Are good guidebooks disappearing?
What happened to guidebooks? Over the years, I have seen the slow death of guidebooks. New well-done guidebooks have begun to disappoint. They have some severe limitations in terms of space (number of pages). When published, the information is already a year old. Plus, these days, guidebook writers are rarely the kind of travelers who can truly appreciate the kinds of establishments I would want to dine or sleep in.
I used to publish guidebooks back in the mid-1980s and 1990s. My company, World Leisure, was listed as one of the 100 top publishers in the country. We even had a best-seller in its list. Eventually, our business shifted to the Web because of many limitations facing print publications.
Guidebooks are physically constrained by their pages.
Guidebooks need to be small enough that they can be carried by travelers. An 800-page book won’t make it. I remember the old days when travelers would buy Europe on $5-a-day and tear out individual chapters. The death of guidebooks is painfully obvious.
The number of pages also limits content. There can only be so many restaurants and hotels that can be reviewed within the available pages. Hence, many wonderful restaurants and hotels just don’t make it. Even if the researchers managed to get to them, they don’t have the room to include all of the dining and lodging establishments they visit.
Constrained by time — the information is old by the time you use the book
The amount of time from writing to publishing is long and distribution to bookstores takes longer. Lack of timeliness results in the death of guidebooks. The timeline for guidebook writing needs to take into account editing time, press time, shipping time, warehousing, and getting the books on the bookstore shelves.
Even the most aggressive timeline for an early year publication is long. It starts at least a year in advance, with almost all writing done in the preceding spring months. The basic, inescapable fact is that guidebooks are out of date the day they hit the bookstore shelves.
Constrained by underpaid writers, overworked editors, and paltry budgets
In the heyday of guidebooks, writers were experienced and well paid. They diligently visited every sight, hotel, and restaurant that they covered in their guides. They included the basic service items of attractions, lodging, and dining. Then the basics were blended with history that put much of a traveler’s experience into perspective. That rarely happens anymore.
Today’s travel-book writers, for the most part, are young freelancers or students on summer vacation. Today’s underpaid writers work on guidebook updates. These underpaid writers commit to a guidebook in order to “get their name in print.”
Guidebooks can be an arduous steppingstone
The information gathered may lead to many better freelance assignments or work on a magazine staff. Plus, the expertise is marketable if the income is adequate.
Still-wet-behind-the-ears writers are expected to have travel experience. Theoretically, they should be able to discern the difference between various restaurant service standards and cuisine levels. Few young guidebook writers have any idea about either. These writers are supposedly capable of assessing luxury hotel service extras vis-a-vis budget hotels. Few have experienced luxury standards that they have paid for with their own money.
The death of guidebooks: Young writers don’t have the necessary experience
Simply put, the travel writers who are updating or writing new guidebooks and the preponderance of their editors are not trained, nor experienced enough to make these kinds of decisions. While hiring underpaid writers to produce copy, publishers lose perspective.
These writers often make their minds up based on which hotels and restaurants treat them the best. This means, bluntly speaking, businesses that provide them their meals and lodging for free. Any real traveler who understands how much travel costs these days and who knows how much guidebook authors are paid can easily understand the need to collect as many “comps” as possible (comps are freebies).
The death of guidebooks: Lazy writers copy each other
So what happens? Recommendations are skewed by in-kind bribes, These suggestions are then copied by other overworked, unpaid writers of guidebooks. Often, marginal establishments which “bought their way” into a guidebook, find themselves included year after year in that series and in other books where authors crib their reviews.
Note: A lot of these practices are forbidden by many publishers; however, based on writers’ pay, expecting them to eschew freebies and press trips or special press rates is unrealistic. On the other hand, old-time travel writers who are eventually “bought off” by everyone in the business become the most trusted. Unlike young writers, they can’t be influenced by freebies when their entire travel life is, basically, free. They represent the experienced side of travel writers. A kind of Mexican-standoff integrity reigns.
The death of guidebooks: When editors and fact-checkers are involved more information is lost
Exacerbating this problem of plagiarized-then-reworded reviews is the phalanx of editors that stand between a writer and the final copy found in published guidebooks. Many times these editors consult other references and change the travel writer’s assessment.
Years ago, when writing a guidebook section about northern Spain, my copy was changed. The editor based the change on what she saw in Travel and Leisure magazine. The editor moved one of the magazine-recommended restaurants into my copy. The restaurant, right on the main square where tour buses parked, was overpriced, avoided by locals, full of tourists. It was only included in the magazine because it took American Express cards.
In another instance, editors changed my copy regarding the start of Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls. I noted that the run started at 8 a.m. The editors (never having visited the city) declared that I was wrong. They cited other guidebooks that stated the run started at 7 a.m. and, over my objections, changed the time. The old guidebooks were once-upon-a-time correct, but not when the editor changed my copy.
There is a place for guidebooks
Publishers need to reexamine the position of guidebooks. Before the utilitarian Europe-on-$5-a-day, Fielding and Fodor’s guidebooks were filled with hotel, restaurant, and sightseeing recommendations. The guidebooks were also focused on sights, history, and anecdotes.
I still gravitate back to those kinds of books when I travel. They add a depth and texture to travel. In real guidebooks, sightseeing is more than just seeing something in person rather than in a glossy book or on the TV or at the movies.
One of the reasons that Rick Steves’ guidebook series is so well received is his initial emphasis, together with his buddy Gene Openshaw, on art and history. Walks through the town and guided tours of museums made these books something special and different. Plus, the researchers actually visited smaller, affordable hotels and came up with a different and unique collection of lodging and accommodation suggestions. I still enjoy this series. Sadly, its dining and hotel recommendations are now packed with Rick Steves’ aficionados, But his walks, history, and museum tours with comments about individual pieces of art are well done.
Any veteran traveler knows that guidebooks have become basic copies of each other or collections of magazine articles. Most of us now delve into the Web to find up-to-date information about where to tour, dine, and stay. I use Michelin’s Red Guides for good hotels and restaurants — they are well researched. Any recommended business is worth its cost.
How guidebooks change will determine whether they survive the Internet age of instant information. Publishers need to give their approach a fresh look. Their publications should enhance and improve the travel experience rather than only do what online guides and social media can do better.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 11 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.