Publishing involves a high degree of fortune telling: what will hook readers, in what form, and when? These questions, already daunting, are further complicated by the stubborn fact of production. You can identify a potential market, but by the time the book has been written, edited, and bound, will that market still exist? For travel publishers, 2020 brought many a devastating no. How many American readers, in spring of last year, wanted to pick up a guide to Belize?
This year brings more optimism. Vaccines are widely available, at least in some parts of the world, and travel restrictions continue to lift, even as the delta variant poses a new menace. But amid vacillating case numbers and mercurial regulations, travel publishers are again having to gamble. That may explain why presses large and small are playing it safe, and perhaps adjusting to a long-term shift in travel appetites. For these publishers, local is still the word.
Home, not away
Apa Publications, which publishes Rough Guides and Insight Guides, is one of several travel presses that had a difficult 2020, and it’s also among those pursuing a local-centric strategy as it recovers.
This fall, Apa will publish new guides focused on domestic travel, including The Rough Guide to the USA’s National Parks and The Rough Guide to the 100 Best Places in the USA, both due in September, as well as new editions of Insight Guides to Alaska, Colorado, and Texas, releasing September through November.
“For obvious reasons, we’ve been focusing on U.S. and U.K. domestic travel,” says René Frey, CEO at Apa. That strategy is a departure for the company, which draws most of its revenue from guidebooks for intercontinental travelers. (According to Frey, Apa’s revenue for the first half of 2021 was down 86% compared to the same period in 2019, though sales since have begun to recover.) But until globe-trotting reaches something like its pre-pandemic levels, the domestic approach makes the most sense for the company.
Even after visitors begin returning to other countries, Frey says, anxieties caused by the pandemic will linger, and travel guides must account for them. “All our new books will have much more focus on health and safety,” he adds. He also predicts that the pandemic will accelerate travel trends that were already in the making, such as an increased interest in customized trips and sustainability (see Traveling, Not Trampling). “Safety, health, sustainability, and personalization—this is what we believe will become more important in the next couple of years,” he notes.
Lonely Planet, too, is focusing on local travel for its North American market. In June the company released new editions of several domestic guides, including USA’s Best Trips, Best of California, and Miami & the Keys, and in September it will publish Lonely Planet’s Ultimate USA Travel List, which features 500 travel experiences. It’s adopting a similar domestic approach for readers in Great Britain as well as in Australia and New Zealand.
“They’re our primary markets,” says Chris Zeiher, senior director, trade sales and marketing, for Lonely Planet’s global business. “What we wanted to do in the first half of this year was release titles where we knew people could travel locally.”
Like Apa, Lonely Planet is readying for a readership shaped by the pandemic. In preparation for a resumption of international travel, the publisher has begun updating its top 200 guidebooks. “We didn’t want a pre-pandemic publication date on the back,” Zeiher says. “We think a consumer will look at a book that was published maybe in 2018 or 2019 and think, ‘That’s completely irrelevant now.’ ”
Updating these guides also involves navigating the economic havoc wreaked by the pandemic. Lonely Planet is scrutinizing its listings of businesses and events, Zeiher says, to determine whether they’re still in operation; the books will also advise readers to double-check its recommended venues themselves. “That’s not a new thing for guide books, but it’s become quite acute in the time of Covid.”
He adds that, with different regions opening up at different rates, the publisher has increasingly come to rely on native expertise. “We’re using a lot of local talent to build up that content,” he notes. “We’ve had to be much more agile as a publisher.”
Even before the pandemic put a near stop to jet-setting, travelers were already looking homeward: tourists wanted to experience destinations as locals would, and locals discovered the rewards of creative staycations. As travel resumes, those appetites will endure, and publishers are ready to meet them.
In September, DK will release the first six titles in a new series, Like a Local. New York and Tokyo are among the cities on the launch list; the series continues with another six guides in January. Spotlighting offbeat eateries, green spaces, and street art, the books encourage the kind of native wandering that homebound residents have had to make do with over the past 18 months—and, in the case of many, have come to appreciate.
Wildsam, too, is catering to the growing interest in local travel. Since its acquisition by Acadia in 2019, the publisher has expanded its list of story-driven “field guides” to various regions in the U.S. This year, four titles joined or are joining its Pursuits series: Colorado Rockies, Gulf Coast, and Cape Cod are out now, and Hudson Valley is due in October. All feature contributions from writers, artists, and scientists with local expertise; the Cape Cod guide, for example, includes insights from a roboticist and a Wampanoag linguist.
Taylor Bruce, editor-in-chief at Wildsam, says the renewed interest in local travel has been a boon for the publisher: while its wholesale revenue dipped during the pandemic, its direct-consumer web sales increased 250% in 2020, and as of April 2021 bookstore sales seem poised to rebound. He expects that, even as restrictions ebb, travel trends born of necessity will endure. “I’m sure there’s going to be an itch to get back out into the global market,” he adds, but his experience over the past year tells him more American travelers will look to their homeland first. “There’s so much to discover in the U.S.”
Brave new world traveler
As guidebook publishers continue to reassess their lists, they’re taking stock not only of where and how people are traveling but of who those travelers are.
In June of this year, Hardie Grant launched the Girls Guide to the World series, which serves women readers who may face particular hurdles when traveling because of their race or other aspects of their identity. After its inaugural title, Black Girls Take the World, by Guardian contributor Georgina Lawton, pubbed in June, the coming months bring Asian Girls Are Going Places (Nov.), by playwright and screenwriter Michelle Law, and Anxious Girls Do It Better (Dec.), by blogger Bunny Banyai. A fourth book, about the travel experiences of Muslim women, will follow in 2022.
Series editor Megan Cuthbert says the target readers for these books sometimes feel underserved by standard travel guides. “There’s no question that race factors into how people, and particularly women, travel through the world, and traditionally travel guides have been written from a white male perspective,” she says. Travelers with experience with misogyny or prejudice, she suggests, need to know more than “where to find the best burrito in a city.”
Michelle Law, author of Asian Girls Are Going Places, says that when she resumes traveling, she’ll do so with excitement but also anxiety, especially in light of the Atlanta spa shootings and recent attacks on Asian elders. With the book, she notes, she hopes to “send a bit of strength and love and joy back out there during what’s been an especially difficult time.”
In writing the guide, Law drew on feedback from other Asian women. “I wanted to gain an understanding of how their identity influenced the way in which they moved through the world, and how that identity made travel exciting, challenging, interesting, confronting,” she says. “They were excited by the idea of having a travel guide that spoke directly to them.”
Daniel Lefferts is a writer in New York City.
Further 2021 Travel Books Coverage