Simone Andrus has been in the business of selling travel guides since 1976 as owner of the first travel-only bookstore in the country, Seattle's Wide World Books & Maps. She has 12,000 titles in her store—40 on Paris alone—and remembers fondly when Birnbaum covered Europe and the Baedeker's guides were a vital part of the marketplace. She used to be able to predict which of her customers would want to buy a Fodor's, which a Lonely Planet, which a Let's Go guide. Nowadays, she says, there's just no telling. "One person came in three times in two years and each time he needed something different."

Travel book insiders use words like "mature," "savvy" and "sophisticated" to describe today's travelers, code words for demanding. They want a variety of specialized guides to unusual locales and offbeat activities as well as the standard—and up-to-the-minute—guides to the major destinations. Publishing-wise, this means opportunities for the smaller houses that can profitably produce the niche guides for niche tastes, giving them a way to compete in the market. The big travel imprints—from Fodor's to Frommer's to Insight Guides—can continue with their franchise series, but are finding that travelers want deep niches within even the big destination books. It all makes for a lively and competitive category, as publishers vie to keep up. "Publishers are behind," says Andrus. "Travelers are already out there doing it."

Faraway Places

"Doing it" typically can taking pilgrimage route northern spain; for a publisher, it would mean Walking the Via de la Plata, from Canada's Pili Pala Press. It could mean touring Hawaii's many islands with a guide from Hawaii-based Wizard Publications, whose books focus on each island and are written by locals.

Just as Sirius Satellite Radio can devote an entire channel to Elvis Presley songs, so a publisher can come out with a narrowly focused book like Cheryl Wilford's Following the Nez Perce Trail (Oregon State Univ. Press) and, over time, make a healthy profit. "That book's first edition was published in 1990 and it sold for 14 years without a revision," says marketing manager Tom Booth. The new edition, updated with GPS coordinates and additional historical excerpts, will be available in December.

The curious and intrepid nature of travelers raises the bar for travel guides overall, says Travel & Leisureeditor-in-chief Nancy Novograd, regardless of locale. "There's great interest in quality information and authenticity. People want to get to a second, third, fourth and fifth level, to really get inside a place. They want to be not a tourist but a habitué." She cites the spiffed-up visuals that are standard with guides from such publishers as Thames & Hudson (the Hip Hotel series), DK Eyewitness Travel Guides, Taschen and Knopf—how modern and graphic in feeling these publishers' books are. "They are for the new urban global person who wants to be at home in these different worlds," Novograd says. "They provide sophisticated insider information."

Fiennes, the London-based editorial/manager director of TimeOut, which specializes in city guides, says the more traditional guidebook publishers are hampered by the demands of a wide scope and are beginning to look old-fashioned. "I think it's increasingly noticeable that many guides are written with a view to global translation. It makes them bland and non—market specific. You don't want a U.S. guide that has to explain what a doughnut is." Niche books have an appeal, certainly for small publishers and for some medium-sized ones as well, though the big players, with their huge overheads, high research costs and expense of frequent updates, are less able to enjoy the smaller-numbers game.

"It's harder to appeal to a broader market," says Marc Jennings, publisher of Langenscheidt's Insight Guides. "There's the frequent traveler, the business traveler, the business traveler with spouse, the weekend traveler, the young hip traveler, the once-in-a-lifetime traveler, among others. Trying to find content for them that meets their price point is a challenge. But if you can, then you assure yourself of a bigger market share. We try to integrate all our strengths, travel and language and cartography. That gives me an advantage in relation to my competitors."

The Big Picture

Much as they're attracted to sharply focused themes, the big players do always keep their P&Ls in mind. "Our bread-and-butter books are still the destination titles," says Frommer's publisher Michael Spring. "You hear that no one wants a guide to France anymore, they want niche books like a guide to Provence, but the truth is that the books that we rely on and that sell well are books to France, Italy, Scotland. It's not a biking book to Tuscany."

Not that there's anything wrong with a biking book to Tuscany, Spring says. Just that the numbers involved are insignificant by Frommer's standards. Thresholds for printings for mid-size houses start at around 5,000 copies. For the large publishers, the number is generally much higher. TimeOut—a medium-size house "but with aspirations," says Fiennes—has a usual threshold of 10,000-copy initial printings. Sasquatch Books, which specializes in books about the American Northwest, can't afford to focus on every place it would like. "Spokane is just a little too small to justify the budget required to support a city guide," says publisher Chad Haight. "We are looking for a minimum of 15,000 units in a two- or three-year period. That can get as high as 40,000 or 50,000 for some titles." Small presses, of course, get by on notably smaller print runs.

"There used to be only state guides and whole country guides," says Bob Sehlinger, publisher of Menasha Ridge Press. "As the market grew, people started carving up those areas. Then they started carving up even those pieces of geography. Finally it gets to a point where the books are so specific they no longer are viable for the larger publishers. But this specificity generates great opportunity for me and other small publishers. We can do a guide to the Natchez Trace Parkway or to Mount Rogers in Virginia. A larger publisher couldn't
touch that. I can do fine just selling about 2,000 copies of a title a year."

Changing Places, Changing Faces

Publishers have adopted different strategies to keep up with the increasingly savvy customer base. Fodor’s, for example, is rolling out a major redesign of its flagship line, with bells and whistles added to make the books more visual and “experiential,” according to publisher Tim Jarrell. “We were thinking about the role of our Gold Guides and how to compete with the Internet, which is, frankly, our main competitor. We wanted to make our books more contemporary, more interesting to read, so they are not just a compendium of information.” Among the new features are boxed comments picked up from the Fodor’s online forums and overview pages to orient the reader. “Our strength is we can hire as many people as we do, local experts in different areas. We can afford to put production value into our books and update every year or two years,” says Jarrell.

Companies like Langenscheidt, which publishes Insight Guides, have to keep coming out with new products in order to grow, says president Marc Jennings. "Our city guides, which we launched last year, will have grown to 23 titles by spring 2006. We're also introducing regional guides in May [to Bali, Sicily, Southern Spain and Tuscany]. This is the growth engine of getting market share." But splintering titles from the mother ship has its hazards, too. "You always have risk when a lower-priced item might cannibalize your main item," Jennings cautions.

Avalon Publishing, the largest independent travel publisher in the country, is also amping up its image. Its redesign of the Rick Steves guides to Europe—as reflected in books, planning maps, phrasebooks and DVDs—has given the line "a signature package that can be recognized across the board," says publisher Bill Newlin. And Steves awareness will be boosted by several timely things, including a nationally syndicated radio show that he will host, a tie-in book to a PBS Christmas special (Rick Steves' European Christmas) and the annual updates of his European guides. The company's Moon imprint will be the new umbrella for three lines: Moon Handbooks, Moon Metro and Moon Outdoor, which was formerly the Foghorn outdoor recreation guides. "All will be packaged as Moon, with common but not identical design. We want to make Moon a more broadly identified series," Newlin says. In spring 2007, Avalon will publish for the first time a Moon Handbook to Europe.

Thames & Hudson targeted a savvy specialty audience with its recently launched StyleCity guides: a young urban crowd with lots of disposable income and an interest in strongly visual guidance to trendy restaurants, shops and hotels. This group, says editorial director Jamie Camplin, has become one of the key demographics for travel publishing and helped make the company's 10-title Hip Hotel series by Herbert Ypma, with approximately 1.5 million copies in sales worldwide, a robust success. A Hip Hotels Atlas, a compendium that draws from the earlier books, is due in November, and a TV pilot based on the series films this fall. "Our goal is to make the niche the norm," Camplin says, adding that for all its specially photographed travel-related books to far-flung destinations, the house would be wary of proceeding without a fairly certain demand of about 20,000 copies, "but I'm including the non-U.S. English language market in that figure."

Frommer's, too, is reaching out to a youth niche with the April launch of MTV Guides (initial titles are MTV Europe, MTV Ireland and MTV Italy), the first in a series that joins the company's 12 other specially targeted guides (Frommer's Day by Day, Frommer's with Kids, etc.). The focus of the series is advice about nightlife and hanging out, body piercing and adrenaline sports, and, of course, music.

The Web is such a looming presence in the travel field that Let's Go is playing catch-up by revamping its Web site for relaunch next year. "Our audience is Web savvy and expects certain things from travel sites," says project editor Tom Mercer. "We are concentrating on bringing ours to life more and making it more interactive. We want it to make people more familiar with our guidebooks. Come next spring you'll see a lot more going on on the page."

Just in the Niche of Time

Back at the niche end of things, North Carolina—based John F. Blair Publishers, whose bread-and-butter series is Touring the Backroads, has developed its program of heritage tourism into a successful niche. "The most obvious difference between us and the biggies is we tend to stay away from listings with accommodations and restaurants," says sales director Ed Southern. "We don't have the budget and manpower for updates."

A 1999 book about the L.A. locations where silent star Buster Keaton shot his films (Silent Echoes) became a surprise hit and a strong backlist title for Jeffrey Goldman's Santa Monica Press, leading Goldman to add several more titles to a series he calls "location tourism," including Footsteps in the Fog, about locations Alfred Hitchcock used in his films. The forthcoming Haunted Hikes by Andrea Lankford guides people to places where crimes or spooky events have taken place in the national parks. Goldman says sales are spurred by the attention these books attract not just from travel media but also from arts and entertainment media and, for Haunted Hikes, the outdoor magazines. "I can hit a broader range than with just a travel book," he says.

Stephen Hull, publisher at the three-year-old Justin Charles, says that in the current publishing climate, "niche is where we want to live." Their first venture into the travel field is Las Vegas Little Black Book: A Guy's Guide to the Perfect Vegas Weekend (Oct.) by David de Montmollin and Hiram Todd Norman, a book just for men, for which, Hull says, "there is no competition at all." It's noteworthy, he adds, because there are so many possible channels for marketing and publicity: men's magazines, travel media and Web sites, gambling interest, dining and hospitality outlets and sports publications—and he's been able to stir up interest in all these areas.

"If a niche publisher is smart, they can carve out so much of a specific niche that no one can touch," says Peter Greenberg, travel editor for NBC's Todayand chief correspondent for the Travel Channel. "If someone wants to give me a hiker's guide to Harlem, or a book about one-armed fugitive travel, who can say they're wrong? By definition these books have an attitude." And attitude, he says, is a good thing: "I'm all in favor of giving opinions and being a cheerleader for the right to travel."

In the race to dominate the market, the publishers with global connections—Lonely Planet, Insight Guides, Rough Guides, DK and National Geographic—can afford to publish books that don't rely on U.S. sales alone. This edge means that even large companies can do what appear to be niche-type books.

Geoff Colquitt, marketing manager for Rough Guides, says bigness is not all good or bad. On one hand, he and his colleagues reject many new destinations because, though they sound interesting, they are not sufficiently frequented by travelers. "A small publisher has a leg up here because if it's their only book, it becomes their entire focus. So it's easier for them. The larger publishers have a broader bottom line to pay attention to."

On the other hand, he says, Rough Guides cater to English-speaking countries around the world, with one edition printed for distribution to all. If the company relied only on the U.S. market for its guides to Tenerife, Costa Brava or Lanzarote (one of the Canary Islands), these guides probably wouldn't get published, because few people in the U.S. have even heard of these places, let alone made plans to go there. But in markets like England and Europe, there's enough sales potential to make it worthwhile. "This is a huge advantage," he says, "if for no other reason than perception. Someone in a bookstore can see our books in a series on such a wide range—it gives a more positive perception than if they see only one book. People tend to think of you as more an expert or an authority. And of course that's what we all want."

Like Rough Guides, Lonely Planet takes advantage of its worldwide clout. "Because we sell our guides globally, certain titles might sell well in the Asian or European markets but not in the U.S. and vice versa," says Brice Gosnell, acting global guidebook publisher, based in the Bay Area office. "These global sales help us meet the appropriate sales threshold for that title. That being said, we recognize that not all destination guides will sell as well as others, especially when there are political or environmental factors in play. It's important for us to cover all destinations even if that means we don't make our margins on every title. Otherwise we're not meeting a traveler's needs." Surely the forthcoming guides to Tasmania (Oct.), East Coast Australia (Oct.) and Best of Mumbai (Jan.) fall into this category.

Worldwide affiliations also help National Geographic Traveler, a series lauded for its colorful photography of exotic places. "Our books are expensive," says publisher Elizabeth Newhouse. "We put a lot of money into high quality maps and photography. We have to have expectations of selling them, and our foreign publishing partners help."

Newhouse says that in the U.S., the NG brand works both for and against the house. "Our challenge is to balance what our brand stands for and to extend it, so people come to us for reliable practical information as well as cultural and historical knowledge. We tend to focus on places we're known for and that's fine, but it only takes you so far. We have to convince people we are not just a publisher of books about national parks and exotic destinations and culture but can offer other things." A new e-newsletter sent to subscribers of the magazine is intended to show people that NG Traveler has access to the kind of practical information their research shows that people want but don't expect to find from NG.

The bottom line for the big players, says Langenscheidt's Marc Jennings, is that they need to position their content so it focuses across different travelers. "If we continued to do only destination guides, we'd just maintain or slip market share. We have to continue to come out with things like city guides, thematic guides. There's a large element of truth that much of the world's destinations have been covered."

And yet... they haven't been covered lately. Or they haven't been covered fully. Or there's a portion of the country that formerly wasn't visited that suddenly has become chic. Think China, Costa Rica, Alaska. Clearly consumers are the winners in this crowded and ultra-competitive field, where the big houses as well as the smaller players want to cater to their every whim and are climbing on each other's shoulders to see what's on the horizon—or doing their own thing so completely that no one can predict the outcome.

In many ways publishers themselves benefit from the competitive atmosphere. Though the world is finite and there are only so many places people can go, they can go in many kinds of ways, at many stages of their life, and for many different purposes. Limited subject matter is not what travel publishers complain about. In fact, with travel such an integral part of contemporary life, no one is complaining much at all, just trying to figure out how to dominate the market—and become a household name.

Click below for listings of forthcoming travel titles:

Abbeville to Mountaineers Books
National Geographic Books to Neil Wilson Press

What Type Are You?When it comes to drawing a personality profile of the ideal user, Menasha Ridge Press publisher Bob Sehlinger wins hands down for the Unofficial Guides he creates for Wiley. "We publish our books for Type A types," Sehlinger says. The Unofficial writer guidelines spell it out explicitly: "Our target reader manifests a set of characteristic behaviors and emotional states, including anxiety and fear, that we can meaningfully address in our guidebooks. Our Type A fears failure, loss of face, and most of all, loss of control. Our Type A reader has a tendency toward compulsiveness, manifest as... thoroughness in planning, organizing and structuring... He wants his trip to be exceptional, better than that of other people traveling to the same destination. He works hard to uncover secrets, shortcuts, bargains, and ways to beat the system."
Other attempts to profile typical users pale by comparison.
Users of Time Out guides are "intelligent, culturally engaged, metropolitan, independent-minded, not content to follow the hordes and appreciative of good writing," says Peter Fiennes, the company's editorial/managing director in London.
The Frommer's audience, says publisher Michael Spring, is "seriously college-educated, with more of a focus on taste than on money. They care about one-of-a-kind things, things that couldn't be anywhere else. The age is largely 25 and up."
Insight Guides "try to hit a sweet spot that doesn't restrict us to just one kind of traveler," says Langenscheidt president Marc Jennings. "We try to pitch them as being appropriate to a broad range of travelers."
At Avalon Travel Group, publisher Bill Newlin describes the company's Rick Steves line as for "people who are planners. They are looking to get the most out of every day on their trip." Moon Handbooks, the company's other line, "are used by people who tend to decide things as they go along, seeking out destinations or events that they might not find in any other kind of guide" (i.e., Type B personalities).
Sasquatch books are published "for the discriminating traveler who wants to know a little more and whose standards are a little higher," says publisher Chad Haight; while Let's Go's audience is Web savvy "and fun-loving," says Tom Mercer, project editor at St. Martin's. "They're travelers on a budget who are trying to make the most of their experience and pinch pennies, but have a great time."
Fodor's publisher Tim Jarrell reports that there's no typical user of the company's various lines: "Our books cover a wide gamut of travelers at all budgets, though we don't do hostels or backpacking. We will cover the best at one end and budget at the other."
National Geographic Traveler sees its typical customer as someone over 40 "with sophisticated travel experience," says Elizabeth Newhouse, director of travel publishing. "They are interested in getting behind the scenes culturally, and are willing to pay a little more for the books."
"Lonely Planet travelers want to discover a destination by getting closer to the culture and the people," says acting global guidebook publisher Brice Gosnell. "The mindset is more independent, curious and speaks to finding unique, off-the-beaten track destinations, whether that's in a city like Chicago or a far-flung destination such as Ethiopia."
Geoff Colquitt, marketing director at Rough Guides, describes the company's users as evenly split between male and female. "Age bracket is early 20s to mid-50s, a person with a reasonable amount of disposable income who travels frequently. They are independent and unlikely to take a package tour. Unlike the general perception, they are not necessarily a backpacker but someone who wants to be on their own while staying in a classy hotel." Count us in!

BookScan as Book Scout
Since its inception in 2001, Nielsen BookScan, the retail sales monitoring service plugged in to approximately 4,500 bookstores, has given publishers a way to measure actual sales of books around the country. While helpful for many purposes, BookScan lends itself especially well to use by travel publishers, whose information needs are particularly well defined. The general view is that the service has been a big benefit, though there are some skeptics among the believers.
"When we come out with new titles these days, our probability of success is much higher than it used to be. In the past, destinations that used to seem good were not necessarily. We have a much better batting average now than before BookScan. But it's expensive. It's the dividing line between smaller and big publishers." —Bill Newlin, publisher, Avalon Travel Publishing
"BookScan gives us a clearer picture of the marketplace, who's doing what where and how successful they are. It's a boon when we use it—not when the competition uses it. We haven't dropped things because of it, but we have looked at destinations where we thought we should be better represented either in terms of new books or in terms of coverage." —Tim Jarrell, publisher, Fodor's
"When we come up with a title, we do look to see what others have done. But just because others have done well or badly doesn't necessarily reflect how we would do."—Elizabeth Newhouse, director of travel publishing, National Geographic Society
"If you're just looking at the success of certain titles in a region, BookScan research can mask an opportunity. Say it's a destination guide to Oregon—you could surmise it's not an opportunity area. But if you have scrambling or loop hikes of particular interest to your audience, then it's an opportunity." —Helen Cherullo, publisher, The Mountaineers Books
"If titles to a particular destination aren't selling, it's a disincentive for us to produce one. That said, if it's a destination we're keen on, we use the data more as an indication of the risk factor and might choose to publish anyway." —Peter Fiennes, editorial/managing director, Time Out Guides
"We look at BookScan as well as travel trends, any place we can get information about travel. As for taking the risk out of a destination, you still have to consider a number of factors, not just quantitative data but looking at where people are traveling. If you want to get in on the ground floor of a trend, you have to get in there. You can't rely on quantitative information." —Tom Mercer, project editor, Let's Go Guides, St. Martin's
"BookScan doesn't capture those global trends we're always watching. Croatia, for example, is a hot destination for Americans right now, while it's also started to be less of a hot spot in Europe. BookScan doesn't help us to see that information, but it can help us in other ways, like figuring out global trends in the American market by watching how destination titles sell across the whole category." —Brice Gosnell, acting global guidebook publisher, Lonely Planet
"The system is cumbersome. It made a mistake in its setup in the U.S. We're not able to drill down to as much information as we like. It's easy in the U.K. to determine each publisher's market share in the market they publish to. In the U.S. you could find out how a guide to Tenerife is selling, but it would be difficult to find out how mine is selling in relation to other publishers'." —Geoff Colquitt, marketing director, Rough Guides