Road atlases—those bulky mainstays of cross-country family road trips—may seem obsolete in the era of GPS and navigation apps, but don’t close the book on paper maps just yet.
In 2014, Rand McNally was a consistent presence on Nielsen BookScan’s weekly travel bestseller list; every week from mid-May through mid-October, the company’s road atlases held three of the top five spots. Its large-scale atlas was the only travel title—aside from perennial bestseller Into the Wild—to crack the year’s top-200 nonfiction list.
National Geographic reports sales in excess of 30,000 copies for the new edition of its North American road atlas, which includes sales reported by non-Nielsen-tracked outdoor recreation outlets such as REI and Bass Pro Shops.
Though the overall size of the print atlas market has declined, it is holding on and finding a new relevance among travelers, says National Geographic Books senior v-p Hector Sierra. “The road atlas is evolving from a navigation tool to a trip-planning tool,” he says. It adds context to navigation, allowing drivers to consult a much larger map area with “spatial orientation, unlike the limited screen view on devices.”
Amy Krouse, director of public relations for Rand McNally, says the “keepsake” factor of atlases—routes of previous trips highlighted, notes scribbled in the margins—contributes to their appeal among perennial explorers of the open road. On a more practical level, she pointed out that bound atlases provide navigation assistance without relying on a cell phone battery charge or the presence of a GPS signal.
Cynthia Ochterbeck, editorial director of Michelin Travel Partner, goes even further: “A printed map is one of the most important tools a traveler in an unfamiliar setting can have.” A 2013 survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Michelin Travel and Lifestyle seems to bear this out. Of the 2,200 GPS-using adults surveyed, 63% of them reported being led astray by the technology; as a result, the survey showed, 46% of car-owning drivers in the U.S. keep some sort of physical map in their vehicle. Nevertheless, Michelin added GPS coordinates for national parks and other sites to its newest road atlas edition.
Michelin’s spiral-bound 2014 North American road atlas, published in June 2013, has sold 11,023 print units, according to Nielsen BookScan; the total figure is likely much higher, with gas stations and other outlets that do not report to Nielsen providing up to 70% of sales, according to the company. Rand McNally’s BookScan-only figures are even stronger, with sales in excess of 51K copies for its 2015 road atlas and sales of more than 73K units for its 2015 large scale atlas.