Since the world stopped traveling several months ago, I’ve been trying to find the way forward for my guidebooks. The future of travel is anything but clear: countries are tightening their borders, and some U.S. states that have reduced their coronavirus infection rates are restricting visitors from other states where the pandemic continues to wreak havoc.
I’m editor-in-chief for North America of 111 Places That You Must Not Miss, a guidebook series for locals and experienced travelers. Our books always sell best in the cities and regions they cover, and in many ways, our approach is well suited to a moment when people are planning staycations and local getaways.
But virtually all of our retail outlets were vastly diminished for several months. Bookstores, gift shops, and museum shops were closed due to the pandemic, and major e-commerce sites deprioritized books in order to direct resources toward shipping hand sanitizer, surface cleaners, and other crucial supplies.
My colleagues and I knew that our sales reports were going to be grim. But the difference between our figures for Q1 and Q2 2020 and those from the first half of last year is shocking nonetheless. When everyone went home in mid-March, we had several books either just released or on their way to our warehouse. It broke my heart to see talented, enthusiastic writers and photographers miss out on the once-in-a-lifetime experience of celebrating their first books and signing their first autographs. Normally, a book release is a time for parties with friends and family, book talks, TV and radio interviews, and a wonderful sense of accomplishment. But those events have been postponed.
Where our books once might have garnered good media placements, in recent months our press releases have yielded more out-of-office messages than interview requests. Many journalists have gotten sick or been laid off or furloughed, just like those in so many other professions.
And tragically, in May we lost one of our beloved authors to Covid-19.
But we haven’t let these challenges deter us. Our publisher, Hejo Emons, is managing our company through these murky waters with a vision for better days to come. We’re still working on new books for the 111 Places series and recruiting writers and photographers in new cities. My main focus, however, has been on ensuring that our writers and photographers are safe. Normally, they would look forward to visiting an oddities museum hidden in the Georgia State House, or photographing a mariachi mass in Houston, or interviewing the owners of an everything-seashell shop in Palm Beach, Fla. For now, I need them to conduct interviews over the phone and focus on exploring parks, outdoor art, and exterior architecture.
I’ve also had to be more flexible about deadlines. Some members of my team have had family members stricken with Covid-19. Some in New York City would normally be taking the subway to all corners of the five boroughs, but that’s risky right now. We’ve delayed several books because we want to release them when people are excited about stepping out into the world again, and when there’s more of an appetite for feel-good interviews about the secrets of Hollywood, the quirkiest places in Calgary, or the history and diversity of Austin.
Here’s the most astonishing thing I’ve found: people may still be mostly at home, but they haven’t stopped striving. My writers and photographers are working more creatively than ever on their books, finding deeper meanings in people’s stories and portraying even richer experiences. All over the U.S. and Canada, the people at the spots we want to feature are responding to phone calls and emails more quickly than they did before the shutdown. Artists, historians, business owners, scientists, curators, and chefs have been eager and extremely helpful in figuring out the safest ways for our writers to learn about their ventures and for our photographers to take photos on-site.
So what does the future hold for travel publishing? Personally, I can imagine a complete return to travel as we once knew it only when we have a Covid-19 vaccine. Until then, most of us will probably be staying closer to home. So I’m hopeful that our guidebooks, essentially staycation guides, will find their way into people’s lives and encourage them to explore their hometowns and support local institutions and businesses—especially bookstores.
Karen Seiger is editor-in-chief for North America of the 111 Places That You Must Not Miss travel guide series.