Traditionally, major-destination guidebooks have hued closely to the same formula since the era of Karl Baedeker’s mid-19th century European overviews for grand tourists—manuals expounding must-visit sites, restaurants, and hotels, brought to market by well-known houses. But thanks partly to the internet, and also to the proliferation of travelers itching to stray from the beaten trail, independent publishers are winning over consumers. To wit: Andrew Doughty/Wizard Publications’ four guides to the main islands of Hawaii.
Wizard’s guides to Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island, and the 2012 and 2015 editions for Oahu, are the top five bestselling Hawaii travel guides on Amazon as of this writing, and Doughty doesn’t even consider the online retailer his most relevant outlet. “More than half our books are sold in Hawaii through a Hawaiian distributor,” he says. “We also do a lot of sales to groups that contact us for conventions.” Still, according to Nielsen BookScan, Wizard has sold more than 2.1 million books since 2004, the earliest data available. The ninth edition of Wizard’s The Ultimate Kaui Guidebook, for example, has sold 18,881 print copies since its May 2014 publication, according to BookScan; the previous edition pubbed in 2011 and sold 90,290 units. By contrast, Lonely Planet’s 2009 and 2012 Kaui guides have sold a combined 34,233 copies, and the two most recent editions of Fodor’s Kauai (2012 and 2014) have together sold 16,242 units, according to BookScan.
Doughty launched his company in 1993 with a stack of preapproved credit cards and zero writing experience, after deciding traditional Hawaii guidebooks didn’t “speak to me as a collection of facts.” He professes to attract free-thinking travelers who are “looking for the essence of a place, who want to find what’s exclusive and cool.”
This leads him and his current staff of five to use a low-flying plane and land-ownership maps to seek out new routes to tucked-away sites; he mentions one undertaking to find alternate routes to the bottom of Wailua Falls in Kauai after the government closed trails for safety reasons. (Doughty says his routes are legal.) It’s also meant extensive GPSing of the islands to benefit users of Wizard’s apps, without the accuracy of which “it’s easy to get lost,” Doughty says.
Grace Fujimoto, acquisitions director for Avalon Travel, publisher of Moon Guides, says that what distinguishes publishers like Moon and Wizard is that they produce guides for “people who want to make their own trip, rather than following a group from place to place. Within travel publishing there is a distinction.” Moon, which began as an indie in the early 1970s, publishes some 100 guides, including many to micro-destinations like Angkor Wat—the sort of specialized locale that appeals to travelers drawn to indies in the first place.
Bound books still account for the bulk of Wizard’s sales, and that trend for print is in line with reports from other indie and self-pub authors, such as James Kaiser, who began self-publishing guides to U.S. national parks in 1999 and most recently published Costa Rica: The Complete Guide (Destination Press, 2013); Lan Sluder, who in addition to writing Belize books for Fodor’s has also self-published his own guides to the country, including Easy Belize (CreateSpace, 2010); and Matthew Karanian (Armenia and Karabakh, 3rd ed., Stone Garden, 2013), who says he was the first to publish a guidebook exclusively devoted to Armenia. Kaiser points out that, among other factors, travelers drawn to independently produced guides are looking “to escape gadgets, not continue to stare at a screen.”
So far, although these writers see the potential for a bright app and e-book future, the formula for print continues to work for them all—though with a hat tip to the digital world. With online travel sites offering what Sluder calls “content from untrained individuals who simply report on their one-time personal experience,” many “free-thinking” travelers seem to welcome the frame of reference provided by the experienced indie author’s perspective. From them, Doughty says, “you get a source beholden to none”—the only way to “compete with free.”