Journey’s end

If you want a sense of how digital might impact those parts of the business whose transition has not been eased by the Kindle, you could do worse than unfold a guide to the travel book market. At its height the printed guidebook sector generated revenue of more than £100m annually, but is now around half of that, at slightly under £60m. Of all of the major categories, only celebrity autobiography has had a more dramatic falling to earth.

But the stats only show half the map. Ten years ago you’d have been forgiven for thinking the market had reached the end of the road; that the growing availability of online travel information (often allied with the ability to book direct) would render printed guidebooks redundant in much the same way as travel agents are being driven from high streets (according to the Association of British Travel Agents, 83% of holidaymakers now book online).

It was during this early transition that Google bought US travel book publisher Frommer’s and BBC Worldwide bought Lonely Planet: the intention being to repurpose travel guide material for online use. Other publishers too, got in on the act, with many experimenting with bespoke guides, websites, or apps. At The Bookseller’s travel seminar, held back in 2008, publishers were told to look "beyond books and beyond e-books". Content should be supplied on hand-held devices using micro-payments, and publishers were exhorted to make their content "better than free".

Some of this made sense, but mobile-screen size, roaming charges, battery life and the lack of Wi-Fi in some destinations has given paper a longer flight time than once we imagined. Smart publishers such as Lonely Planet, Bradt and DK’s Eyewitness line used the delay to differentiate their brands, not just from each other, but also from the uniformity of online information. New publisher Marco Polo found some additional legroom by responding to demand for new and updated guides ahead of the group, while both Sawday’s and Insight have pivoted. Today, high street retailers remain confident in printed matter, with particular demand for guidebooks that explore niche areas or hidden pathways.

The market turbulence has settled, but the questions facing travel guide publishers remain. Travel and tourism is one of the world’s fastest-growing sectors, and demand for content—once only available in books—will only increase. The worry is that book publishers are now selling to a smaller pool of digitally averse travellers, their ambitions for digital growth curbed by giants such as Google and TripAdvisor; their position now firmly in the back seat.

This has been a soft-landing, but it’s just one leg of a long-haul whose destination is not yet clear.