Travel guides: the canaries in the digital coal mine. While no category of print books is immune to the changes wrought by growth in e-books and apps, books on travel—with their need for constant updating—lend themselves especially well to digital media. If print were on its way out, guidebooks would be one of the first categories to go completely digital. Indeed, all of the publishers PW spoke with have at least some digital elements. Are we halfway down the road to a wholly digital future? Or will we always have the sort of split we have now in the category?

At Interlink, says publicity director Moira Megargee, "We've made many of our travel books available as e-books, but our physical books continue to outsell them." Clare Currie, travel publisher of Rough Guides and DK Travel, says the output of both remains a mix, and there's a long way to go before print is obsolete, if it ever will be. "At the moment, our print offering on both lines remains far more comprehensive than our digital output. We're not dumping print with undue haste, because there remains substantial demand for it. In the long term there will be a transition to greater digital dominance. While I don't think this will result in the book going away entirely, it will require a more flexible and more nimble print strategy to ensure we can be equally efficient in fulfilling consumer demand for digital and print formats."

Currie continues, "Incorporating digital content into our publishing strategy has become essential. Travelers are seeking useful content for trip-planning and practical on-the-road resources in increasingly diverse digital formats. DK now offers its visual content as apps, e-books, and print guidebooks so that travelers can use our content any way—and where—they like."

E-books are the digital format of choice at AAA, but Bill Wood, travel publishing managing director, says, "Printed books will continue to have a place in publishing as long as there is a viable distribution system for the consumer to get them. We've done the business analysis, and AAA will still be distributing millions of paper books and maps annually to members 10 years from now." There are issues with print, though, says Wood. "There's a festering distribution defect that will hasten migration to digital. Obtaining printed books is getting more and more difficult as stores close and the remaining ones remove bookshelves for another coffee-shop table or stacks of toys and games."

Frommer's launched its Web site in 1997. Says associate publisher Ensley Eikenburg, "Today's digital revolution is more an evolution for us." Indeed, Frommer's was the first travel publisher to offer apps in the Apple store; today it has more than 100 e-books available. "E-books give travel publishers the freedom to create content for specific groups and the freedom to update long-form content on a more frequent basis," says Eikenburg. "At the same time, a print book is an excellent platform for travel content—it never runs out of batteries, it's intuitive to use, information is easily discoverable, and it makes a great souvenir." .

At National Geographic, too, print books still have their place. Declan Moore, president of National Geographic Publishing, says, "We see ongoing demand for guidebooks. These are tools for travelers who don't want to worry about charging electronic devices, theft, or roaming charges abroad when they need information." Yet, he says, "This promises to be a year when we experiment with digital publishing space, looking for the synergies between Web, e-books, apps, and print." National Geographic offers its first major travel app this spring: 50 Places of a Lifetime builds on the Places of a Lifetime franchise based on the all-time bestselling issue of National Geographic Traveler.

Next month will see the first Let's Go e-guides that can be downloaded in Nook, Kindle, iPad, Kobo, or Sony Reader format. Digital is "another option for travelers," according to publishing director (and Harvard senior) Joseph Molimock. "For travelers who want to mark up their book, tear pages out, or use it as an occasional makeshift pillow, a print book is the right choice," he says. "For others, downloading one or more books to an e-reader allows more space in the backpack—not to mention that it looks cooler and more discreet in a coffee shop." No slouch in the digital department, Let's Go maintains an active Web site with free destination information, blogs, videos, an e-newsletter, and real-time travel deals; readers also connect on the publisher's Facebook page.

Best Digital Bets

In a sign of the times, Fodor's marks its 75th anniversary this year by offering its first original guidebook, 1936—On the Continent, as a free e-book. Fodor's covers 600 destinations with guidebooks, a Web site, e-books, and iPhone apps. Says publisher Tim Jarrell, "In an era where travel planners are often overwhelmed by information that's not relevant to them, they need an array of digital solutions and trusted guidance. Our aim is to capitalize on each format's strength and to make our content available on almost every consumer platform."

Jarrell cautions, however, that converting guidebooks to digital formats isn't simply a matter of pressing a button: "In the conversion of our print guidebooks to e-book format, we focus on making sure that color, navigation, and map reproduction for our e-books is specifically designed for this platform and provides a reader-friendly navigation. Fodor's city guide iPhone and iPad apps, which were first released this past fall and will continue throughout 2011, feature an intuitive navigation of Fodor's recommendations, reviews, and content on-the-go.

Lonely Planet v-p John Boris notes, "The selection and timing of converting various books to e-books depends on a few criteria, including the type of book and popularity of the title, as well as the publishing schedule. At the moment we are experimenting with different series and different devices. Currently, e-books are not standard across all platforms and devices. Some are relatively linear, while others enable a richer experience for the user, and opportunities for publishers to include enhancements for their print books—such as audio. For example, we have our Discover, Encounter, and Phrasebook series on the iBookstore as they work best in that format—highly visual with highlights-based information."

Lonely Planet is another guide publisher that is continuing to invest in print while also exploring digital options. The publisher has more than 800 e-book titles on Kindle, iBook, Sony, and Nook platforms. It is also focusing on apps for handheld devices and now has more than 115 iPhone apps, because, says Rana Freedman, senior executive, communications, "The three things people never leave home without are their wallets, keys, and phones." And Lonely Planet recently launched audio walking tours for the iPhone, beginning with five walks in London. Jeremy Kreitler, v-p wireless services for the publisher, reports, "This is the first mobile product that we have created without using any existing book content." The walking tours were produced in conjunction with AudioGO and include material from the BBC archive. Tours of Paris are in the pipeline.

Content from Workman's hugely successful 1,000 Places series will be used in e-books published under its Workman Shorts program. Perfect Island Getaways from 1,000 Places to See Before You Die: Caribbean, Bahamas, and Bermuda launched in January and was one of the four inaugural Workman Shorts titles. This series, says director of digital publishing Andrea Fleck-Nisbet, is designed to "provide consumers with bite-sized amounts of information on targeted subjects that respond to a specific need. The content is selected from Workman's extensive backlist of titles and provides us the opportunity to introduce our books—both print and digital—to new audiences. 1,000 Places to See Before You Die is a perfect candidate for this format, as it allows us to spotlight gems that might otherwise be hard to locate within a lengthy e-book."

Competing with Free

There's another side to the digital universe: free content, mainly on the Internet. With consumers having access to almost limitless information, the vast majority of it available without pay (and, ironically, often via online communities for travelers sponsored by publishers themselves), how does a guidebook publisher turn a profit these days?

Wood of AAA says, "Online is great for research, but the content is fragmented on different pages, different Web sites. At some point the organization, packaging, and authority of a travel guide brand like AAA becomes important to travelers, even with all the great user reviews available from sites like AAA partner TripAdvisor []." And AAA is beating the Internet at its own game in some respects: Wood reports that many of AAA's e-books are provided to AAA members for free.

The Milepost, the venerable Alaska travel planner that this year will publish its 63rd edition, also offers a free digital edition, available to purchasers of the print edition since 2009. However, managing editor Kris Valencia reports, "The majority of our readers prefer the print edition. We're actively pursuing new digital formats with more interactive features. At the same time, we recognize that our readers value the print edition, and that we have some unique challenges in the north, such as long stretches of highway without cellphone or Wi-Fi service. Long-term, we plan to evolve with the technology."

Bill Newlin, publisher of Avalon Travel (which publishes the Rick Steves and Moon Travel Guides series), says guidebooks have not been killed off by free information available online—but they've had to evolve into almost a new species to compete. "Today's guidebooks are radically different from those of a decade ago," Newlin observes. "Customers will still pay for destination content, but they expect it to be unique, targeted, and perfectly adapted to their reading format of choice." (For more on Rick Steves, see "Why I Write," p. 29.)

Newlin describes a three-pronged approach: creating original content that isn't easily replicated, publishing in a wide range of formats, and playing to the strengths of each of those formats. Newlin provides an example of the latter: when Rick Steves' Best of Europe 2011 reached a print page count of 1,400 pages, the publisher began cutting cities. "Today," Newlin reports, "The e-book edition contains seven cities that aren't in the print edition, making it the equivalent of 2,000 pages." As of next month, that e-book will include a short video clip at the start of each chapter, another feature that can't be replicated in print.

Michelin, which has been offering digital content for more than a decade and is currently working on expanding its digital options, believes that the expertise of its writers and editors create a kind of firewall against free online content. Parmeet Grover, COO of Michelin Travel and Lifestyle, says, "The methodology for producing our guides is geared toward providing expert advice to the traveler. Our travel editors and writers follow a process that has been refined for more than 100 years."

There may even be a bit of a consumer backlash against online information, as customers realize that crowd-sourced content is not always reliable. Says Jarrell at Fodor's, "With the proliferation of travel information available online, the need for a trusted brand's content has only become more important. Fodor's offers this not only through our guidebooks but also, e-books, apps, and PDF chapter downloads. A critical component of a quality Web experience is searchability—travelers should find information at their fingertips and it should be accurate." In other words, digital isn't the enemy, as long as you know how to use it. Guidebooks, chirp on.

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