It’s common knowledge that 2013 is not the year of the guidebook. From BBC’s massive loss on the sale of Lonely Planet, to Google discarding then handing the Frommer’s brand back to its founder (after stripping it for content parts), to the continued hockey-stick decline of book sales for most publishers, it is not the best time to be selling travel guidebooks in bookstores.
Unless you’re Avalon.
The Berkeley, CA-based group, which is part of the independent Perseus Book Group, puts out Moon Handbooks and Rick Steves‘ books, as well as Moon’s series about outdoor travel and living abroad, and one-off titles about independent travel and pets. While other publishers have watched revenues crash, Moon’s numbers have remained a straight line and captured market share from its anemic competitors. And it’s done it by doing everything that digital publishing had decided was wrong: Non-standard book lengths, hand-drawn maps, limited digital rights, and lackluster websites, to name a few.
Skift called Bill Newlin, Avalon’s Publisher and a Vice President at Perseus, to discuss his brand’s unique approach to the challenges of modern travel publishing. After sharing the winding path that brought the current list of books together, including the purchase that brought Rick Steves into the fold, Newlin explained the first thing Avalon did differently.
Skift: Talk to me about how you changed the way Rick Steves publishes.
Bill: When we had our first business meeting with Rick at his new publisher we said, you’ve got this fantastic content. You’re running tours all over Europe and you’ve got boots on the ground like nobody else. Let’s take this content engine out for a spin and see what it can do.
From that point in 1990, the books have been growing steadily and Rick has often said that it is his job is to generate the content and our job is to package it. The French and Italy guides have gotten to be 1,100 and 1,200 pages. That can be a challenge but that nevertheless, it’s still how we’re playing it.
Skift: Moon authors some of the last to retain ownership and still receive royalties for their work? Is that correct?
Bill: It’s absolutely correct. And it used to be more a point of pride.
It’s in fact emblematic of how we’ve viewed the authors as the partners in the relationship. And so every way that we approach the shaping of the coverage and the approach and the strategy of the destination, we do hand in glove with the authors.
We do not issue editorial assignments. But we have quite a lot of variation between different kinds of books, and our country guides they are very different from our city guides. We are not creating a database. But we are creating individual books and the authors are the authors of those books.
We now have more consistency, more rigors, more standards, more editorial check, more factchecking than we had before. Naturally there are some authors and readers who feel that something has been lost in that. We don’t have the consistency and the flavor that we used to do. But we still view every book as an individual work.
Skift: On the business side the argument for the last ten years has been that by giving the author the royalty, the company is limited by what they can do with the content. Specifically, putting it on the web or licensing to third parties and things like that.
Bill: For us it’s different in two ways.
Rick Steves of course is all Europe and only Europe and so that doesn’t pose the same licensing opportunity. Moreover, most of his recommendations are not chain-based.
The nature of Rick’s coverage as you know is very, very particular; very keen towards sites. His guides are on a cultural mission and so when it comes to certain kinds of amenities or restaurant coverage but that isn’t their strength. They are not as even and balanced but as regards to the other series, they don’t have to be.
In the case of Moon, it is among the major guidebook series but not at the head of them. Therefore, Moon has never been able to really compete with guides to Las Vegas or Disney World or either New York City and San Francisco or European destinations.
Therefore, Moon has not had that same licensing opportunities that you speak of. So we haven’t had to give up as much, as those other series might have.
Skift: At the same time, looking at book sales over the last six years of so, where everybody else’s graph is on a reverse hockey stick, you guys are slow and steady. And I read a quote from Rick Steves the other day saying he is selling more books than ever right now. How are you continuing to sell the same number of books as you sold before and not losing out like the other book publishers are?
Bill: I’m sure we’ll talk about this more, later on. We have been very, very focused on the business in hand. The part of that is, because we had to. In the more than 20 years that I’ve been running Avalon and its predecessor companies, we have always had to be profitable.
We have never had a corporate parent who was willing to invest separately for its own sake.
The interesting thing about the sales figures, of course, is that it doesn’t include e-book sales which means that we are in fact growing.
Skift: Let’s go ahead and address e-books sales, because you said, if we thought about e-book sales, that’s growing. How has the introduction of an adoption of e-book sales affected either one?
Bill: Our customer is the travel guide book customer. And different guidebook customers would like to have their books in print or in e-book the same as readers of fiction or non-fiction.
What we aim to do in general is every time we define a piece of information that we’re going to maintain in a guidebook, if you will. Then we want to offer it to a customer in print and in E. We try to be as clear as possible about with what is being covered and when it was relived, and what they can expect.
There are times when we can’t do that. For example with Rick Steves we have about 80, I guess, walks and tours to individual museums. If we printed it, they’d be only 20 to 30 pages long. We sell them for about ninety nine cents. They don’t really make sense to the print products. We don’t do that.
But we have many, many — a couple of hundred Moon’s spotlight’s and Rick Steves snapshots — that we pull out and print. And we sell them to print stand alone and we sell them to e-book stand alone. And as long as something gets up to about 60 pages and they can take in spine then we will publish it in both formats.
Recently we actually decided to go back and issue a new edition more regularly. That has partly to do with the evolution of the online market place, because for a while there were some real problems where reissuing new ISBN on Amazon or other online retailers. We found that the people were having trouble finding the new edition, and the old edition was actually selling more than the new edition for a while and we didn’t want that.
Over the last couple of years, the online e-book marketplace has matured. The channel is now more able to handle revisions and new editions. We’re now going to go back to issuing new editions when we do a substantial update.
Skift: What to you is the essential Moon book? Whether a specific destination or type of destination that you think really defines the product and sets it apart from other competitors?
Bill: Well, I’ll lessen that a little bit by looking at different regions. Mexico and Central and South America are areas that are very important to us. And we have a book there, Machu Picchu. We first had a book to Peru then we pulled out the chapter on Cusco of Machu Picchu. We actually had a lot of discussion internally about whether we should lead the Peru book with Lima or with Cusco, and so leading with Cusco with itself a choice that we made.
When we pulled out that chapter it immediately became a best-selling chapter spotlight. We then pulled it up to a full-size handbook and it’s done very, very well. This fall we’re releasing it with a new title Simply Machu Picchu. We’ve again moved the focus on from Lima to Cusco to simply Machu Picchu, and we’re doing it in full color, which is not necessarily a harbinger of all Moon guides to come.
We have many, many guides in the U.S. But increasingly we find ourselves doing full guides to, for example, Glacier National Park, which many think is too small for them but it works very well for us. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin’s Door County, but these actually are quite strong destinations for us.
You know from having worked at Frommer’s what maintaining the sort of level of ongoing excellence the travel guides represent now. But it’s really a challenge and there used to be many, many more players in the field who would stand up but books that didn’t have that full load in investments that’s required to compete.
Skift: You mentioned your authors a bit and how you’re not building a database. You’re not writing to build a database for the authors. Can you talk a bit about your relationship with the authors?
Bill: Not all authors will feel that way because there are times when we need to be very stringent about making sure that our standards are met. There are times when we will part ways with an author. Under the circumstances they too may be upset with us.
As long as an author is under contract to us and revising work with us regularly then we are in regular touch with them of course while their book is being produced at which point they have an assigned editor and they’re working with people in cartography and production. Certainly, given the fact that we all are working with individual author copyrights at Moon, the authors are the life blood of our destination coverage. But we don’t have an editorial apparatus that could replace them. We are dependent on them, and we know that.
Skift: I know you guys have done well in selling e-books, and electronic products. On the other hand, your website isn’t rich with information. What’s the decision behind that?
Bill: We did that because we wanted the flexibility that WordPress brings. But the current incarnation of our website is in its infancy. We do view having an active website as being important. But we do not stand it up as a separate business venture. The website for Moon, and Rick can speak for himself, but it’s really an extension of our marketing, not a separate business.
Skift: A lot of the other companies have gone through some relatively painful transitions recently. It seems as if they are in a regrouping phase. You seem like you’re in a very strong position. What’s in store?
Bill: We certainly mean to publish as many print and e-books as we can. We’ve maintained a very healthy schedule for both Rick and for Moon over the last couple of years. And if anything, we will accelerate that.
For Rick we’ll remain focused on Europe. But we do have new country destinations in store, new city destinations in store. Our pocket guides are off to a very strong start. We have seven now, so you can expect another half dozen in fairly sure order. But we are releasing the phrase books in much expanded format.
Rick himself manages his own content generation. We’ve had a lot of talk with him recently about hearing out for a fresh wave of publishing. He has done a great, strong job this summer of commissioning coverage of his core countries and cities.
In terms of distributing that product, you are probably familiar with Rick Steves’ Audio Europe App, which is giving away a lot of audio tours, the audio walks. We also have a new and still in beta Rick Steves’ Reader App for people to be able to buy, or be delivered e-books directly from Rick, which we look to as an adjunct to the books that he sells directly on his site.
Really it’s just digging into the content, the packaging, and the forms of delivery.
With Moon, we’ve been coming out with about a dozen new destinations a year for the last couple of years. We had good success with the book called California Road Trip. We have the original road trip guide, road trip USA, from the mid ’90’s and there’s been a lot of interest to duplicating that.
With Moon the question now is, with the degree of trouble that you talk about. Will we push into areas that we have not been into lately? Will we push into Europe? Will we push into some of the larger city destinations? I don’t know but we are considering it.