Discover more from Talking Travel Writing
What's the future of guidebooks? | Press trip opportunity to the Azores
We learn what's being commissioned right now and how the pandemic has shifted the sands of guidebook writing.
July is here and with it comes torrential rain, wins in the football and the tennis, the whiff of travel being back on the cards once more with restrictions potentially being fully relaxed — for better or for worse — and the first ever TTW press trip. Next week, we’ll be writing from Scotland, where Lottie, Arty and I will be sniffing out the most dog-friendly places to visit for Lottie’s upcoming guidebook, Dog-Friendly Weekends.
It’s perfect timing for this months’ series, as we’re approaching a form of travel media that we both have plenty of experience in. It’s alternately considered one of the best and the worst parts of the industry: there’s nothing quite like getting under the skin of a destination as part of a research trip, but the long hours spent on the road and the juggle required to make a trip financially viable is less than fun. And breaking into the part of the industry can be challenging; after all, there’s no traditional pitching process and it can often be more about who you know than what you know.
In this month’s newsletters, we’ll be examining the industry from every angle. In next week’s edition we’ll be talking about commissioning as we speak to some of the biggest guidebook publishers and find out how it works. We’ll also be examining the realities of guidebook writing and life on the road, as well as hearing from some of the biggest names in the business about how to make guidebook writing pay.
But first, what is the future of guidebooks — indeed, is there one? We asked experts in the field to tell us how the pandemic has shaped the guidebook landscape and what this means for the future of the industry.
What happened to the guidebook industry during the pandemic?
Like every aspect of the travel media, the pandemic has left its mark on the guidebook industry. I [Steph] felt that more profoundly than most; after three years in the making, my own guidebook — a brand-new, first-edition Moon guide to Chile — was published in July 2020, a couple of months after the country closed its borders to international tourists. Unsurprisingly, sales were nothing short of abysmal. But this was better than most; many guidebooks that were due for publication have still yet to see the light of day. After all, who would buy a guidebook that, with each passing week, is becoming increasingly out-of-date?
Guidebook companies that had existed for decades weren’t immune to the effects of the pandemic. Last year, we watched as Lonely Planet saw entire swathes of their workforce made redundant, permanently shutting their Melbourne and London offices and taking a full seven-month break from publishing a single guidebook. Others flexed their innovation muscles, with publishers such as Bradt moving towards a subscription model where readers pay for exclusive monthly content and offers on guidebooks, as the company sought ways to plug the gap where book sales once existed.
A year or so later and green shoots are visible. We’ve heard from plenty of writers who’ve been commissioned for books in destinations local to them — a trend that’s hardly surprising given the whack-a-mole approach of the government’s traffic light travel system. Lorna Parkes, a former commissioning editor and current guidebook author and editor at Lonely Planet, told us how the Lonely Planet strategy has been solely focused on commissioning domestic guides for core reader markets, including the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. As a consequence, their writer pool has narrowed to only “those who live in that short list of key destinations.” She told us that, while Lonely Planet will be restarting publishing international guidebooks in September of this year, they don’t plan to be commissioning any on-the-ground updates going forward.
It’s a trend we saw pre-pandemic, where publishers were opting for desk-based research, rather than in-country updates. It’s not one that I — and many other guidebook authors I’ve spoken to — agree with, begging the question of how quality and accuracy can be maintained when you’re unable to experience a destination or can’t fully rely on online listings being accurate. I can’t see this trend being reversed, particularly for the foreseeable future where on-the-ground travel remains difficult and the economic argument for sending writers out to experience a destination continues to be problematic.
Luckily, in-country research is still happening, as Lottie herself is proving. She was commissioned to write a guidebook about dog-friendly travel in the UK, a book that came about from her pitching Bradt directly with an idea that captured the spirit of post-pandemic domestic travel. However, the route to publication has been unusual: in lieu of the “normal” advance you’d expect for a first edition guidebook, Lottie had to crowdfund some capital to make the project financially viable. By offering exclusive content via a newsletter and a few other interesting perks, she raised over £3,000 to keep her ticking over while she writes it.
It’s an interesting approach to publication that we’ve seen in various different parts of the industry, including the likes of JRNY magazine, and one that does beg the question of how publishers will pay writers for guidebooks in the future. While a project making sense from a financial perspective isn’t all about the advance — something we’ll be discussing in the final edition this month — the money you receive upfront can have a huge impact on whether you can afford to accept the work. It remains to be seen whether this hybrid model of funding, which encourages the target audience to pay for a stake in the content before it’s produced, is one we’ll see more of in the future.
What’s clear from the conversations we’ve had is that the majority of guidebooks going ahead now are those relying on local authors — an unsurprising turn of events that we’ve seen across the travel media. In many ways this is a positive development: conversations around decolonising travel writing have focused on the importance of foregrounding local voices rather than those of journalists who might not necessarily have the same long standing connection to — or profound understanding of — a destination. However, this comes with its own issues.
Employing less experienced writers and bloggers purely because they are local to the destination being covered can severely affect the quality of the guidebook. As one editor told us under the condition of anonymity, she’s seen how “the writers have nowhere near the skill or experience required to produce a book to usual standards, and the quality of writing and coverage is really poor.”
So what does this mean for the future of guidebooks?
Everyone we spoke to had a similar idea of what they expected guidebooks to look like going forward and it’s one that I share, too. With the competition offered by blogs authored by local experts and the extensive reviews available on platforms such as Tripadvisor and Booking.com, the age of the listings-heavy guidebooks seems to be over.
Instead, publishers look to be betting on coffee table guides focussing on a specific region, theme or niche. These inspiration-rich books published by the likes of DK through their Eyewitness series have eschewed listings for itineraries and top-level information about how to tackle a destination “like a local”. This style of book promises greater agility in responding to global trends — not something that guidebooks have traditionally been associated with — and which Lorna Parkes thinks will allow them “a quicker publishing time-frame than normal.” As global events have proven, time has been of the essence and books that go out of date less quickly will be those that thrive.
The pandemic has also highlighted how different guidebook models are necessary for the industry to turn a profit. Sophie Ibbotson, who has authored guidebooks for a wide range of publishers and works with tourism ministries to sponsor and commission content from guidebooks, sees hybrid enterprises such as Horizon Guides as being the future of the industry. By integrating guidebooks, online articles and a marketplace platform for tour bookings, as well as collaborating with local DMOs, they’re providing a wraparound service that is far more financially viable than a printed guidebook. She pointed out how, with the majority of tourists going to “places with good communications infrastructure and with a device to access digital content,” having a printed guidebook is no longer necessary and “virtual tour projects, which incorporate maps, video, imagery and tourist information” prove what can be achieved instead.
While most people seemed positive about the way the industry can adapt, this optimism wasn’t universal. With fewer publications paying for on-the-ground research, the question arises as to what this will do to an industry where rates of pay have, at best, stagnated and, at worst, been squeezed beyond recognition. “Anecdotally, I'm hearing that editing jobs on those few guidebooks being worked on are close to minimum wage,” Paul Clammer, who’s worked on over 25 guidebooks since 2003, told us. “I fear we're going to enter a world with fewer guidebooks and more writers chasing work,” and where “the downward pressure on incomes will be irresistible.”
It’s a valid concern. What seems certain, however, is that the guidebook industry will have to continue to adapt to survive. Whether the pandemic will trigger a metamorphosis into something stronger and more viable for the long-term or not remains to be seen. What we do know is that readers trust the knowledge and authority of guidebook writers; packaging this information in a different format that can work alongside digital resources might just be the way we can continue writing about the destinations we love.
Tweet of the week
If someone could let Lottie know whether she can still travel on this that’d be great, thanks….
Who to follow
Award-winning journalist and author of National Geographic’s book of the year, Around the World in 80 Trains, Monisha Rajesh is a powerhouse in the industry. She’s a remarkable writer, having recently been awarded Travel Writer of the Year in the inaugural Freelance Writing Awards, and she’s just landed a six-figure book deal with David Godwin Associates for a new title, Midnight Express (2024).
Industry must-reads & a press trip opportunity
If you’re looking for a spot of optimism about how the travel industry is bouncing back from the dark days of the pandemic, don’t miss Simon Parker’s piece in the Telegraph about the end of his 3,427-mile cycle around the edge of Britain and what he's learned en-route.
We loved this piece by former TTW mentee Andy Wasley on how his hikes have changed thanks to Covid, and this fantastic story about the eco-credentials of the UK’s smallest city.
Press trip opportunity to Tremor festival, São Miguel Island, Azores
Anastasia Connor at Noise Unit PR is looking for journalists to join this press trip.
What’s included: Flights + hotel + some meals (TBC)
Dates: 4th—11th Sept with direct flights from London Stansted to Ponta Delgada airport
This press trip is to the alternative music/arts festival, Tremor, which is being held from the 7th to the 11th of September on São Miguel Island in the Azores. Journalists are being flown out earlier to avoid any potential COVID-related travel issues with non-direct flights and to give them a bit more time to explore the island.
Musically, this trip would suit someone with an interest in alternative sounds and music of non-Western origins: the 2021 line-up includes Vanishing Twin, MadMadMad, Warmduscher and a host of cult, alternative names from Portugal and beyond. In addition to music, expect artistic residencies, surprise pairings, pop-up performances, soundtracked trekking and strong community involvement in locations across the island.
Potential angles include community arts/arts and sustainable tourism/DIY arts communities and post-COVID recovery. We’re looking for features in the national papers and travel magazines.
Drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with proposed coverage if you’re interested in being considered for this trip.
This was the first in our July series all about writing for guidebooks. Next week we’ll be talking to editors at major guidebook publishers to find out how the commissioning process works, and for the rest of the month we’ve got exclusive insights into the realities of guidebook writing as we ask experienced authors how they turn turn a profit, even when faced with a low advance. That’s all available to paying subscribers, and it’s just £5 per month.