latest iteration of Google Maps revealed the company’s real reason for acquiring Frommer’s and, a year earlier, Zagat: both series had essentially been strip-mined for digital content. Meanwhile, as print sales wane, mergers are shrinking the industry, threatening titles such as Rough Guides and DK’s Eyewitness series. So could it finally be coming to pass? With travelers young and old turning to flashier, cheaper (or free) resources, might the quaint old guidebook go the way of the traveler’s cheque?

Our attachment to the medium may be largely sentimental. But the guidebook’s decline isn’t just about the death of another outmoded format—it’s about the end of a whole way of encountering the world. Back in the Limited Information Age, the paperback travel guide was our touchstone, our shared reference point. If its heyday is indeed over, then it stands as a marker of the last time travelers agreed on something, the last time we drew inspiration from a common source.

The modern travel guide took its current form in the 1830’s, back when Karl Baedeker was charting paths across Europe with his famous red book. Not until the mid 20th century did the genre go truly global. In America, the postwar era ushered in a new wave of guidebooks for a broader array of travelers—cresting in 1957 with the debut of Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $5 a Day.

As the field grew and diversified, publishers targeted more specific demographics, and travelers could size each other up by the books they carried. Setting a course down the mainstream, Frommer’s and rival brand Fodor’s were the Time and Newsweek of American travel guides: reliable and balanced, if a bit squarish regarding pop culture. Later came more raffish and youthful titles like the hip Rough Guides and the adrenalinized Footprint Travel Guides, from the U.K., and the gorp-y Moon Handbooks, from California. Dense, scholarly books like Britain’s Blue Guides plotted out high-minded journeys with an erudite tone. The Michelin Guides targeted proto-foodies. At the opposite pole were mass brands like Birnbaum Travel Guides, publishers of the official guides to Walt Disney World. Last and least pretentious were the budget series, aimed at backpackers, tent-pitchers, hostel-crashers, and phone-booth-sleepers the world over. Two brands ruled the field: Lonely Planet, based in Australia, and Let’s Go, published by and for college students. Introduced in 1961—two years after the Eurail pass—Let’s Go: Europe became the de facto handbook for at least two generations of American innocents abroad.

I wound up writing for Let’s Go myself when I returned from my year overseas. (The series is still produced entirely by Harvard undergraduates.) Working there gave me an early, prophetic sense of how inefficient guidebook publishing really was. Reporting was costly, even for a budget series; the work was actually pretty thankless (you try spending your days checking laundry rates in Portuguese); and, despite the relatively short turnaround time—reporting in summer, releasing in the fall—the books quickly went out of date. As early as 1992, long before digital flipped the medium on its end, the guidebook’s fatal flaws were evident to anyone who worked on one.

If travel guides were cheap to produce, like sudoku books, the endeavor might work quite well. But they’re enormously expensive to research, design, and print—and although prices appear high, margins are notoriously low. (Lonely Planet: Western Europe sells for $30; it ought to cost twice that.) Factor in their almost instant obsolescence—nobody wants last year’s Time Out: Paris—and you’ve got a risky business model in the best of times.

One guy who’s weathered the storm well is Rick Steves, whose namesake travel empire (comprising books, Web, radio, television, a tour company, and a gear store) raked in unprecedented print royalties last year. Starting in 1980 with his now-annual Europe Through the Back Door guide, this affable Northwesterner—partial to exclamations like “fun!” or “neat!”—has become America’s unlikely authority on European travel. His books divine the quotidian mysteries of the Continent: how to weigh bananas at a French supermarket, or how to say tap water in Polish.

In the wake of the Google/Frommer’s news this spring, Steves wrote a blog post about the challenges of the guidebook business, likening them to those faced by the news media, which pays for on-the-ground reporting that ends up being cannibalized by the Internet. Guidebook publishers, he noted, “have a similar problem in hiring trained researchers to actually research their books in person. And new crowdsourcing alternatives give travelers the impression that they have all the reviews they’ll ever need.” But crowdsourced sites—as useful as they are, particularly for hotel and restaurant reviews—are no substitute for the depth and authority of a professionally written guide (or, I would humbly add, a magazine article). They’re a helpful complement, but not a replacement, Steves argued—“just as you wouldn’t want to get all of your news from amateur bloggers.”

I depend on both crowdsourced and expert advice on my trips, and my experience is far better for it. Print and digital do make perfect complements—so much so that it amazes me how we lived without the latter for so long, and how we can fathom going on without the former.

Still, when the enormity of the digital world overwhelms, guidebooks offer something else: the sweet relief of being able to stop. To stop clicking, stop searching, stop worrying what else is out there. The Web too often devolves into an infinite series of questions—since a whole different answer is just another click away. The great advantage of a guidebook, it turns out, is that it is blessedly, reassuringly finite: a closed loop, a finished product, providing only answers. Answers, and perhaps a makeshift pillow.

This was brought home for me on a recent trip to Africa, where I found myself turning to the Bradt Travel Guides, a 40-year-old British series focusing on the developing world. Well-reported and smartly written, the books are a favorite of traveling academics, journalists, and NGO workers from Uganda to Ukraine.

For my safari I packed Bradt’s hefty Zambia guide—at 1.2 pounds, a considerable chunk of my 20-pound luggage allotment. It wound up being as indispensable as a zoom lens. Every night I’d lie awake for hours reading by flashlight, devouring the guide like a potboiler. What I wouldn’t have known about Zambia without Bradt would have filled…well, a 550-page book.

The funny thing was that everybody I met on the trip—every last one of them—was carrying an identical copy. There were even communal Bradt guides at each camp. It was the safari-lodge equivalent of a Gideons Bible. And like Sunday-school students, we spent our days poring over those well-worn pages, solving our flora and fauna quandaries by rifling through what we simply called “the book.” (“Well, the book says.…”) Apart from our human guides, there was no greater authority. Besides, we were in the bush, with no Internet. We couldn’t just Google our way to an understanding of this place.

It was the first time in ages that I’d felt so disconnected from the digital realm, from the crutch of search engines and Yelp reviews—and, at the same time, so connected to and dependent on the printed page. What I felt most of all was a sense of self-containment: the certainty that all I needed to survive was this 1.2-pound, 550-page paperback book.

You know what? It felt a lot like gratitude.

Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L’s editor-at-large.

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