Photo: Kristof Bellens/Shutterstock

The Slow Death of the Guidebook, and Why You Shouldn’t Mourn

Photo: Kristof Bellens/Shutterstock
Katka Lapelosová
Jul 30, 2013

The news of Lonely Planet’s NC2 Media buyout didn’t affect me at first. “Another print company downsizing because people have replaced books with cell phones and tablets — big deal?”

Most of the travelers I know say they hate guidebooks anyway, because they’re cliché, consumer-based, and somehow don’t authenticate a real travel experience. Maybe this downsizing isn’t such a cause for alarm.

Then I went over and looked at my own guidebook collection. They never get thrown away or lent out, even if I have no plans to return to the places they cover. I like to admire their colorful spines, worn from the heat of my hand, the pages yellowing over time, the ink circles of my past itineraries.

Editorial jobs have been lost, and publication offices have been shut down. Travel writers are experiencing more “Oh shit!” moments, because when one of the largest producers of travel content is bought, paid for, and ransacked by outsiders, that must bode ill. When staff members with more than 20 years of brand experience lose their jobs, it means they’ll be competing with freelancers for the already shallow pool of paid, published work.

NC2 promises that books will still be produced, but the content will be managed elsewhere. This could mean inexperienced writers looking information up on Wikipedia to save on trip fees, or sending trained journalists into the field but paying them minimum wage to do it.

There’s something romantic about guidebooks — the excitement you feel when reading about an interesting attraction, restaurant, hotel, the sense of wonder that overcomes you when you finally see that place in person, the pride felt afterwards when you can say to friends, “Hells yeah I’ve been to the Louvre, have you?”

But I keep coming back to it: Do we even need guidebooks anymore? Why carry around a small brick when you have your smartphone and a satellite signal in your pocket? When you can just be friendly and ask locals for advice?

From plenty of past experience, I know the information in guidebooks can be frustratingly superfluous and limiting at the same time. Nothing Rick Steves recommends will help me hook up with my sexy Costa Rican surf instructor. And never once in the 348 pages of Fodor’s Prague & the Best of the Czech Republic did anyone recommend a place where I could score drugs.

I took Lonely Planet’s Ghana book with me when I lived there in 2007. Every recommended hotel in Cape Coast was booked when I tried to set up a vacation. The prices for attractions and estimates for public transportation were totally off; my carefully calculated budget exploded, and stress set in as I had to quickly rearrange my plans.

I wouldn’t say the Lonely Planet news marks the “death of the guidebook.” New media has dealt some blows to the print industry, but I feel like this is a good thing. Books can only be successful if they have a reputable publishing house to back them up and distribute the physical products. But the internet is limitless — travel writers produce, share, and interact online every day. People who started out blogging have formed their own companies, and actually make money traveling the world.

Yes, there are definitely those who take advantage of the system in exchange for a free trip — but I have a feeling even the most celebrated of guidebook writers probably did the same thing. Putting it down on paper or a keyboard, the material is the same — and it’s easy to write about the best café in Paris when the lobster tails keep coming and you can bathe in complimentary champagne.

I’m sad to see an institution of the guidebook world getting a haircut, but I’m excited to see what its now “redundant” employees create. Who knows where they’ll end up, what websites or apps or new forms of media they’ll influence and build?

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