As a book publisher dependent on the travel industry, Lonely Planet is a company twice-hexed in this shaky economy. But even as it feels the stings of SARS and lower consumer spending, the press is on the brink of significant change, with a new CEO and a publishing program that modifies and in some ways revamps earlier models.

A few weeks ago, the Australian-headquartered publisher announced a layoff plan that will see 45 positions cut worldwide, about half of those in the U.S. But as it enters a self-described leaner-and-meaner mode, Lonely Planet also has undertaken initiatives to cope with existing challenges—not the least of which is its own maturity—while still redefining travel publishing. "When it started, Lonely Planet figured out where travel was headed," said LP USA president Todd Sotkiewicz. Now, LP again "is figuring out where travel is going to be."

Approaching its 30th birthday, Lonely Planet remains a publishing anomaly. Despite its age and size (about 400 global employees), it is still run by its founders, the Aussie couple Tony and Maureen Wheeler, who have managed to keep the firm at once private and global at a time when many have traded the former for the latter.

Lonely Planet is also a publishing success story: a sizable house that caters not to one broad audience but to a series of smaller ones. For travelers, the publisher remains a favorite. The content continues to be rich and highly navigable, and often comes in unusual flavors, like a guide to Myanmar. Its Internet site remains a factory for the Webbys, the awards given out by the digerati for the best on the Web, taking the prize for best travel site this year. In a recent survey of brand recognition around the world, Lonely Planet was ranked as the eighth most recognizable brand in Asia.

But one need not look further than the branding issue to realize the problems LP faces—some industrywide, some publisher-specific. While it has a dominant position in Asia and lesser-traveled markets, it is reported to have a less significant share when it comes to more traditional destinations. Meanwhile, a tricky travel industry is made trickier by management variables. New global CEO Judy Slatyer, who replaced nine-year veteran Steve Hibbard in March, has no book publishing experience; Sotkiewicz has been there only about a year. For all of the Webbys, the company has endured a more herky-jerky new media strategy than most, going heavily into palmtop conversions several years ago and then slowing down, wandering from content to commerce on its home page, and creating the popular Thorn Tree bulletin boards but not finding a way to monetize them.

Even its comprehensiveness can pose a problem: travel publishers normally grow by adding destinations, but LP's plate is so full that it literally risks running out of real estate. "It's clear we have to make some adjustments," Slatyer said.

Slatyer, a former wireless executive, brings a no-nonsense demeanor to her job. Though, she said, layoffs at the publisher are inevitable, she also sees a silver lining. "You get the best from people when you put them under the gun in terms of costs," she said. She candidly sums up the need for improvements in terms of both editorial and market share as "better books, different readers."

The company is going about both in a variety of ways. It is looking at repackaging content for the backpacker audience, as well as covering what it calls "emerging destinations"—everything from East Timor to Orlando, for which it will soon bring out its first guide.

The tweaks have domestic angles, too. The house has added some rather un-LP—like books—a guide to scenic California drives and a national parks series are on the way, as is The Kindness of Strangers, a collection of vignettes from the road edited by former Salon travel editor Don George, who now works for LP. It is adding more Best-of books, which offer more distilled, practical information than the full-length titles. There's even a TV deal in Europe. "We need to come up with more and more clever ways to deliver what we have," global publisher Simon Westcott said.

All the shifts are an effort to stay nimble about quickly changing travel realities. But the retooling has raised some concerns. "Lonely Planet is one of the top-selling travel publishers right now," said Sandy Wexler, co-owner of Chicago's The Savvy Traveller. "I'm not convinced they need to broaden their market." Wexler worries that travel publishers in general react too much to the latest trend. In LP's case, Wexler and others question the market for domestic titles, which, she said, don't sell as well as international ones, and she also wonders if the condensed guides play strongly enough to LP's talents as a publisher of narrative and historical content.

Slatyer, though, continues to manifest confidence in change. She said she thinks it might only be a few years before LP's Web content becomes not just supplementary to its books but a part of a general license that customers buy, allowing them to get hard information online and literary content from the books. Meanwhile, she thinks books can have a kind of resilience and be "reinvented" so thoroughly and creatively that a single destination can draw the same buyer again. "We want to be like Ferrari," she said. "We want customers to be holding out for the new model."