The death of guidebooks

by Charlie Leocha on December 5, 2012

© Karen Cummings
What happened to guidebooks? Over the years, guidebooks have begun to disappoint. They have some severe limitations in terms of space (number of pages); when published, the information is already a year old; plus, these days, guidebook writers are rarely the kind of travelers who can truly appreciate the kinds of establishments I would want to dine or sleep in.

However, guidebooks have a place in travel — but, a new place.

I used to publish guidebooks back in the mid-1980s. My company, World Leisure, was listed as one of the 100 top publishers in the country and the company had a best-seller in its list. Eventually, our business shifted to the Web because of many of the following limitations.

The first problem with guidebooks is that they are physically constrained by their pages. Guidebooks need to be small enough that they can be carried by travelers. An 800-page book won’t make it. I remember the old days when travelers would buy Europe on $5-a-day and tear out individual chapters.

The number of pages also limits content. There can only be so many restaurants and hotels that can be reviewed within the available pages. Hence, many wonderful restaurants and hotels just don’t make it. Even if the researchers managed to get to them, they don’t have the room to include all of the dining and lodging establishments they visit.

Constrained by time — the amount of time from writing to publishing is long and distribution to bookstores takes longer. The timeline for guidebook writing needs to take into account editing time, press time, shipping time, warehousing and getting the books on the bookstore shelves.

Even the most aggressive timeline for an early year publication starts at least a year in advance, with almost all writing done in the preceding spring months. The basic, inescapable fact is that guidebooks are out of date the day they hit the bookstore shelves.

Constrained by writers, editors and publisher budgets — In the heyday of guidebooks, writers were experienced, and diligently visited every sight, hotel and restaurant that they covered in their guides. They balanced the basic service items of attractions, lodging and dining with history that put much of a traveler’s experience into perspective. That rarely happens anymore.

Travel-book writers, for the most part are young freelancers or students on summer vacation who are severely underpaid by publishing companies. These writers commit to a guidebook in order to “get their name in print.” Why? Guidebooks can be an arduous steppingstone to many better freelance assignments or work on a magazine staff.

These still-wet-behind-the-ears writers are expected to have the experience to discern the difference between various restaurant service standards and cuisine levels when they have no idea about either. These writers are supposedly capable of assessing luxury hotel service extras vis-a-vis budget hotels when they have never experienced luxury standards that they have paid for with their own money.

Simply put, the travel writers who are updating or writing new guidebooks and the preponderance of their editors are not trained, nor experienced enough to make these kinds of decisions.

They often make their minds up based on which hotels and restaurants treat them the best — this means, bluntly speaking, businesses that provide them their meals and lodging for free. Any real traveler who understands how much travel costs these days and who knows how much guidebook authors are paid can easily understand the need to collect as many “comps” as possible (comps are freebies).

So what happens? Not only are recommendations skewed by in-kind bribes, the recommendations are then copied by other overworked writers of guidebooks. Often, marginal establishments which “bought their way” into a guidebook, find themselves included year after year in that series and in other books where authors crib their reviews.

Note: A lot of these practices are forbidden by many publishers; however, based on writers’ pay, expecting them to eschew freebies and press trips or special press rates is unrealistic. On the other hand, ironically, old-time travel writers who are eventually “bought off” by everyone in the business become the most trusted. Unlike young writers, they can’t be influenced by freebies when their entire travel life is, basically, free. They represent the experienced side of travel writers where a kind of Mexican-standoff integrity reigns.

Exacerbating this problem of plagiarized-then-reworded reviews is the phalanx of editors that stand between a writer and the final copy found in guidebooks. Many times these editors consult other references and change the travel writer’s assessment.

Years ago, when writing a guidebook section about northern Spain, my copy was changed based on what a major-publisher editor saw in Travel and Leisure magazine. The editor moved one of the magazine-recommended restaurants into my copy, even though the restaurant, right on the main square where tour buses parked, was overpriced, avoided by locals, full of tourists and was only included in the magazine because it took American Express cards.

In another instance, editors changed my copy regarding the start of Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls. I noted that the run started at 8 a.m. and the editors (never having visited the city) declared that I was wrong. They cited other guidebooks that stated the run started at 7 a.m. and, over my objections, changed the time. The old guidebooks, were once-upon-a-time correct — not when I wrote the section, nor anytime since.

There is a place for guidebooks
Publishers need to reexamine the position of guidebooks. Before the Europe-on-$5-a-day, Fielding and Fodor’s time of hotel, restaurant and sightseeing recommendations, guidebooks were focused on sights, history and anecdotes. I still gravitate back to those kinds of books when I travel. They add a depth and texture to travel that is more than just seeing something in person rather than in a glossy book or on the TV or at the movies.

One of the reasons that the Rick Steves’ guidebook series is so well received is his initial emphasis, together with his buddy Gene Openshaw, on art and history. Walks through the town and guided tours of museums made these books something special and different. Plus, the researchers actually visited smaller, affordable hotels and came up with a different and unique collection of lodging and accommodation suggestions. I still enjoy this series, not for its dining and hotel recommendations (now packed with Rick Steves’ aficionados), but for his walks, history and museum tours with comments about individual pieces of art.

At any rate, any veteran traveler knows that guidebooks have become basic copies of each other or collections of magazine articles. Most of us now delve into the Web to find up-to-date information about where to dine and stay.

How guidebooks change will determine whether they survive the Internet age of instant information. Publishers need to give their approach a fresh look and use their publications to enhance and improve the travel experience rather than to only do what online guides can do better.

Photo: Karen Cummings

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  • jeff

    reminds me of using lonely planet’s guide to japan a few years ago: the author recommended taking the Tokyo circular railway line to see all the main neighborhoods. We did so only to discover that one couldn’t see anything from the train. Obviously the writer had never ridden the train!

  • Anonymous

    Charlie – everything you say is true and it’s only going to get worse. I was asked to “write” the section about Provence for a leading guidebook publisher. There were certain caveats that included a ZERO budget for on-site visits of hotels and restaurants, and updates should be done by phone. I turned down the assignment because I refused to have my name on it. But, you’d better believe someone else jumped at it.

    Expenses aside, considering how quickly establishments open, close and have changes in personnel, perhaps the Internet is the only way to go. And then, websites are guilty of not doing constant updates because it’s nearly impossible.

    Boy, do I miss paper but, perhaps now that people travel with smart phones and tablets, those days are over.

  • Allison B.

    I, too, like the Rick Steves guidebooks for the “different” information they provide. From the time I first started reading guidebooks, I pretty much ignored the hotel/restaurant sections because the choices usually did not fit my needs or my budget, and I always took quoted prices with “a grain of salt.” But I loved reading through the areas and attractions I may not have known about and especially the “off the beaten path” sites that the general tourist doesn’t take the time to find, many of which have become the best parts of trips. No matter how many guidebooks I look at (or have bought on a particular area), I find myself inevitably gravitating back to Rick’s books for just the things you have mentioned — the history, the odds and ends, the unusual areas, and especially his walks. Even though I also utilize the internet and magazine articles, guidebooks are still my first choice when thinking about or planning a trip or just some time happily dreaming about a far-away place.

  • Tom

    So, where are the go-to places on the web? It can be overwhelming doing google searches, and writers on sites like tripadvisor are even more unreliable than those used by guidebooks, because the amateurs usually have little experience, perspective or discernment, and they rarely have the time or inclination to take in the whole of a property.

  • Anonymous

    A great example of “new guidebooks” is an iPhone app that has GPS triggered audio files.

    We recently toured the Canadian Rockies using Parks Companion (http://www.parkscompanion.com/ or http://www.gypsyguide.com/). All it took was a windshield mount and an audio cable. The program even knows which side of the road you’re on so it knows if you’re looking North, South or have stopped in an scenic turnoff.

    I see this type of app replacing AAA TripTik’s in the very near future.

    In researching for the trip, I discovered that most apps do not have GPS triggered audio comments; they’re just electronic brochures so be careful when selecting them.

  • Tim Leffel

    You’re painting most of them with one brush though. The Moon and Footprint guides are mostly written by experienced authors who have been doing the same destination for several editions. I’ve found them incredibly useful. And though the LP ones leave something to be desired, they’re certainly far better than any app I’ve tried—and I’ve tried a lot.

    Plus this title is misleading: if you spend a lot of time traveling internationally, you’ll see dozens of guidebooks a day in use around you almost anywhere you go. If they were dead, you wouldn’t see a whole giant section of them at B&N (bookstores aren’t dead either) or see them ranking so highly on Amazon.

  • jules older

    A fine perspective on a vexing topic. Along with extreme fluctuations in the economy, in fashion and in the climate, the Digital Age has tossed travel journalism a knuckleball.

    — jules

  • Anonymous

    Being a TC for decades, I have not found that one travel book or that one online travel site to work for me. For places to eat or drink, I might see what is listed but rarely do we go to them as we usually find something else along the way that isn’t listed. We traveled this summer for a month with one tour book and our lap top. I take a little from a lot of books and websites. I watch Rick Steves on PBS and I make sure to steer clear of small places he recommends as those are now over run by his readers, which takes away from what Rick liked from the place in the beginning.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, this is a hard one. But generally speaking (after going to my public library and BN) I find that Rick Steves does a pretty decent job for European destinations. French towns have their own websites making it a little bit easier to plan a trip. But most internet sites are lacking good information so you need to a lot more research to find things that suits your taste.

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/leocha Charlie Leocha

    Tim,
    I agree that guidebooks have a use and the guidebooks you mention written by long-time writers are worth their weight (heck, I wrote the same guides for 22 years and it only got better as I learned more). But, what happens when those veteran, experienced writers fold up their tents. Who is in the wings to take over? Who has the money to spend to do research for major publishers who do not want to pay a living wage? Rick Steves’ Guides manage to be well updated because he has an active tourism business and the books can piggyback on his guides’ knowlege and remain up-to-date. Others don’t have that benefit.

  • Charles

    Sort of agree that the newer versions are dreck.
    But I find that reading the older ones and comparing the information to the newer editions can give you a decent description. I would never use a guidebook as the only source for a restaurant or lodging. The pricing will be off. The place may not be open, and the Phone may have been changed.
    But by looking at various editions and publishers over the years, you can determine what there is to do in many of the destinations.
    That is where the value of the old editions come in. Give me a Baedecker Guide or a Blue Guide or even a 25 year old Michelin Green Guide to compare to the Frommer’s, Fodor’s, or Lonely Planet.

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