Daily Archives: May 21, 2008

The Future of Guidebooks

Nakhon Sawan is no longer in Lonely Planet

Over the years, guidebooks have changed greatly. Not only in content, but also in size. The first copy of Lonely Planet that I bought 14 years ago is now half the size of the present ones. I am sure many of us have noticed how thick and heavy guidebooks have become. According to the publishers, they have now reached their limit and they have had to start removing certain listings and even whole provinces. This of course means that they are no longer as extensive as they were before. As many of you know, I have been to many amazing tourist attractions within a day trip from Bangkok, and many of them are not in the Lonely Planet.

All guidebooks have a problem not only with how much information they can hold, but how up-to-date it can be. I know from experience, that any updates researched for the guidebooks won’t actually appear in print for more than one year. Maybe longer. In the meantime, prices go up. Restaurants close down. And hotels change management. All of this even before it hits the shelves of the book stores. By the time you go on holiday, some of the so-called updates are 2 or 3 years old. And sometimes I wonder if they ever visit the locations to do the updates. For Samut Prakan they now say “Motorcycle taxi drivers mend fishing nets while waiting for a fare”. In all the years I have been here, I have never seen anyone mend fishing nets unless they were fishermen on their boats in the harbour. It might sound cute, but it is hardly accurate.

The second biggest complaint about the guidebooks is now the weight. Who wants to bring a brick on a two week holiday to Thailand? So, what is happening, people are starting to photocopy relevant chapters and just bring these on their holiday. I quite often do the same myself unless I think I might travel a bit further afield on a trip. But, guidebooks are also very expensive these days and who in their right mind would buy a 900 page guidebook and just use a few pages? Like many other people these days, what I quite often do before going off on a trip is do my research on the Internet. The travel blogs that we write here on www.thai-blogs.com are often fresh and uptodate. There are also places like the forums at www.ThailandQA.com where you can ask for free advice from people who live or have already travelled in your holiday destination. Before I go on a holiday, I quite often print out these blogs and forum pages. I don’t always refer to guidebooks as I have already seen most of the major sights.

The beautiful temples of Saraburi are no longer in Lonely Planet

So, are guidebooks now history? Well, not quite. I am still a fan of the Lonely Planet. I like their comments and also their maps. These were invaluable to me when I was traveling across China 15 years ago. Back then we didn’t have the Internet to help us and so the LP was literally our Bible. I traveled through many towns without hardly seeing any other foreigners. They were so scarce that if I saw a foreigner on the other side of the road I would quickly cross in order to question them about the road ahead. We needed as much information as we could get. Things were changing fast and the guidebooks couldn’t always keep up. Travellers these days can of course go to an Internet cafe and post their question on a travel forum. They can either print this out, or even download the new generation of guidebooks – the so-called e-books. But there are some other new, and potentially exciting developments.

Not long ago, the WikiTravel website announced their launch of a new kind of guidebook. This is what they said on their website:

“Wikitravel Press represents a new approach to travel-book publishing … Unlike other travel books that feature lengthy delays between when they are written and when they appear on store shelves, Wikitravel Press books are updated every month as the publishers pull together the latest contributions and edits from the website.”

What is exciting is that they are combining the wealth of information on their travel website together with “on-demand” printing. In the old days, if you want to print your novel, you would have to do a print run of at least 1,000 books. But, with the advance in technology, it is now quite feasible to have printed only one copy of your novel. The same goes for these guidebooks. As they update every month, when you purchase a book from them, the chances are it is only going to be a few weeks old. This will drastically change the future of guidebooks. Lonely Planet cannot ignore this development or they risk being left behind.

Fortunately for us, they are sitting up and listening. Whereas Wikitravel will print an uptodate guidebook, it is still big and heavy. Lonely Planet are now going a different direction, which many of us have been waiting for, for a long time. This is their announcement about their new “pick & mix” project:

Over the years many travellers have told us they’d like to take just the parts of our books they really want and need. We’ve thought about how best to do this, and are happy to present our first foray into the world of Pick & Mix. Pick & Mix is just that – you can buy, download and print the individual chapters you need in digital (PDF) format. To start, we’ve (digitally) chopped up all of our guidebooks on North America, South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. We plan to do the same for the rest of our guides, but this is a new idea for us, so we’d like to try it first and see how it goes.

This is of course a great advancement. Many of us now take mobile devices on holiday, so we can easily download these PDF files and read them on holiday or just print them out. We can even download them from Internet cafes as we travel. A chapter costs as little as $2. The more chapters you buy, the bigger the discount they give. All very good, but, it looks like it is still based on the print edition. What they need to do, is update these files as and when new information comes in from the guidebook contributors. But they are at least going the right direction and I applaud them for that.

I believe the next generation of guidebooks will be electronic with options to print them out ourselves. I think in the future we will be seeing more website where you can download guidebooks. Maybe some for free. Maybe some for just a few dollars. It is an exciting future and it is something that maybe us at Paknam Web Network should invest some time and effort. After all, we have a large collection of travel blogs and online guidebooks about Thailand. Maybe we should start sorting these out and offering them as downloads. I doubt it would make us rich, but it would certainly help pay towards expenses when we go on these road trips around Thailand.

Which direction do you think guidebooks will go in the future?