Overland to India in 1967
Update with Link
Saturday, May 04, 2013
Another Rant from Hell Holes Author
Chuck Thompson is the author of the just-released book, To Hellholes And Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism, a follow-up to his wickedly funny Smile When You’re Lying, a takedown of the travel writing business. So where are the hellholes? Congo, India, Mexico City and — “most feared of all,” Disney World. I asked him to explain.
What’s the common thread?
On the most basic level, they’re all places that have earned extremely negative reputations with people who have never been there. Taken together, they represent the whole spread of traveler paranoia — from crime, disease and bloodshed to standing in long lines in the Florida sun next to little Caitlins and Coopers waiting to get on the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith.
India’s death-or-glory salesmen and promise of GI infections intimidated me personally, but as a global outsourcing hub and magnet for terrorists, it neatly packages the worst economic, cultural and political fears of modern America. So, a book covering these places seemed like it would have both personal meaning and universal relevance.
What’s the point you were trying to make by visiting these places?
I didn’t start off with any point in mind other than to confront some of my own biases and see what happened. I try to approach everything I write about with as agnostic a mindset as possible, which, sadly, is not much the fashion these days.
The predictable and perhaps natural way to go into a project like this is to assume that you’ll come out at the other end with a cheery, hands-across-the-sea message of global brotherhood and a stern lesson about judging others from afar. But I went to these places willing to call a spade a spade. If my experience supported it, I was fully ready to say, “You know what? I was right. This place really does suck. This society is completely screwed up.”
What I finished with was something in between. The Congo and its ubiquitous AK-47s I never need to experience again. But I gained more respect for Miley Cyrus than I would have thought possible.
Of all these destinations, which one scared you the most?
Easily the Congo. For one, just the genuine threat of violence. I mean, there’s a civil war going on there.
But more than that, the complete lack of information was alarming. It turns out virtually nobody goes to the Congo. Consequently, it’s almost impossible to get an accurate idea about what’s going on there, how to get around, and so on. Even the major guidebooks devoted to Africa include only a few perfunctory pages about the country. And all the Africans I spoke to said, “Do not go to Congo under any circumstance!”
For a while I thought I’d have to abort the trip. Then I found Henri, who got me through the country, but turned out to be an adventure in and of himself.
It seems as if you’re saying as much about tourists — specifically American tourists — as you are about the destinations you visit. What are you trying to say?
My general point about American tourists is that by and large I think they’re pretty polite and open-minded and no worse than any other travelers and not at all deserving of that old “ugly American” tag.
The larger thing I discovered while traveling for this book is that while everyone seems to love bitching about the Americanization of the world — from McDonald’s to Disney to gluttonous consumerism — the reverse seems to be much more the case these days. The world is influencing America far more than America is influencing the world. And often not in a good way.
Political corruption essentially taken for granted. Religious intolerance. Municipal bankruptcy. Enfeebled currency. Military adventurism. Toothless media. In one section I used the dismal ascendancy of soccer in this country as a symbol for all of this social decay — which I know will get a lot of people thinking I’m an ass in the same way that I angered Eric Clapton fans by dumping on him in Smile When You’re Lying, but to me it’s an apt and sort of funny metaphor.
You seem to have laid off criticizing travel writing in this book, for the most part. Do you feel as if you made your point in your last book, or do you still have something to say about travel writing? If so, what is it?
I suppose I still have plenty to say about travel writing and much of it isn’t complimentary. But, yeah, I got a lot of that off my chest in Smile and so it seemed pointless to cover the same ground again.
Most tourists try to stay away from danger. Yet danger seems to be a character in this book. Should we fear danger? Or does it make for a more interesting vacation?
Sure, danger makes for a more interesting story, but I’m a tourist who enjoys a beach resort in Cabo as much as the next guy. I can have fun without danger.
But “fear” really is an interesting part of travel. In part I did want to make the point that all of these “official” and not-so official warnings about how dangerous the world is outside the United States are just plain dumb. No place is ever as bad as they tell you it’s going to be. Government bureaucrats are more concerned with covering their asses by issuing ludicrous “warnings” than with disseminating accurate situation reports.
I just got back from Cambodia. One travel advisory I looked at before going, which claimed to be quoting the U.S. State Department, told its readers never to get inside a tuk tuk or open taxi. What a joke. Tuk tuks are a perfectly reasonable way of getting around. It’s inconceivable to me that anyone who has been to Cambodia could possibly have written such nonsense.
A lot of travelers hardly leave the safety of their hotel rooms any more, and when they do, it’s to visit a guidebook-approved tourist trap. What do you think people miss when they vacation in that kind of a bubble?
They’re not missing anything more than the backpacker or adventure crowd is missing by not experiencing the gratis champagne service in first class or the sunset view of the Grand Canal from a suite in the Hotel Danieli in Venice.
To be honest, I’m pretty weary of this idea that luxury or package travel is somehow less authentic than couch surfing or backpacking or showing up in a Third World country and taking outdoor baths in plastic tubs with water dragged up from the river. Backpackers love getting their noses in the air about the legitimacy of their travel, as though the scumbags up the hill in their air-conditioned four stars are somehow not having a real cultural experience. All travel is authentic.
Captain Cook always had his own stateroom with feather pillows and silk sheets, he hobnobbed with the upper crust everywhere he went, he was a stickler for hygiene and never left home without a few cases of good port tucked away on the foredeck — and no one ever accused him of lacking for an adventurous spirit or authentic contact with the locals, what with discovering Australia and being hacked to death by natives in Hawaii and all.
Do you think you’ll ever return to any of the places you visited for your latest book?
Congo almost certainly not. India, maybe, if you paid my way. Disney World, yeah, but only with a kid in tow. Mexico City I’ve already been back to and am going back again in March. What a fantastic city, right up there with London and Hong Kong among my favorite oversized world cities. Mexico City was definitely the big surprise of this book for me. I could live there.
Is there a larger lesson about the world we live in that you want readers to take away from your book?
I make a few arch points in the epilogue, but mostly I just want people to laugh and be entertained. You know what one of my favorite things in the world is? A quick, funny, entertaining, easy read that can get me through a couple of three-hour flights without giving me a headache or boring the shit out of me. For travelers, that’s a valuable and rare commodity and it’s what I go for on every page of the book. If my stories and opinions keep readers engaged for those brutal, endless hours in coach, I’m happy, whether they care about my larger lessons or not.
Saturday, April 13, 2013
Bangkok Post Letters to the Editor
A very interesting thing occurred this past week. After reading letters about immigration problems, I thought I'd ask the immigration officer if I was eligible for permanent residence.
After all, I've lived in Thailand a quarter of my life span.
It looked easy enough. All I'd need to do is file an application with a fee of 7,600 baht. Well, the euphoria came to an abrupt end when I learned that this non-refundable application could only be filed during a 10-day window period sometime in November or December of each year, and limited to 100 applicants per nationality. If accepted, the applicant then pays an additional 191,000 baht for the ID card and blue book.
I divided the number of years I might have left to live by 191,000 baht and found that I'd be paying close to 8,000 baht per year in comparison to an annual retirement visa renewal at 1,900 baht per year.
I don't think that even those who could afford this extortionate fee are champing at the bit to obtain permanent resident status. It smells of a rip-off, and not many people want to be screwed out of their money, advantages or not. Aside from its Bangkok office, many offices are housed in ancient buildings without adequate space for either staff or applicants.
The AEC is just around the corner. While other Asean countries handle immigration and visas quite easily and conveniently, the Thai system is in desperate need of a top to bottom overhaul, with a rethink on all its policies.
The big questions are, will it happen, and, does anyone in the government really care?
Thursday, April 11, 2013
Tony Bourdain via Bon App, not Andrew Zimmern
Here's a funny interview/PR plug from CNN via Bon App with Tony Bourdain talking about his new show on CNN, but not mentioning the water thrown through the windows after the train leaves Yangoon. This show will obviously have much larger budgets than his efforts at his previous channel, which will remain unnamed, so we hope for the best. He's funny and a former junkie. What's not to love?
The folks at Bon App have apparently never heard of a paragraph or page break, so this is the unedited mess they posted on their website. Editors, where are you? Note: I've cleaned up most of the copy, and this is a much more readable post than the link I have provided above. Tony could care less, but I like to keep things clean.
Anthony Bourdain's new show, Parts Unknown, premieres on CNN this Sunday. And right from the get-go, it's a little more ambitious than No Reservations, his long-running show on the Travel Channel. The first season has Bourdain traveling to places like Burma, Libya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not exactly anyone's idea of a dream vacation.
The show itself sounds fascinating, but when you're trying to make television in locations that are that war-ridden, remote, and possibly dangerous--Bourdain has already called the Congo episode "the most terrifying, stressful, physically difficult shoot of my life"--you know there have to be some good behind-the-scene stories.
So we called up Tom Vitale, the director who went with Bourdain to shoot the Burma, Libya, Congo, and Spain episodes of Parts Unknown, to ask a few questions about what it's like to make a food show in some of the world's most precarious locations.
What was the biggest punch you had to roll with for this new season?
Burma is sort of just opening up right now, and there are a lot of tourists going there. Not a lot compared to any other country in the region, but the infrastructure in Burma is totally not capable of handling the people who want to go. So even though we planned very early, we couldn't get plane tickets for the whole crew to get to Bagan, Burma's ancient capital. Which meant that half of us had to take an overnight train, which I thought was pretty cool, and we could actually film that. We were told it was a ten-and-a-half-hour ride, but it ended up being 19 hours, all pure terror. It seemed like there had been no work on the infrastructure there since the British left. We were bouncing around so much, it was a million times more terrifying, exciting, and fun than any roller coaster you would go on. We've been on a lot of old trains around the world, but this one certainly takes the cake. You would literally fly out of your seat when it was going fast, bouncing over twisted, warped, tracks with old train carriages. We had sleeping cars, and you'd wake up in mid-air only to, two seconds later, whack back down into your berth.
Was it hard to shoot in Burma?
Because they have this repressive government in Burma, we thought it would be hard to shoot there, but the access there was very cool. We had no minder, at least as far as we could tell, unlike China.
"As far as you could tell"?
The only reason I say "as far as we could tell" is that we were shocked that nobody seemed to be watching us. I mean, even just a couple years ago, if you were seen talking to a westerner in Burma, someone would take down your name, and there would be a knock on your door at 2 in the morning.
Do you typically have government minders?
In nicer places, like Vietnam, without as much political strife, you always have a minder, it's just one of those communist things. But there didn't seem to be one in Burma, unless it was someone who was very sophisticated and never got in our way. But it's sort of paranoid to think that was happening. They knew where we were going, and we stayed in the confines of the tourist triangle, not the ethnic regions on the border, where fighting's still going on.
It was really just shocking there, not just because the government wasn't involved but because the people were so involved. If you compare Burma to some places in Eastern Europe where they haven't had a communist government in 20 years but people are still paranoid, people in Burma were so open with us. We went in prepared for people to button up anytime politics came up, but that did not happen at all.
How did the decision get made to shoot in the Congo?
Part of the reason Tony's always wanted to go there is because of Heart of Darkness, which was written about the Congo River itself. Tony was a sort of armchair traveler long before he dreamt that he would see the world, and he likes a real literary adventure. So the Congo was always on his list because people wouldn't think it was possible, or give us money to go there, which made him want to go all the more. So we started in Goma, you have to go through Rwanda to get to the eastern part of the country, and then went to Kisangani, which was Inner Station, where Kurtz was, though that was obviously a long time ago. It's a big city now.
What was filming in the Democratic Republic of the Congo like?
Congo was definitely one of the more challenging locations we've worked in, but we had a great fixing team of locals who helped us get what we want. Goma was a really heartbreaking place that made Port-au-Prince in Haiti look like Club Med; I was surprised by how rough that was. But Kisangani, in the center of the country, it was still an unstable place, definitely, but one of the big surprises was how nice and friendly everyone was, considering all the shit they've had to deal with, for, I mean, 100 years.
What was the food like?
Congo is not a food lover's land, but the piri-piri peppers were excellent, spicy. There' s a lot of grilled meat you'll have, because it's one of the safe ways to not get sick, because it's cooked right there in front of you. The lack of plumbing in a place like the Congo presents a lot of issues when it comes to food safety. We never got sick, but we're all pretty good at that. You have to have a cast-iron stomach to make it on this show.
In more remote locations like that, does the crew tend to draw crowds?
In a place like the Congo, on the street, you do draw a lot of attention and people do swarm the cameras at that point, but going back to how we roll with the punches, we got a lot of interesting footage trying to get regular street scenes. Within 30 seconds, there would be about 50 kids trying to get up in the camera lens, so it just becomes a part of the show.
In Europe, nobody cares, which makes it a very easy place to film. In Asia, people know who Tony is because he's very popular there. You have a problem with people interrupting scenes for an autograph or picture. He's very gracious about it, more so than me--I just want to get back to shooting. In Congo, it wasn't about us, it was just six white people, which is a pretty rare sight for them, especially with cameras, at least in Kisangani. Goma gets more foreigners, but really very few people go to Kisangani.
Have people ever really harassed the crew, or tried to steal equipment?
The only time I've ever had a camera stolen was in Naples, and we're talking 70 shows at least. It was in the back of the van, and the driver was supposed to be watching things, but he was on the phone or something--the city is notorious for pickpockets, anyway.
Do you get much hostility from the people who live where you're filming?
In general, people treat us really really well, even in places where they don't particularly like Americans. I think it comes back to the food: we're interested in being there, we're not going there to exploit people. Tony generally wants to share a meal with people, and food is how a lot of people express a better part of themselves.
Europe is probably one of the places where we're not treated as nicely, not that we're treated poorly, but nobody cares. There's a lot of "You're not going to inconvenience our restaurant, I don't care about your TV show."
How about in Libya?
Libya was a shockingly friendly place. I think because for so long, Qaddafi was telling everyone how awful the West was and how evil they were, and everyone was just so sick of Qaddafi. Western culture in Libya, unlike some other places in the Middle East, is viewed as a beacon of freedom. We went to one restaurant, Uncle Kentaki, it was a complete rip-off of KFC-slash-McDonald's, such a bizarre place. And you see people really gravitating towards western culture there, you see that in the music and what people are wearing.
How was the food there?
When you say Libya, people think of a desert country, but most of the population is on the Mediterranean coast, and it just has this amazing bounty of unbelievable seafood. We killed, or, not we personally, but we killed a sheep at a barbecue in Misrata, which was a lot of fun. And they actually have pasta--some people claim that it's where pasta was invented, but it's more likely a holdover from the days of Italian colonialism under Mussolini. We had a very interesting sheep ragu pasta.
What's it like making a food show in places where some people might not have enough to go around?
Well, there's food everywhere. Even in the Congo, people are still eating. The question is, is it varied and different, will it look good on TV, is it colorful, will people watching at home think I want to eat that versus That's brown mush. In a place like Congo, people are eating, but they don't really have the luxury to have a lot of fun with the food. That was the thing about Burma, the country's quite poor, but still the food that we saw people eating there was really, really good. People put a lot of thought and effort into it.
Are there any places you've shot that you definitely want to go back to?
Vietnam is probably one of the most magical places I've ever been, and I'd definitely relish the opportunity to go back there anytime. There might be one day when this magical trip around the world ends, and I do something other than stay in my own bed for vacation. When you do what I do for a living, getting on an airplane is not what you do on vacation. Especially because I'm terrified of flying.
You're terrified of flying?!
Half of the crew is. That's often the most nerve-racking part of a shoot, just getting on Cathay Pacific to go to Hong Kong.
How have you stayed in this job for so long?
Compared to somebody giving you an all-expenses-paid ticket around the world, the fear isn't that bad. You just have to get over it. The fear of flying is definitely awful, and doesn't get any better, but I wouldn't let it stop me from going somewhere.
Does it mean that you tend to go for more car rides than small prop plane flights, though?
Generally the smaller planes are a little less terrifying, because you're not in this tube 70 rows back from the pilot in this claustrophobic way. The exception is places like the Congo or the Amazon where bad weather factors in, because bad weather in a small plane is really fucking terrifying.
We took a really weird prop plane in Congo, because Congo has something like the worst commercial aviation safety record on the planet. Planes go down all the time, it's really bad there. When we were trying to get from Kisangani back to Goma, we had three options: a commercial plane, a private plane, or drive. Driving was not going to work, because it takes four days through all kinds of rebel-controlled areas. And our fixer, Dan McCabe, who's a documentary filmmaker working in the Congo, asked us: "Do you want to be in a Boeing going 500 miles an hour when you crash, or a bush plane going 75?"
So we chose the bush plane. It was a very old airplane, and they told us that it was formerly Queen Victoria's flying wardrobe, which would carry her clothes when she flew around the world. That is clearly not true, since Queen Victoria died in 1901, before airplanes were invented. So then they updated it to Queen Elizabeth's flying wardrobe, but we haven't been able to verify. It was a really strange plane, just a box.
Did the flight go okay?
We had a great pilot, but just as we were about to take off, this intense thunderstorm rolled up, so we had to get out. We made it to Goma, but three days later, a big commercial plane crashed right into the city in similar weather, very close to the hotel we were staying in. So we were quite happy we took the bush plane.
Are there any locations where you still want to go, but can't?
Iran and North Korea are probably places we definitely can't go. But CNN really does open up a lot of doors, as far as what they have an appetite for, like Libya and Congo. But Tony doesn't really want to go to places just because they're dangerous, he wants to go because there's a story to tell, or a place that fascinated him. I'm sure a place like North Korea would be very interesting, but the government would have to fall first, because they're very strict about film crews. There wouldn't be much of a point in going now--there would be a minder, and they would show us a very limited cross section of the country. We do our best work when we're down with the people.
The first episode of Parts Unknown, which takes Bourdain (and Tom) to Bruma, airs this Sunday at 9 PM on CNN.
Read More http://www.bonappetit.com/blogsandforums/blogs/badaily/2013/04/bourdain-behind-the-scenes.html#ixzz2QD4mr0kC
Baghdad Burning Iraqi reporter has returned after a 7 year absence. Welcome back!
Riverbend Returns to the World Stage
Tuesday, April 09, 2013
Ten Years On...
April 9, 2013 marks ten years since the fall of Baghdad. Ten years since the invasion. Since the lives of millions of Iraqis changed forever. It’s difficult to believe. It feels like only yesterday I was sharing day to day activities with the world. I feel obliged today to put my thoughts down on the blog once again, probably for the last time.
In 2003, we were counting our lives in days and weeks. Would we make it to next month? Would we make it through the summer? Some of us did and many of us didn't.
Back in 2003, one year seemed like a lifetime ahead. The idiots said, “Things will improve immediately.” The optimists were giving our occupiers a year, or two… The realists said, “Things won’t improve for at least five years.” And the pessimists? The pessimists said, “It will take ten years. It will take a decade.”
Looking back at the last ten years, what have our occupiers and their Iraqi governments given us in ten years? What have our puppets achieved in this last decade? What have we learned? We learned a lot. We learned that while life is not fair, death is even less fair- it takes the good people. Even in death you can be unlucky. Lucky ones die a ‘normal’ death… A familiar death of cancer, or a heart-attack, or stroke. Unlucky ones have to be collected in bits and pieces. Their families trying to bury what can be salvaged and scraped off of streets that have seen so much blood, it is a wonder they are not red.
We learned that you can be floating on a sea of oil, but your people can be destitute. Your city can be an open sewer; your women and children can be eating out of trash dumps and begging for money in foreign lands. We learned that justice does not prevail in this day and age. Innocent people are persecuted and executed daily. Some of them in courts, some of them in streets, and some of them in the private torture chambers.
We are learning that corruption is the way to go. You want a passport issued? Pay someone. You want a document ratified? Pay someone. You want someone dead? Pay someone. We learned that it’s not that difficult to make billions disappear. We are learning that those amenities we took for granted before 2003, you know- the luxuries – electricity, clean water from faucets, walkable streets, safe schools – those are for deserving populations. Those are for people who don’t allow occupiers into their country.
We’re learning that the biggest fans of the occupation (you know who you are, you traitors) eventually leave abroad. And where do they go? The USA, most likely, with the UK a close second. If I were an American, I’d be outraged. After spending so much money and so many lives, I’d expect the minor Chalabis and Malikis and Hashimis of Iraq to, well, stay in Iraq. Invest in their country. I’d stand in passport control and ask them, “Weren’t you happy when we invaded your country? Weren’t you happy we liberated you? Go back. Go back to the country you’re so happy with because now, you’re free!”
We’re learning that militias aren’t particular about who they kill. The easiest thing in the world would be to say that Shia militias kill Sunnis and Sunni militias kill Shia, but that’s not the way it works. That’s too simple. We’re learning that the leaders don’t make history. Populations don’t make history. Historians don’t write history. News networks do. The Foxes, and CNNs, and BBCs, and Jazeeras of the world make history. They twist and turn things to fit their own private agendas. We’re learning that the masks are off. No one is ashamed of the hypocrisy anymore. You can be against one country (like Iran), but empowering them somewhere else (like in Iraq). You can claim to be against religious extremism (like in Afghanistan), but promoting religious extremism somewhere else (like in Iraq and Egypt and Syria).
Those who didn’t know it in 2003 are learning (much too late) that an occupation is not the portal to freedom and democracy. The occupiers do not have your best interests at heart. We are learning that ignorance is the death of civilized societies and that everyone thinks their particular form of fanaticism is acceptable. We are learning how easy it is to manipulate populations with their own prejudices and that politics and religion never mix, even if a super-power says they should mix.
But it wasn’t all a bad education…
We learned that you sometimes receive kindness when you least expect it. We learned that people often step outside of the stereotypes we build for them and surprise us. We learned and continue to learn that there is strength in numbers and that Iraqis are not easy to oppress. It is a matter of time…
And then there are things we'd like to learn...
Ahmed Chalabi, Iyad Allawi, Ibrahim Jaafari, Tarek Al Hashemi and the rest of the vultures, where are they now? Have they crawled back under their rocks in countries like the USA, the UK, etc.? Where will Maliki be in a year or two? Will he return to Iran or take the millions he made off of killing Iraqis and then seek asylum in some European country? Far away from the angry Iraqi masses…
What about George Bush, Condi, Wolfowitz, and Powell? Will they ever be held accountable for the devastation and the death they wrought in Iraq? Saddam was held accountable for 300,000 Iraqis... Surely someone should be held accountable for the million or so?
Finally, after all is said and done, we shouldn't forget what this was about - making America safer... And are you safer Americans? If you are, why is it that we hear more and more about attacks on your embassies and diplomats? Why is it that you are constantly warned to not go to this country or that one? Is it better now, ten years down the line? Do you feel safer, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis out of the way (granted half of them were women and children, but children grow up, right?)?
And what happened to Riverbend and my family? I eventually moved from Syria. I moved before the heavy fighting, before it got ugly. That’s how fortunate I was. I moved to another country nearby, stayed almost a year, and then made another move to a third Arab country with the hope that, this time, it’ll stick until… Until when? Even the pessimists aren’t sure anymore. When will things improve? When will be able to live normally? How long will it take?
For those of you who are disappointed reality has reared its ugly head again, go to Fox News, I'm sure they have a reportage that will soothe your conscience.
For those of you who have been asking about me and wondering how I have been doing, I thank you. "Lo khuliyet, qulibet..." Which means "If the world were empty of good people, it would end." I only need to check my emails to know it won't be ending any time soon.
Monday, April 08, 2013
Link to Original Story
Google has bought Frommers. That rang a bell: an industry insider told me recently that Penguin quietly tried to sell Rough Guides to Frommers a couple of years ago, but “wanted too much” for it. Ho-hum. Travel publishing is in a really tricky place.
Now I’m not an industry analyst, and I’m not in travel tech, so if you want reasoned, insightful comment, stop reading now and click the links. I’m just a guidebook author. I whinge.
Disclosure: I’ve never written for Frommers. Apart from a bit of freelance editing, in 17 years I’ve never worked for any travel publishers other than Rough Guides.
Back when I started, Rough Guides were huge. They had massive brand recognition in the UK, chiefly on the back of the “Rough Guide to…” TV series – presented most famously by Magenta Devine and Sankha Guha – which ran in the late 80s & early 90s, catching people’s imagination like no TV travel show (arguably, no travel idea in any media) before or since. Lonely Planet had books everywhere, of course, but they were kind of boring, a bit earnest and mundane.
Lonely Planet was Microsoft. Rough Guide was Apple.
Then the Rough Guide founders sold the company to Penguin Books in a two-stage deal, completed in 2002. In ten years since, Penguin killed the brand. Rough Guides went from being a big fish in the small sea of travel publishing to a minnow in the ocean that is the Pearson media conglomerate. Penguin already owned DK, with a huge and globally successful travel brand of its own; RGs became an add-on, with fewer resources and a succession of managing directors who tried to crowbar it into a corporate strategy that was less and less interested in anything that didn’t sell in Jamie Oliver quantities.
Sales reps had bigger fish to fry than the 7th edition of the RG to Farflungistan, so the books – frustratingly, virtually impossible to find outside the UK anyway – began to fade from view in their home market. Cartography and other production processes were hived off to Penguin’s Delhi office: cheaper, but not better. Spinoff pocket guide series came, failed and went. Every year or two came another promise to revamp the RG website to bring it up to LP’s standard; it never happened. RGs remain pretty much invisible online. Ebooks? Digital publishing of any kind? Electronic rights? Negligible.
Those ten years have poleaxed RGs, turning it from a leader into a follower. There’s been a cull of titles, with several dozen 2012/2013 updates “postponed” (read: cancelled): one desperate author has had five of his six titles pulled. The website remains an embarrassment, with the promise of something better to be unveiled, er, sometime soon. The books have been redesigned, though – RGs now feature colour pictures throughout, just like it’s 2003.
The thing that made Rough Guides cool (or, if you prefer, successful) – the voice – has gone. Authors are punch-drunk. Editors are overworked. Even though guidebooks remain trusted (intriguingly, see here for an opposite spin) their raison d’etre has been called into question. What travel brands are cool? None. Content isn’t cool anymore: there’s too much of it.
Devices are cool. Content is just content.
Saturday, April 06, 2013
Link to Travel Writers Wanted
Welcome to the fourth installment of the “Worst travel writing jobs” series. This doozy is so doozicable that I could write 500 words on the absurdity of the title alone, but it gets better.
Write 3000 unique articles on Travel, Entertainment, Beauty and Shopping topics
Only 3000? Because I was just thinking the other day that there aren’t nearly enough articles about travel, entertainment, beauty and shopping on the internet. And is it just me or could the divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes benefit from a little delving?
Write 3000 unique articles on Travel, Entertainment, Beauty and Shopping topics (IT, PORT, DUTCH LANGUAGES).
Just to clarify, you want 3000 articles on a wide variety of topics in three languages? Off the top of my head, I’d say this job will take a team of six highly skilled polyglots about 6.5 months to complete, assuming no one takes vacation or gets sick or sneaks off for a giant poo.
Each article must be different, between 250 and 3300 words each. No repetition in articles, no spinning, scraping or similar.
But ‘scrinning’ is cool, right? How about ‘spaping’?
All articles must be written in English. Each article must pass Copyscape Premium, be free of grammar and spelling errors. Example topics include the following, but more will be added along the fields mentioned.
Grammar and spelling errors be deal breakers, but incoherence along the fields mentioned is donkey?
Please PM a sample article on one of the above topics otherwise your bid will not be considered. Any articles submitted will have its copyright pass to me upon lodging your bid.
You’re claiming copyright of the sample article I submit on the outside chance you bestow this monster job on me?
OK, fine. Here’s my original, unique sample article that you now own:
“Experts say shopping for beauty while traveling is good entertainment. Studies have shown that entertaining shopping is good for beauty and travel, but too much entertaining beauty is travel shopping.”
Do I get the gig?
Forty-six days to write 3000 articles? That’s just over 65 articles per day. Good thing I have Mr. Spock, Commander Data and Rain Man chained to desks in my basement, or this job might seem unreasonable. Still, turnaround is a bit tight. I’ll feed them energy drinks every hour for luck.
Payment will be $1 per article – so $3000 for 3000 articles. Please only bid if you accept this pay rate.
OK, forget the energy drinks. I’ll just force feed them sugar water and expired peanuts.
Payment will be made for articles upon completion.
So, essentially you want 3000 articles written on spec? No one in the history of the written word has ever accepted those terms, but OK.
Also we need same amount of articles to be produced in the following languages
- Portugues (Brazil)
Good call on getting those 3000 articles written in Dutch. That will like, what?, literally double the number of articles written in Dutch on the internet? Ka-ching!
A former Wall Street Journal writer talks about the state of writing today.
Former WSJ Writer at CJR
For several years as an editor at The Wall Street Journal I was invited by my college alumni association to speak about journalism to undergrads at the group’s annual Career Night. This involved a panel discussion with three or four others in the field talking about what we did, how we did it and—of primary interest to the audience—how we got our first jobs.
My regular panel mates worked at CBS News, The New Yorker, and the AP, and they’d talk about great stories they’d covered and great places they’d been on the company dime. When it was my turn, I felt it was important to paint a more realistic picture for people just starting in the business, so my advice was that they could learn everything they needed to know about my field—newspapers—by reading Sherlock Holmes.
In The Man With the Twisted Lip, the great detective solves the case of a guy who has “disappeared” in London. Neville St. Clair was a reporter who disguised himself as a disfigured beggar to research a story on life in the streets. He set up shop near the Bank of England, capered and quoted Shakespeare, and he quickly found he could make far more money panhandling than as a journalist. So without telling his wife, he quit the paper and became a beggar full time, moving his family to the suburbs and commuting to “business interests” in the city.
On hearing this and its relation to the laughable pay and benefits at the small papers where they’d likely land their first jobs, most of the kids hustled down the hall to workshops on med school and investment banking.
But not everyone. College grads still flock into journalism—or at least until very recently they did—ambitious, well-educated, and hopeful that despite the career carnage all around them they’ll be the exception to the rule. They’ll wrangle internships at big papers and get hired by small ones, where they’ll get direction but little training at a bit over minimum wage when calculated by the hours they’re expected to work, supplying their own cars and, at many papers out in flyover country, even their own cameras. Some will make it, some won’t, and the beat goes on.
Despite this kind of dedication—or stupidity—by the worker bees, many publishers these days find they still can’t make a buck. Gradually, this is an industry that has collapsed into itself. Long enjoying monopoly markets, low levels of debt, high profit margins, and an apparently bottomless labor pool, most publishers were loath to give up a good thing, and consequently failed to recognize the forces for change building around them. When they did, they often reacted with half measures or they over-reacted, lurching from fad to fad hoping for salvation: hyperlocal coverage, “civic journalism,” ads on the front page, “sponsored” news pages on issues of interest to local advertisers, joint ventures with local broadcast outlets, blogs, blogs on blogs, the list goes on. Trendiness, thy name is Gannett.
Amid all the angst and hand wringing, though, I keep reminding myself it’s the business model that’s failed, not the journalism. In a fully wired, 24/7 world, news has never been more available and probably has never been more important than now. The audience—readers, listeners, people—still look for and respond to information on developments that affect them, their families, or their communities. And the press’s watchdog role is still vital to the workings of government and democracy. Surrounded by a free press, Americans can be unmindful or even neglectful of it. But those who doubt its importance need only look to Tibet, Cuba, or Zimbabwe.
Friday, April 05, 2013
Another Look at the Nate Thayer Story
I've written before about the outrageous proposal made to writer Nate Thayer by The Atlantic, which expected him to write for free. He politely told them to go fuck themselves. Writers, professional writers, make their living by charging reasonable fees for their work, and they never give away their work for free, for fame, for internet distribution.
People who make their living by writing for publication had good reason to follow the recent hoo-hah over publishers who think paying writers for their work is optional.
What happened was that The Atlantic magazine, a marquee name in the world of words, approached a well-established freelancer named Nate Thayer and asked him about "repurposing" work he'd done for an online site, NKNews.org. The Atlantic was interested in a 1,200-word rendering of a longer article of Thayer's pegged to ex-basketball star Dennis Rodman's bizarre visit to North Korea.
When Thayer asked about terms, the magazine indicated it wasn't proposing to actually pay him, at least not in cash money, but noted that its website reached 13 million readers per month, suggesting that exposure on that scale is worth a lot.
Thayer wasn't persuaded. He replied: "I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for-profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children."
Word of the affair zipped around the Internet, triggering a flood of comment. The Atlantic apologized "if we offended him" - the way institutions apologise without contrition - and in the aftermath, dozens of other journalists chipped in their own tales of the wretched treatment and soup-kitchen pay they get, even from flourishing websites.
It's not much consolation to point out that for the most part, they still get something,
unlike, say, professors. The latest indignity from publishers of academic journals, it seems, is to make writers pay them to have articles posted online. For junior-college faculty - who need not only to publish but to be cited by other scholars in order to qualify for advancement - the threat of being kept offline is like having their careers held for ransom. And incidentally, they get no money from print publication either. Not a dime.
Getting back to the Thayer affair, the arguments over rights and wrongs pivoted on fairness, on the demise of professionalism, on the benefits of a higher profile, on the long-term consequences of underpayment on the volume and quality of significant journalism.
But I want to drag another consideration into the foreground: If the publications aren't paying for the journalism they publish, who is? I mean, all labour incurs costs. Somewhere in our marvellous market system, those costs are being covered. Somebody's paying to feed Nate Thayer's kids, even if The Atlantic won't.
So we meet, once again, the insidious problem of hidden subsidy, one of the most perplexing ethical problems of journalism in the Internet age. True, undisclosed subsidy is a long-standing issue. It popped up in the op-ed pages of traditional newspapers. There, articles written by outsiders for little or no pay offered policy perspectives under the guise of expert analysis, when they actually were sponsored by clients and paymasters who were rarely identified (and often weren't even known).
The arrangement opens vast areas of potential corruption. But now, with the continuing failure of online advertising and subscription payments to replace declining offline revenues, publishers have quietly installed invisible subsidy as a routine, and unacknowledged, element of their operations.
Those writers who are being denied a fair wage for their work - who's paying their rent? Someone is. They're making money from somewhere. And it's that money that gives them the wherewithal to produce the journalism they're not being paid enough for.
So which of their stories are thank-yous to previous clients, or concessions to existing ones, or auditions for work they hope to get in the future? Those are questions about ethics, but, more important, they are acknowledgements of the reality these freelancers are trying to negotiate.
And they're questions that force onto centre stage a fundamental problem that won't be set right until the people who are being served - that's you - start paying for what they get. The readers and viewers who benefit from the news and commentary they devour need to pick up the tab, instead of letting themselves be beguiled by the fiction that such work is "free", or is magically proffered by invisible benefactors with no agendas of their own.
There are bills that have to be paid. The reality is, one way or another we end up paying. We can pay with money, and some outlets are inviting people to do just that. The alternative is to pay through a continuing decline in the quality and trustworthiness of the content we get. That's the invisible cost we're all bearing right now.
Hobo Traveler at Machu Picchu
Andy, the Hobo Traveler, has been on the road for over 15 years, perhaps the longest of any living human being. I once watched his video as he walked down Khao San Road in Bangkok, and thought it was brilliant.
Andy Lee Graham, aka Hobo Traveler Bio
Andy's Hobo Traveler Blog Homepage
Andy, the Hobo Traveler, has been on the road for over 15 years, perhaps the longest of any living human being. I once watched his video as he walked down Khao San Road in Bangkok, and thought it was brilliant.
Andy Lee Graham, aka Hobo Traveler Bio
Andy's Hobo Traveler Blog Homepage
Andy Lee Graham from Orland, Indiana USA is Homeless
I have written over 7000 commentaries about the world on this page. You can learn the truth about the world by reading this page. I want to enjoy life, and everything that life offers. I plan on wandering slowly around the whole world, with no plan, on when, and where I will be. I will collect topics, ideas, experiences, and friends, that will teach me what is important to travelers.
Always taking the time to enjoy my adventure. I will not allow time, to rule, but will change the route, or go slower if necessary to enjoy my discoveries. I will make a "Hobo home on the internet" where all travelers, for free can find information about traveling anywhere in the world. Providing a forum for travelers to submit information.
There are many reasons why people travel and I encounter different types of travelers daily with a big world of differences. HoboTraveler.com and other Hobo sites is your home for travel. I invite you! This site is not for sale, it is for people to find some Hobo truth.
I am Andy Lee Graham from Orland, Indiana in the USA, I started traveling in March of 1998, and I live the good life, it a life of luxury, on a Hobo Budget. I have now traveled perpetually for the for 15 years and visited 90 countries. I am grateful to the good Gods for allow me this lifestyle, to live abroad and spend my days walking around looking at our beautiful planet.
I am not "Crazy," I am a World Citizen work Location Independent.
I am an endlessly curious person, and have the self-esteem to handle the world on the world's terms, I do not need a home, car, and daily routine to be happy. I can find reasonably priced places to live at lighting speed because of my travel skills, and live within my mean in any city on the planet.
Andy Lee Graham (Born October 25, 1955) is an American "Extreme Adventure Traveler," travel writer, and photographer. Graham is CEO of Dot-com company, location independent HoboTraveler.com Travel Network of 100 live abroad expatriate portals. Graham became a perpetual traveler in March, 1998, and has visited 90 countries.
How Andy Graham Started to Travel?
I, Andy Lee Graham became homeless after a six-week Christmas trip to Acapulco, Mexico. While lying in a hammock I realized I never wanted to go home. Confused and excited I returned to the USA, sold all my possessions and took off to visit new friends in other countries. Unknown to me, Andy Graham at the time, is that travel is an addiction, after six month I knew I was hooked and after two years, it was hopeless. 14 years later, I am still perpetually wandering the planet.
Graham travels the world 365 days per year "Chronicling the real world" with photos, videos and daily missives about his journey on his
Andy Lee Graham writes a Free Daily Travel Blog
Andy writes free travel reports, stories, photos, videos, and travel tips for readers explaining the geopolitical and cultural differences of countries from the eyes of an Indiana Farm Boy. He funds his travel by revenue received from Google Adsense.
Andy Graham of HoboTraveler.com has Travel Blogged 7000 times, and written 211 Newsletters, and uploaded over 20,000 photos, and 600 plus videos to the Internet. Andy Graham of HoboTraveler.com is homeless, he has made a "Hobo Home on the Road," and he lives a "Life Less Normal," one of the few perpetual travelers on Planet Earth. Many people go live in other countries; however few earn enough money to continuously travel, he says, "if you stay in one city longer than three months, you live there, you have stopped traveling."
Thursday, April 04, 2013
Tnooz on the Frommer Sale back to Arthur
More discussions on the sale of Frommer's printed guidebooks back to Arthur himself, with comment input from some of the biggest players in the guidebook world.
The Frommers journey has come full circle, as the company’s original founder Arthur Frommer has re-taken the helm of the brand he created back in 1957.
With the Frommer’s Facebook page dormant since February, the brand sure could use a little reinvigoration. The powers-that-be at Google have pretty much brought the brand to full radio silence as they integrated all of the content they purchased into the Google+ Local product over the past few months.
A Google spokesperson sent over the following statement:
We’re focused on providing high-quality local information to help people quickly discover and share great places, like a nearby restaurant or the perfect vacation destination. That’s why we’ve spent the last several months integrating the travel content we acquired from Wiley into Google+ Local and our other Google services. We can confirm that we have returned the Frommer’s brand to its founder and are licensing certain travel content to him.
Now that the content has been integrated into the product, Google has sold the company back to its founder. The terms of the deal were undisclosed, but it’s very clear that Frommer intends to continue the print line of books moving forward.
Arthur Frommer told the Associated Press that he was looking forward to getting started again after selling the brand to Simon & Schuster in 1977. It’s a very happy time for me. We will be publishing the Frommer travel guides in ebook and print formats and will also be operating the travel site Frommers.com.
It appears that he did not purchase all assets, and that Google will continue to own certain content that will then be licensed back to Frommer’s. What content will be licensed to Frommer remains unclear.
Guidebook Writer Guidelines
The Guidebook Conundrum via The Economist
More stuff on the travel guidebook crisis
The Guidebook Conundrum via The Economist
More stuff on the travel guidebook crisis
LAST month, just days after the BBC announced the sale of Lonely Planet to a wealthy American investor for an £80m ($121m) loss, Google quietly signed the death sentence for the print publication of Frommer's guidebooks. The remaining portion of the brand will be digested into the corners of the Google network, and the once-famous guidebook series will soon cease to exist.
In an era of pop-up restaurants and 140-character updates, guidebook publishing has suffered hugely. Both business and casual travellers do ever more of their trip research online, where sites like Tripadvisor and Wikivoyage can provide free data quickly and precisely. The resulting decrease in book-buying has been disastrous for the publishers. Frommer's US sales dropped from $34m to $18m between 2006 and 2012. Lonely Planet's dropped from $25m to $18m over the same period. Combine those sales figures with the high costs of research and the guidebook-publishing industry's demise looks certain.
Yet there remains some demand for expert travel advice from non-digital sources. Many travellers, particularly those lacking expensive international mobile data plans or access to an internet connection, still rely on physical guidebooks to research and navigate a destination. For example, Chris McGinnis, the editor of the Bay Area Traveler Blog, says he still takes portions of guidebooks with him when visiting a new destination. “Most busy business travellers just want the facts, fast,” he explains. “They don’t always have time to pick through the get-what-you-pay-for free or user-generated sites. Ripping a few pertinent pages out of an edited, fact-checked guidebook and packing them into my carry-on bag still serves me well. But I'm slowly replacing those ripped-up guidebooks with digital versions stored on my iPad.”
The value provided by a well-researched guidebook is precisely why their buyers are willing to pay the extra few dollars for curated content. “Accurate, quality content and information is always in demand,” Daniel Houghton, the new COO of Lonely Planet, told Gulliver. As part of the editorial process, guidebook writers take special measures to review a hotel or restaurant in objective terms. Reviews from sites like Tripadvisor or Yelp, conversely, can be influenced by a host of external factors.
To be successful in the future, guidebooks will need to manage the tricky balance between the content they provide for nothing online and the material they supply in book form, while making both separately profitable. Lonely Planet puts the majority of its content in its physical guidebooks or downloadable products, while hosting a spectrum of digital articles and a community online. Frommer’s, conversely, put the entirety of its guidebook content on the web for nothing; but the growth in its online revenues did not keep pace with the decline in book sales.
Jason Clampet, online editor at Frommer's prior to its sale to Google, explained, “Guidebook companies know that growth will come from digital, but they're all legacy print operations paralysed by fiefdoms and an older skill set. In the same way that we see lots of digital start-ups fall flat on their faces when they try content, old-school content companies just bumble when it comes to digital.” Until there’s a better way for travellers to use guidebook data on their devices, many will continue to shop at their local bookstore for a physical guidebook. But as data plans improve and digital devices evolve, the guidebook publishers will need to adapt to survive.
This Kid is the New Ruler at Lonely Planet
Lonely Planet was recently sold by the BBC at staggering loss to an American billionaire who made his money selling discounted cheap smokes to Americans hooked on nicotine. He now has a new team in Nashville eager to smoke LP and marry it to new technology. Their biolines show almost no background experience, but plenty of bravado. Go figure.
NC2 Home Website
Arthur Frommer and Daughter Pauline
Google Buys Frommer, Ends Printed Guides, then Sells the Whole Mess back to Arthur
What in the world is going on with Frommer's Guides and Arthur himself? This is starting to sound like a bad parody from The Onion. Where is the travel guru gonna get enough money to restart printed travel guidebooks? I assume he is doing OK, but this is an enormous endevour, God Bless you Arthur, but you have now promised dreams beyond your bounds.
Google Buys Frommer, Ends Printed Guides, then Sells the Whole Mess back to Arthur
What in the world is going on with Frommer's Guides and Arthur himself? This is starting to sound like a bad parody from The Onion. Where is the travel guru gonna get enough money to restart printed travel guidebooks? I assume he is doing OK, but this is an enormous endevour, God Bless you Arthur, but you have now promised dreams beyond your bounds.
Arthur Frommer, the avuncular, erudite travel icon who 57 years ago inspired a generation of cost-conscious Americans to pack their bags withEurope on 5 Dollars a Day, is taking back control of his travel guidebook brand from Google and intends to resume publishing Frommer guidebooks.
"It's a very happy time for me," Frommer, 83, told The Associated Press. "We will be publishing the Frommer travel guides in ebook and print formats and will also be operating the travel site Frommers.com."
Skift.com reported last month that Google - which had purchased the Frommer brand from Wiley last year for a reported $22 million - was "quietly pulling the plug" on print publication of Frommer travel guides.
Financial terms of the deal between Frommer and Google, which is using Frommer's content on Google Plus Local and other services, were not disclosed.
The move comes during a turbulent time for the print guidebook industry, which is facing stiff competition from such user-generated alternatives as TripAdvisor and Yelp. Last month, BBC Worldwide agreed to sell Lonely Planet to a Nashville-based digital media company for less than half what it paid for the company in 2007.
A travel writer and blogger at Huffington Post thinks printed travel guidebooks are not yet dead. I enjoy my collection of old and often rare travel guidebooks, but I think that printed travel writing is on the wall, so to speak. They are going away, given new technologies that make traveling with gadgets the future. Just watch your gadget, as thugs around the world prefer your IPad and IPhone to your old, used paper travel guidebook.
Jeanne Oliver on why Printed Travel Guidebooks will Survive
March was a bad month for travel guidebooks. First the BBC sold the venerable Lonely Planet brand to NC2 Media, an obscure digital distribution company backed by former tobacco tycoon Brad Kelley. Then, in a one-two punch, Google discontinued the print editions of Frommer's guidebooks. Is that it? Are print guidebooks being edged out by online content? Some commentators think so.
I'm not so sure. I've been on both sides of the divide, first writing guidebooks for Frommer's and Lonely Planet and now publishing the kinds of travel-planning websites that are supposed to replace guidebooks: croatiatraveller.com and frenchrivieratraveller.com. While a growing percentage of my visitors are accessing my websites through mobile devices, the overwhelming majority still consult my websites from their laptop or PC before leaving home.
I'm happy to provide digital content and certainly gobble it up when I plan a trip. I research online, download the relevant apps on my smartphone and put a free ebook or two on my tablet. For a weekend getaway, that's usually enough. If I can do without a guidebook, I will. But, for a first-time visit to a foreign country, you can bet that a dead-tree guidebook will be part of the mix. Here's why:
No Data Connection Necessary
More hotels are finally offering free wifi. Great! But the connection is not always speedy in all parts of the hotel. So, I point my device around like a dowser, watching the bars on my screen until I find the sweet spot where the connection is strong enough to get online, which is usually in the lobby.
Away from wifi, a smartphone requires a data connection which is where matters get complicated. First the phone must be "unlocked" if possible (it may now be illegal in America). Then, how many megabytes do I need on a prepaid SIM card with a data plan? 150? 500? Getting it set up invariably involves wasting a good part of the morning in a phone shop and the cost can be more than a guidebook. In France, a prepaid SIM card with a data plan is about €20 ($25).
Wednesday, April 03, 2013
Rick Steves on Printed Travel Guidebooks
Last month, three things happened that were interesting to me as a guidebook writer: After Google purchased the venerable Frommer's guidebook series, they announced that they would no longer keep them in print. http://goo.gl/WbquL I read an article about the "rapid decline of the printed guidebook." http://tinyurl.com/cgm57af And I got my biggest royalty check ever in payment for my guidebook sales.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a coffee with Arthur Frommer at the Washington DC Travel and Adventure Show. While he sold the guidebook series with his name on it a long time ago, Arthur still gives spirited talks at such shows all around the country. The first edition of his GI's Guide to Traveling in Europe, which eventually became the groundbreaking Europe on $5 a Day, was published the year I was born (1955). I have a copy of it on the bookshelf in my office as a kind of personal and thankful reminder of how Arthur’s work gave people like my parents the confidence to travel independently through Europe back when that was a new thing for middle-class Americans. You could make a case that without Arthur Frommer opening that door for my family in 1969, I’d still be teaching piano lessons.
I loved traveling with Arthur’s book for a decade (along with the backpackers’ guide, Let’s Go: Europe). Arthur’s personality — his sass, elegance, and Ivy League respect for culture and language — along with his passion for making Europe accessible (first to his fellow GIs, and ultimately to a whole generation of American travelers) inspired me. Way back in 1984, Arthur invited me to appear on his cable TV show and introduced me as “Rick Steves, the new Steve Birnbaum, Eugene Fodor, Temple Fielding of the travel guide industry.” At the time, his prediction seemed a little wacky, but — in part because most publishers have found it's cheaper to write and update guidebooks by committee rather than employ individual personalities — my generation has failed to produce a class of well-known guidebook writers. Arthur Frommer's endorsement was a huge break for me, and even though I had a hard time believing it, I used the quote a lot.
In an age of consolidation, when only big is viable, guidebook publishers are big and few in number. The major guidebook series in the USA are Fodor’s, Frommer's, Lonely Planet, Dorling Kindersley, and Rick Steves. And for many of these, the future looks shaky. Lonely Planet was owned by BBC in London for less than six years before they unloaded to a tobacco tycoon it for less than half what they originally paid. Its fate is unknown. Frommer's was purchased in August of 2012 by Google, who recently announced that they will let almost all of their 350 titles go out of print — leaving the company with piles of data to shuffle into its searchable banks, but no bookshelf presence. Dorling Kindersley (or "DK," publishers of the glossy, illustrated Eyewitness and Top 10 series) is owned by Penguin, and Fodor’s is owned by Random House — and now that those two publishing giants have agreed to a merger, DK and Fodor’s are likely to merge with them, creating more uncertainty.
And the Rick Steves line? We’re as strong and determined as ever. This week, I’m setting out with a band of 25 fellow researchers with the goal to visit in person virtually every sight, hotel, restaurant, launderette, train station, boat dock, and other place mentioned in our guidebooks, as we make them up-to-date for next year.
I think guidebook publishers are challenged in the same way news corporations are. It’s expensive for news services to pay for individual correspondents to bring home the news when it’s just out there on the Internet for all to scarf up — and viewers don’t necessarily respond to more costly, higher-quality journalism. And, in the case of TV news, the limited funds are much better spent on a good-looking anchorperson to read the news rather than quality people to gather it. That's why top-notch investigative journalism is at a critical low point these days.
Considering the modest profit margin for publishing a guidebook, publishers have a similar problem in hiring trained researchers to actually research their books in person. And new crowdsourcing alternatives to guidebooks (like TripAdvisor, CruiseCritic, Booking.com, Yelp, Urbanspoon, and so on) give travelers the impression that they have all the reviews they’ll ever need from other consumers. With the increasing popularity of these options, a tough business equation has become even tougher.
All of these review-based websites are certainly useful and informative, and I use them myself when traveling somewhere new. But I believe that — just as you wouldn't want to get all of your news from amateur bloggers — casual online reviewers take a hit-or-miss approach that isn't always an improvement on an experienced guidebook researcher with a trained eye. Most users reviewing hotels on TripAdvisor have experienced a few dozen hotels in their lives; a professional travel writer has inspected and evaluated hundreds, or even thousands. And, while these sites are particularly helpful for sleeping and eating, they do virtually nothing to explain what you're seeing when you get there. Guidebooks' sightseeing advice, self-guided museum tours, and neighborhood walks help you engage with and understand the place you've traveled so far to see, with a depth that crowdsourced websites don't even attempt. For all of these reasons, I find crowdsourced sites a handy tool to enhance, but not replace, the information I learn from a good guidebook.
Complicating matters is the advent of digital, non-print formats, which challenge traditional book-business thinking. But, while ebooks seem exciting, print sales still dominate (for now, at least); only about 15 percent of total guidebook sales are electronic.
Are guidebooks dead? Not yet, that’s for sure. I’m flying to Egypt and the Holy Land as I write this, my bag heavy with Lonely Planet, DK, and Bradt guides to Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories. The question can be interpreted in two ways: Will people still be traveling with good old-fashioned print guidebooks in tow? And is the entire concept of a guidebook (whether in print or electronic) still viable? My take: For another decade, travelers will be toting print editions of guidebooks. Slowly, print will be replaced by digital. There will be a battle between various electronic information services, including guidebooks. Many users will opt for GPS-driven, crowd-researched apps. But plenty of others will still use guidebooks in their futuristic digital format — probably souped up with streaming video and GPS features. And, God willing, I’ll still be out there making sure mine are accurate and up-to-date.
Travel Writers Angst Blog from Carl Parkes
Arthur Frommer and his Daughter
Arthur Frommer Gets Back his Brand
Arthur Frommer gets back his namesake, but what does this possibly mean? He sold his guidebook series many years ago, and his daughter has attempted to keep it in the news just as the travel publishing world was collapsing. He doesn't really need to keep the brand going, but his name remains golden in a travel publishing world where few words and brands carry such weight.
Skift reports some of the details. The real story remains to be told.
I was interviewed years ago by Arthur Frommer on the Sausalito side of the Golden Gate Bridge just as the first edition of my Southeast Asia Handbook was released by Moon Publications. He was a very smart and quick guy who understood the industry and the venerable history of Indonesia Handbook from Bill Dalton. The interview was later shown on his travel section on cable TV. It was a moment in my short history as a travel writer, and I have always very much appreciated his educational and emotional approach to travel.
Long may his flag wave.
Saturday, March 30, 2013
An amazing Collection of Frommer Guides
I was once interviewed by Arthur Frommer on the Sausalito side of the Golden Gate Bridge, just after the launch of my 1st travel guidebook for Moon Publications, Southeast Asia Handbook. He quickly went over my sample copy, then boom, straight into the interview. He had all the background on Moon Publications and Bill Dalton, and asked me who funded the book. Well, I told him, I did. No advances, which worked in my favor since I got a fine 20% of net royalties. First royalty check was over $12,000, pretty amazing for any travel writer in any point in time. The interview was later shown on the Frommer show on The Travel Channel.
Skift writer Jason Clampet talks about the sudden end of Frommer's printed travel guidebooks.
Skift on Frommer's
Europe on $5 a Day by Arthur Frommer
CNN on Why Google is Pulling the Plug on Frommer's Printed Guidebooks
Travel reviews are valuable online. In print? Not so much. That's why Google is killing the paper edition of Frommer's.
By Verne Kopytoff
FORTUNE -- Spotting a tourist used to be easy. Just look for someone toting around a travel guide. Today, vacationers are organizing their trips entirely online. All they need to carry with them is a smartphone to occasionally look up tourist attractions and navigate around town.
Travel guide publishers are in upheaval amid this new reality. Sales of guidebooks are down sharply as people instead turn to sites like TripAdvisor for hotel and restaurant reviews. The industry's decline was hammered home recently with two big developments.
The latest came Thursday with word that Google (GOOG) planned to kill the print edition of Frommer's, the travel guide giant it acquired last year. Google declined to comment, although Skift, a travel news site, reported that Google's editors had already broken the news to authors of some upcoming titles. Frommer's has long been a Bible for globetrotters, and its extinction in print, at least, would be a big loss for the travel guide industry. Google could continue to publish digital books under the Frommer's name and keep Frommer's website alive, however.
The second development, the BBC's sale of Lonely Planet, happened earlier this month. The British broadcaster disclosed plans to sell the guide-book publisher for $78 million, far less than the nearly $200 million it had originally paid. The buyer, NC2 Media, a Nashville-based media company controlled by reclusive billionaire Brad Kelley, promises to continue publishing travel guides.
But the huge loss the BBC took on the sale highlights the difficulty travel guide businesses face in the digital age. "If you go back 15 or 20 years, a guidebook was the only source of information for a traveler to go on," said Stephen Palmer, managing director for Lonely Planet. "Now people are using six to eight different sources of information to plan that trip. We believe the guidebook still has a role in that mix."
The decline in guidebook sales started with the recession, which decimated leisure travel. The influx of mobile devices compounded the problem. Bookstores like Borders, a big source of travel guide sales, shut down en masse. Free online travel information became more readily available, further eliminating the need to pay $30 for a guidebook.
Major travel booking engines like Expedia (EXPE), Orbitz (OWW) and TripAdvisor (TRIP) all make hotel reviews from users available to people deciding where to stay, for example. AirBnB and VRBO.com, which focus on private vacation rentals, have similar critiques. You'd have to go pretty far off the beaten path to find a hotel, restaurant, or bar that hasn't been praised or panned somewhere online. The question is whether anonymous critics are as trustworthy as professional travel writers.
Travel guides must also compete against free open source guides, which are written by volunteers. Wikitravel and Wikivoyage, a branch of Wikipedia, offer free online travel tips for cities and countries around the world. Their prose tends to be utilitarian compared with some of the professionally written guides. But they generally give a decent overview, with the usual details about hotels, tourist sites, and how to get around.
Google's brief history with travel guides started when it acquired Frommer's along with the Unofficial Guide series from John Wiley & Sons for $22 million. It wasn't Google first foray into print, however. A year earlier, it had bought Zagat Survey, best known for its restaurant ratings. Google planned to incorporate both Frommer's and Zagat reviews into its online products. The rise of Yelp (YELP) and TripAdvisor had showed that reviews could be valuable.
What Google would do with Frommer's print business was always a question, however. The match between the online Goliath and an older school publisher seemed odd. A number of Frommer's titles scheduled for release in February and earlier this month are now overdue. The most recent titles published focusing on Napa and Sonoma in California's Wine Country along with Banff and the Canadian Rockies, may be the last to be printed with Frommer's name.
Palmer, from Lonely Planet, said that the demise of Frommer's print guides would be an opportunity for his business to gain market share. But he's still waiting to see how the situation plays out. Lonely Planet sells around 5 million guidebooks annually, Palmer said. But sales are lower than they were before the recession.
U.S. guidebook sales are down 10% to 20% since 2008, he said. Recently, sales have stabilized, providing a glimmer of hope. To reach a bigger audience, Lonely Planet has started a new series of books, Discover, that are for more mainstream travelers who must make due with shorter vacations. "I don't think anyone is pretending that sales of travel guides aren't down," Palmer said. "But they aren't off a cliff. What we're seeing now is a level of stability."
Like many travel guide publishers, Lonely Planet is investing in its online business. And like many media companies, news included, the transition is difficult. Lonely Planet, of course, uses its website to sell print guidebooks along with pushing digital copies. It also makes money from online advertising and for connecting visitors with hotel reservations and insurance, among other things.
In five years, Palmer said that even more people will use tablets and smartphones to plan their vacations. But some travelers will still prefer analog over digital, contrary to predictions about travel guides heading for a quick extinction. "I think there will be a place for books," Palmer said.
Let's All Be Travel Writers
The amazing decline in printed travel guidebooks. Also the decline in travel apps. It's a race to the bottom with some excellent if depressing charts and graphs.
Tnooz on the Decline of Travel Guidebooks, e books and Travel Apps
NB: This is a personal viewpoint by Jani Patokallio, a former publishing platform architect at Lonely Planet.
CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, put it simply when he famously proclaimed last year: “We expect DVD subscribers to decline every quarter… forever.” It does beg the wider question: does your business model relies on selling any type of paid content? If the answer is yes – welcome to Mr Hastings’s world.
Many publishers continue to operate under the assumption that printed book sales are declining gradually or perhaps even plateauing. Unfortunately the data tells a different story: the decline appears to be accelerating. Here’s Nielsen Bookscan for the travel market.
That’s from the “Guidebook Category Report, Rolling, Period 13″ for 2006 to 2012. The trendline is a simple polynomial (n=2) best fit, and if it’s accurate, the market will halve by 2015. And while that sounds drastic, it’s by no means unprecedented, as the sales of CDs did pretty much the same thing between 2006 and 2009.
Of course, the market’s not quite homogenous: Lonely Planet’s been beating the trend, mostly by continuing to invest in print and absorbing customers from the rapidly-disappearing Frommers. But that just makes LP an even-bigger fish in an ever-shrinking pond. So can the white knights of digital paid content, e-books and mobile apps, save the publishing industry?
[See Link for Graph]
[See the Link for Information on EBooks and Travel Apps]
For the whole enchilada, click the Skift link below.
Jason Clampet on the Rapid Decline of Travel Guidebooks
Thursday, March 07, 2013
Monkey Travel Writer
Never Write for Free via Camels and Chocolate
Nate Thayer reports on his conflict with The Atlantic.
A few months back, a well-known band came to me via their publicist wanting me to promote an event they’re sponsoring. It was a cool concept, in a fun place, and it would allow me to check another item off my Life List. The kicker? They weren’t going to pay me for my time or my effort.
The sad thing is that I briefly toyed with the idea, and I might have green lit it had it not been for SVV. “You’re a professional. You’ve been working as a journalist for a decade. Your time, your knowledge, your experience—this is all incredibly valuable to a company. You’re not doing anything for free.” I tried to negotiate with them—something that as both a female and a Southerner I’ve always grappled with—but they weren’t budging. Not understanding what social media is about, or even the power of the press, they thought covering my expenses to attend the event—an event that, mind you, I would be working—was payment enough. And so after much debate, I turned down the opportunity last week with some regrets.
But you know what? After a few days to ponder this precarious situation, I’m glad I said no.
When did it become acceptable not to pay for a service? I logged my years of interning, I more than paid my dues, I’ve slowly worked my way up the ladder in this tumultuous media climate, something that was not easy, nor fun at times. To backtrack so much at this point in my career would be a completely wrong move. I don’t write for magazines whose rates don’t make penning a piece worth my time; since when do I spend days on a project making money for other people through promotion, sponsorships, advertising dollars and Lord knows how many other benefits that come cascading down the shoulders (and pockets) of the corporations that drive these things? The short answer: not now, not ever.
And this is where the Internet is at fault and possibly the economy, too. There are so many people out there perfectly willing to give away their talent for no charge—or, nearly as bad, $10 to $20 a post—that a company knows if you say no, there are 10 other writers who will say yes. But that doesn’t make it even remotely OK. That doesn’t mean you should buy into it. Because until enough of us band together and say this isn’t right, companies will continue to think they can exploit our talents.
I graduated from journalism school. Before that, I interned at magazines, newspapers, a TV station. I was a columnist for a publication at the age of 20. I’d worked on my first guidebook for one of the biggest travel brands in the world by 23. I was hired as a researcher for Harper’s while still an undergrad. I started at Newsweek the day after I graduated college. You’ll sometimes see my name in books. I’ve written for more than 50 national magazines and newspapers. I can’t remember the last time an all-access concert pass paid the rent. And what makes any company think that I will work for free, that I don’t deserve to get paid for the exercise?
You wouldn’t ask a surgeon to operate on your heart free of charge (or for front row seats at opera). You wouldn’t expect a plumber to come out and fix your pipes for no fee (or in exchange for a sandwich). Heck, you don’t even allow a server at a restaurant to deliver your food without leaving a tip on top of an already-hefty dinner bill. Why are writers and other creatives any different?
Women, in general, tend to get the short end of the stick, too. It’s a proven fact. In my experience, we’re also not very keen on bargaining, on asking for what we deserve. SVV has gotten four raises in less than four years at his current company; every one of them was because he went to his boss and said (in not so many words), hey, you know what? I’m awesome and I deserve to be paid for my awesomeness. You should give me X amount of dollars more for my skill and expertise. And you can guess what happened next: His boss did just that. Every last time.
I, on the other hand, have worked for some of the same editors for years and have never summoned the nerve to ask for an increased rate. In some ways, I’m just happy to still be able to say I’m a magazine writer. Many of my colleagues aren’t so fortunate anymore. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be so bold in the future, that I shouldn’t make it a goal to work on the power of bargaining. Saying no to the band, something that was far from easy, was a baby step in that direction.
A fellow journalist friend, a male, who was a bureau chief at Newsweek for a decade, told me how a political magazine recently came to him with the offer to write an in-depth, 5,000-word piece for their publication. If you’re not in the journalism industry, you should know: Such an offer is a writer’s gold. We’re never given the space to write the long-form narratives or op-eds we often dream about.
He did the smart thing and responded saying he’d love such a gig, but how much did it pay? “$500,” the editor wrote back, though the friend now thinks, looking back, that the rate might have even been lower than that. $500 for 5,000 words. Ten paltry cents per well-thought-out word. (To put it in perspective, most national magazines continue to pay $2 a word as a starting rate, with more money given to their more established writers, meaning if this was a legit publication, he should have been paid $10,000 for such a story.) Politely, he declined the assignment—he is after all, a well-known journalist, and to write such a story would take weeks of his time, weeks that could be spent elsewhere on much better paying gigs—at which point the editor shot back a very snarky retort saying that my friend should be honored to write such a piece for his magazine. Really? Is that truly what editors think these days? That well-trained, sought-after writers should be thankful for the chance to earn them money? Hardly.
My point here is to all you bloggers, to all you writers, to all you photographers, to all you creative types out there who feel like you’re not valued, here’s an epiphany: You’ll never be valued until you start to value yourself.
So I beg you: When you’re approached with such an opportunity, weigh the pros and cons. Is it a good career move? Are you getting anything meaningful out of it? What are you actually receiving for your time? Or is the company just trying to use you as one of these “cloud-sourced” money machines? Whether you’re a beginning blogger with 100 readers or a veteran with 100,000, you’re valuable. And don’t forget it either. Because until you start to see your own self worth, how can you expect others to recognize it, too?
Travel is actually NOT a Waste of Time
Unpaid Internships are a Scam via Slate
Wednesday's conversation about writing for free on the Internet naturally segued into the hot topic of unpaid internships. One aspect of this that's often important in D.C. is unpaid internships at mission-driven nonprofits. If you're running a mission-driven nonprofit, then obviously you have to ask yourself what your mission is. If you think your mission includes promoting upward economic mobility and an economically and ethnically diverse talent pipeline, then obviously part of your expenditure profile should be making sure that people who can't afford to spend their summers mooching off their parents can get a shot at the valuable experience your internship program offers.
This—like the question of whether your internship program actually is a valuable experience—is really a question of whether you want to live up to your mission. When it comes to greedy for-profit firms, obviously the goal is to get useful work out of people for as little money as possible, and thus you have a different issue. And the relevant analytical issue is to ask what do unpaid internships crowd out? To a lot of people, it seems to go without saying that they crowd out paid labor, but that's not clear to me. In my industry, for example, there are no formal credentialing requirements, but in practice just about everyone has a bachelor's degree. What's interesting is that some people also have a master's degree.
Spending a year as an unpaid intern sounds like a financially unattractive option. But spending nine months getting a master's from Columbia Journalism School costs $53,346. So you have one firm that's cynically offering you the chance to provide a year's worth of free labor in exchange for valuable learning and connections, and you have another firm that's cynically offering you the chance to provide More than $50,000 in exchange for valuable learning and connections. It's at least not obvious to me that the zero-salary option makes less sense than the negative-salary option. Now the real-world issue here is that financing options are relevant.
If you actually have $50,000 in the bank, then I think it's a no-brainer. You set $25,000 aside as savings to make a down payment on a house someday, and you work for free for a year spending down your $25,000. If at the end of the year you get a paying gig, good for you! If you don't, then you go into some other line of work. But who has $50,000 in the bank? The government will help make sure you can get a loan if you spend it on graduate school but not if the issue is that you just need to eat. So it's not just that young people from privileged backgrounds have access to potentially more attractive career opportunities—they have access to them on a more attractive financial basis. If college were free (so people exited with no debt) and everyone got a $50,000 graduation present for finishing, my bet is that we'd see more internships and fewer graduate schools.
Chuck Thompson Asks the Big Question
Financial Times on the End of the Travel Guidebook, circa 2010
Outside the Tate I stand on the Millennium Bridge, holding up the phone and surveying the view on its screen, as if looking through the viewfinder of a camera. As I slowly pan around, different arrows pop up above the buildings, showing me the nearest and best hotels, restaurants, pubs, nightclubs, post offices, or whatever else I choose to look for. I decide to seek out a hotel, pick one that the phone tells me is 800 yards away, and am shown reviews from other websites plus rates and availability. All of which seems fine, so I hit another button and the phone’s sat-nav brings up an interactive map to take me there. Oh yes – and all this is free. So why would you ever need a guidebook?
“The publishing world has been talking for years about how we are going to follow the music industry down the pan,” says Mark Ellingham, founder of the Rough Guides series, which has sold more than 30m books worldwide.“I don’t think that is going to happen tremendously quickly for publishing in general, but travel guidebooks are absolutely the front line. In travel it makes much more sense to have digital rather than traditional paper books.” And the latest news from the front line is not good. In fact, over the past two and a half years, guidebook sales in Britain have fallen off a cliff.
Sales for 2009 were down 18 per cent on 2007, and if the second half of this year follows the first, 2010 will be down 27 per cent on 2007, according to data from Nielsen BookScan. If the current rate of decline continues, the final guidebook will be sold in less than seven years’ time. Lonely Planet’s Australia guide sold 20,015 copies in 2008, and just 13,530 in 2009 – a drop of a third (again, the figures are from Nielsen BookScan, covering sales from British retailers). The Rough Guide to France, which sold 11,943 in 2008, fell 45 per cent to 6,561 the following year. Worse is that these are considered bestsellers.
Of course, the fortunes of individual titles fluctuate with the launch of new editions and the fashionability of destinations, but average sales across the whole range paint an equally bleak picture. Last year, the average UK sale of each title from the leading five publishers was around 1,500 copies. The reasons behind this sales collapse are all too apparent – a combination of new technology and recession. Fewer people are travelling so buy fewer guidebooks, while those that do still go away are more likely to download free information online rather than spending money on a book.
Perhaps it didn’t help that the recession and drop in tourism coincided with a whistleblowing account revealing the short-cuts undertaken by some travel writers – such as not actually bothering to visit the country they are writing about. In Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? published in April 2008, Thomas Kohnstamm, a Lonely Planet freelancer, detailed how he had sold drugs to make ends meet as he researched a guide to Brazil, taken freebies in return for positive coverage and recommended a restaurant at which a waitress had invited him to return for sex on a table after closing time. The guidebook later noted that the restaurant “is a pleasant surprise ... and the table service is friendly”.
Kohnstamm also said he had written chunks of a book on Colombia while living in San Francisco: “I got the information from a chick I was dating – an intern in the Colombian consulate.” Lonely Planet quickly dismissed Kohnstamm as a lone bad apple and said his work had been checked by other authors. But the story spawned hundreds of newspaper pieces and a spotlight had been shone on guidebook writing in general. Other authors confessed to “desk researching” countries rather than visiting them, or complained that poor pay was making it impossible to maintain standards. The halo had slipped, but far more damaging was the fact that people were getting increasingly used to finding their own information online.
It dawned on travellers that guidebooks didn’t have a monopoly on information, that their own research from the internet might even be better. And it would certainly be more up-to-date. “Publishers are asking themselves how much of the fall in sales is a result of the recession, and how long the recession will go on, but the even bigger question is will people go back to the same buying habits as they had pre-recession, or will they have found other ways of finding information?” says Stephen Mesquita, the former managing director of AA Publishing and now an industry analyst and author of the Nielsen BookScan Travel Publishing Year Book.
Mesquita suggests there’s already some evidence hinting that younger people in particular are shifting their habits. Sales of books to Australia and New Zealand, traditional gap-year destinations, have fallen faster than the number of visitors to those countries, presumably because young travellers are happy to stop at internet cafés, researching their trips as they go. “The challenge for travel publishers is re-inventing their business model, but because of the recession, they are having to do it far quicker than they probably thought they would have to,” Mesquita says.
Already one publisher has decided it will cease printing books altogether. Since its launch in 2001 Nota Bene has produced beautifully illustrated guides to some 50 different destinations, distributing them to its 5,000 subscribers, but it is relaunching this month, and will henceforth publish only in digital form, via the iPad. “I agonised for a long, long time about dispensing with the books because people absolutely loved them,” says Anthony Lassman, Nota Bene’s founder. “We started looking into building a website, but then the iPad came along and everything suddenly made sense.”
Sales figures may be dire, the challenges mounting, but this summer there’s a buzz in the world of travel publishing, a sense of being on the verge of a totally new era. The internet allowed people to research their trips themselves before setting out, but smartphone apps and iPads travel with them. Suddenly the guidebook publishers, who for years seemed to be looking on from the sidelines, unsure of how to make websites work for them, have found themselves with a medium that makes sense. “I could see that if you got in early and created the most compelling products then it could be fantastically lucrative as well,” says Douglas Schatz, who last year gave up his job as boss of Stanfords, the venerable London travel book shop, to become Lonely Planet’s managing director for Europe, Middle East and Asia.
Remember those guidebook sales figures? The average title selling just 1,500 copies a year? Compare that with the fact that during the volcanic ash crisis, 4.2m Lonely Planet apps covering 13 destinations were downloaded within four days. Admittedly they were being given away as a free promotion to help stranded passengers, but it hints at the potential. Selling apps online also lets publishers cut out conventional retailers, who have been squeezing margins aggressively and often dictated at what price a book will be sold.
Of course, over the past couple of years have seen many travel-related apps, some from airlines, hotels and others in the travel industry; others as extensions of travel websites, and lots of them free. But this summer publishers are piling into the app market, hoping to persuade customers that it’s worth paying for an app that comes with the guidebook brand’s trusted tone and voice. Last month Ellingham, who sold Rough Guides in 2008, launched Cool Places, a series of 30 slick apps to UK destinations, including St Ives, Brighton and Whitby. In June, Footprint Travel Guides released its first apps, with 50 being rolled out by the end of this month. Rough Guides’ new apps debut later this year, and last week Lonely Planet launched its new Compass app – the first augmented reality app from a mainstream guidebook publisher. Their jostling for position is given extra impetus by the assumption that the market will explode as mobile roaming charges fall.
So will the printed guidebook disappear altogether? One scenario sees print becoming the preserve of photo-led “inspiration” books, for armchair reading before you go away. But even that market could be squeezed by the iPad. Lonely Planet, for example, recently released 1,000 Ultimate Experiences, an innovative iPad book for pre-travel inspiration that mixes photos, text and video. Another theory is that books will become niche products covering special interests or remote, developing destinations without mobile coverage or the visitor numbers to merit an app. Bradt – known for its guides to almost comically uncommercial destinations, including North Korea and Iraq – actually saw sales rise by 2.25 per cent in 2009. And one of the few real success stories of recent years has been Punk Publishing, which produces the Cool Camping and Wild Swimming series, and saw sales double in the last four years.
Jonathan Knight, founder of Punk Publishing, a partner with Ellingham in the Cool Places apps, says it’s vital to find a niche. “Our most mainstream title to date was Taste Britain, all about the best farmers markets, wonderful delis and so on. You’d think that would have wide appeal, but it’s actually been our worst-selling book.” Even those driving the digital change get a little misty-eyed about books. Everyone I spoke to stressed their love of print – everything from the portability of books to the smell of the pages. What a tragedy it would be, they all said, if guidebooks did disappear. But would it really? Perhaps being less devoted to them might actually improve our travel experience. The new technology requires far more active involvement on the user’s part. You have to seek out information from an app. You use Google Googles to give information on something that has spontaneously caught your eye. So perhaps the death of the guidebook might at last teach us, just like Lucy Honeychurch, to experience foreign countries for ourselves. If not, then at least the new technology will, according to Ellingham, “make it an awful lot easier to find a good pub.”
Tom Robbins is the FT’s travel editor. Over the course of last year I saw the guidebook industry switch to digital, first-hand and in real-time, writes Dan Linstead. In January, I had the idea of an accommodation guide for travellers who enjoy staying with local people. I’d visited homestays from India to New Zealand, and marvelled at the welcome, cultural insight and value they offer. In Rajasthan, for example, I’d spent luxurious nights with an aristocratic family who overwhelmed me with home-cooked curries and Raj-era photographs – all for £30 a night. No guide to these authentic, affordable places to stay exists. I envisaged a book capturing the post-crunch zeitgeist in the way Hip Hotels did for more indulgent times.
Fired with enthusiasm, I approached travel publisher A, producer of a bestselling recent series. Their reply set a tone that was to become familiar: “I can see this being a beautiful book and a truly original concept for a travel guide. [But] it’s an idea that lends itself much more to online than print.” Convinced that the right format was a book, I went to publisher B. They praised my “fantastic sample pages” but were “seeing a big drop-off in accommodation guides”, and suggested it would make a “great online resource”. With publisher C, though – a household name – I finally found a kindred spirit. The proposal went down well. Over several months, meetings took place; an editor was appointed; chapters sketched out. But then, on the brink of the deal, a new head honcho joined the firm, and all went ominously quiet. The eventual rejection email, like its predecessors, praised my idea as “a unique proposal” but admitted they were “not convinced that its ideal manifestation is as a book”.
I tried one more time, with publisher D, but was frankly unsurprised when a flurry of enthusiasm gave way to the announcement that “we’ve decided to invest our limited resources into development of our digital products”. Guidebook publishers, it seemed, were desperate to avoid publishing any actual books. They all seemed delighted with the originality of my idea, but wanted it digital, downloadable, direct. Anything but print. But there was a happy ending, of sorts. Last week, one of the founding fathers of UK guidebooks, a bookish kind of fellow, approached me. Would I like to write a guide for his new series, he wondered, about my home town of Windsor? He reached into his briefcase to show me the first few titles, and produced, with a flourish, the medium for his new endeavour. An iPhone.