UPDATED: Lonely Planet and the rapid decline of the printed guidebook
A stack of printed guidebooks looks quite heavy. Adam Wyles / Flickr
Professionally created guides will always have a place in the traveler’s toolkit, but they aren’t going to be limited to paper any more and the next generation of guidebook brands will need to make the business work sooner rather than later.
[Updated to reflect sale of Lonely Planet]
The announced sale of Lonely Planet today for $121 million less than BBC Worldwide paid for it only two short years caps off eight months of drama surrounding the guidebook industry and its leading players.
In August, Google announced the purchase of Frommer’s from Wiley publishing for a price that later was determined at $23 million in cash and stock. In September, Penguin announced the re-evaluation of its DK and Rough Guides guidebook series, and then merged with Random House, which operated Fodor’s and publishes other travel guides. The Lonely Planet sale had been rumored since at least December and confirmed two weeks ago by Skift, when it revealed the buyer.
The combined sales of Lonely Planet and Frommer’s are just over $100, which was $25 million less than the combined U.S. sales of the leading travel publishers in 2007, the last great year of guidebook publishing.
Up until 2008, the guidebook industry had few signs that the bottom would soon fall out of their business. Sure, website usage was up — both on some of their own sites and digital-only competitors — and user-generated sites like TripAdvisor were eating some of their cake, but sales were solid.
In 2007, combined U.S. sales from the big five travel publishers that represent over 80% of the market (Frommer’s, Dorling Kindersley, Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, and Avalon’s Moon/Rick Steves) were just over $125 million, according to Stephen Mesquita’s “World Travel Guides Market” report for Nielsen BookScan. The following five years were tough, to say the least: By 2012 combined sales had dropped nearly 40% to $78 million.
It’s a similar story in the UK where the combined sales at the seven largest publishers dropped 46% between 2005 and 2012. In Australia, where Lonely Planet consistently captures over 60% of the market, sales dropped 14% between 2010 and 2011, and then another 21% between 2011 and 2012.
These numbers are not good.
U.S. seven-year sales
Numbers are the millions. Sales figures from Stephen Mesquita’s “World Travel Guides Market” report for Nielsen BookScan.
But they’re better for Lonely Planet than anyone else, thanks to the publisher’s comparatively healthy digital publishing program (at least a quarter of its revenue comes from digital), singular mission, and now-dominant global reach when it comes to English-language travel content.
Martin Dunford, a co-founder and former publisher of Rough Guides told Skift last year, “[Lonely Planet] is the one truly global brand and its gradual transformation into a more digital company has been underwritten by the UK taxpayer.”
Lonely Planet — and anyone who’s worked with BBC’s digital side — will disagree about the source of inspiration, if not the funding for LP’s digital initiatives, but they do agree they’re in a better position that their rivals.
In an interview with Skift last fall Brice Gosnell, Vice President & Publisher, Americas for Lonely Planet, said, “We were an early adopter in e-books. Having product available was the first thing. The devices didn’t leverage content in a way we were happy with. We made a conscious approach to only offer certain content for certain devices.”
Lonely Planet’s digital prowess was cited by incoming Chief Operating Officer Daniel Houghton in a prepared statement announcing the purchase of LP, “The challenge and promise before us is to marry the world’s greatest travel information and guidebook company with the limitless potential of 21st century digital technology. If we can do this, and I believe we can, we can build a business that, while remaining true to the things that made Lonely Planet great in the past, promises to make it even greater in the future.”
While LP was focusing on translating its books to formats friendly to both e-readers and apps, its competitors floundered.
In the U.S., the market leader Frommer’s never devoted a person to new digital products even though they did have a team devoted to the website. Since its purchase from Wiley by Google in August, Frommer’s sales have plummeted as its new owner has done nothing to assure the book-buying community that they will continue to publish printed books or continue using the brand name. Avalon’s Moon and Rick Steves brands in the U.S. and the UK’s Rough Guides have contracts with authors that have limited how they can monetize their book content online. Avalon does have a modest ebook business.
Penguin’s DK Eyewitness brand carved out an enviable niche with colorful, illustrated titles, but it’s been a failure on the web, and it’s labor-intensive production and Penguin’s internal challenges have made the move to digital versions clunky at best and woefully out of date, too.
Fodor’s made a bold move in the summer of 2011 by sacking it’s publisher and naming the digital-savvy Arabella Bowen to a role that oversaw both print and digital. But her promotion coincided with staffing cuts at the publisher and, later, un-easiness at Random House, leaving Fodor’s in a poor position to push hard into digital.
Other publishers’ lack of focus has benefitted Lonely Planet. Gosnell said, “We are the only major brand that is only about travel. The others are brands within a larger corporation. But travel is all we think about, argue about, look to innovate within. I think that’s really helped us continue to stay focused.”
Focused as it may be, LP will need to monetize its content better to keep the revenues from heading along their current path. Last week it laid off at least ten people and closed down its mobile labs group, the latter of which was responsible for the Wenzani social/mobile app on iPhones.
Speaking of the sale of Frommer’s to Google Dunford said, “It’s a measure of the decline in the market that a big player like Frommer’s can be sold at such a low valuation — also a measure of how much the BBC overpaid for LP, but that’s another story.”
More on Lonely Planet:
- Exclusive: BBC selling Lonely Planet to Kentucky cigarette billionaire Brad Kelley
- How Lonely Planet is winning the battle on social media
Note: The author worked for Frommer’s during the period covered by this article and contributed to multiple titles in the Rough Guide series.