Digital

How Arthur Frommer Is Trying To Reinvent The Guidebook, Again

Oct 26, 2013 8:00 am

Skift Take

We are very skeptical on their chances of reinventing the packaged guidebook again, but more power to them for trying.

— Rafat Ali

Free Report: The Changing Business of Extended-Stay Hotels

American Libraries  / Flickr

Arthur and Pauline Frommer, at it again. American Libraries / Flickr


Arthur Frommer’s name has gone a lot of places since he published his first $5-a-day European travel guide in the late 1950s. In fact, the guidebook series bearing his name has been through multiple owners over the last 40 years. But early this year, the 84-year-old Frommer took his guidebooks back.

Now, with daughter Pauline Frommer as editorial director, the family is relaunching the brand. Between now and Christmas, 30 new Frommer guidebooks — paperbacks and e-books — will be turning up on sellers’ literal and online bookshelves.

“Fifty-seven years later, I’m returning to what I originally did,” Frommer said on Monday. “I’m probably the oldest fledgling publisher in world history.”

Destinations covered include New York, London, Paris, Hawaii and beyond. The goal is to give travelers candid advice, not only about hotels and restaurants, but also newer budget-travel options like www.homeaway.com and www.airbnb.com. And “we’re not married to paper,” said Pauline Frommer on Monday. “We understand that books are going to come out in many forms.”

Neither Frommer is talking about the details of the guidebook series deal– “I’m not at liberty,” he says — but the broad strokes are these: In 1977, Frommer sold rights to his guidebook series to Simon & Schuster. In 2001 John Wiley & Sons stepped in. Last year, Google paid Wiley $22 million for rights to the guidebooks. And then in April of this year, after travel website Skift reported that Google might use the guidebook content only digitally, Frommer bought his brand back.

Since then, the senior Frommer has been dealing with finance and design questions while the junior Frommer has been recruiting writers and editors (and, by the way, writing the New York guidebook herself). They share the title of co-president, Frommer Media. The idea, they say, is to do a better job serving budget and mid-level travelers, to let writers make judgments (instead of just regurgitating facts), to keep books short and portable, and to keep prices down.

Some of the new titles are city guides and some cover larger areas. Twenty are “easy guides,” a format that typically includes 256 pages (no color photos except the cover), priced at $10.95 — Hawaii, New York, London and Ireland are among the destinations covered. The other 10 titles are fancier but shorter “day by day” guides, typically 192 pages with color photos on glossy paper, priced at $13.95. Publishers Group West will handle distribution.

Said Arthur Frommer of the guides: “They are intensely opinionated. We urge our authors to state preferences.”

Said Pauline Frommer: “You only list the places that are really going to make a person’s vacation much, much better.”

Among the budget lodgings she recommends in New York: The Blue Moon Hotel on the lower East Side; the Larchmont Hotel in Greenwich Village; and the Chelsea Pines Inn in Chelsea.

Pauline Frommer, a former actress who moved into the family business more than a decade ago as as a writer and editor at www.frommers.com, blogs, writes syndicated travel columns and often does public-speaking gigs. Her father does all those things as well.

Together they do a weekly radio show, in which they disagree — “endlessly,” says Arthur — about whether families should travel with children under 8. (He says no, even though he did it himself. She says yes, and did so with her own daughters, now 10 and 14.)

By the way, this doesn’t mean that the Frommer family has cornered the market on its name. Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine, which the senior Frommer founded, then sold to Newsweek in 1999, was sold again in 2010 to hedge-fund manager Alphonse “Buddy” Fletcher Jr. The magazine ran into financial troubles in late 2012 and was in bankruptcy court earlier this year, but its website continues to publish new content.

Then there’s the hotel in Amsterdam. The senior Frommer opened it in 1969, but later retreated from the lodging trade and sold it. It’s now known as the Hotel Mercure Amsterdam Arthur Frommer. His only connection to the property, he said, is that “every once in a while, I stay at it.”

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