Arthur Frommer was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War but he served in Europe, taking weekend trips from his base in Berlin whenever he had the chance. Frommer enjoyed the excursions despite his very low funds and decided to share what he learned in his self-published, "The GI's Guide to Traveling in Europe." In 1957, after returning to the States, he published a version for civilians, called "Europe on $5 a Day." All 5,000 copies sold on the first day they landed in bookstores, and a new book genre was born.
Twenty years later, Frommer sold his travel book business to Simon & Schuster, and it changed hands a few more times before landing at Google last summer, leading some to wonder about its future. That wasn't the only news that made industry watchers wonder if the end of travel-book publishing is nigh -- Lonely Planet recently laid off around 15 percent of its editorial staff.
Travel guidebooks are not just battling the economics of a shrinking publishing industry, they're competing for eyeballs against free, crowdsourced travel review sites such as TripAdvisor and usually-free, interest-specific travel applications running on electronic devices that are considerably more portable than most guidebooks.
But don't start the eulogies. This summer, Frommer, 83, reacquired his book business from Google (he never relinquished control of the copyright license and even wrote some titles since the initial sale). He and his daughter Pauline Frommer, Frommer Media's new editorial director, are planning an ambitious relaunch, publishing 80 guidebooks by the end of 2014.
A former actress who has been in the family business for the past 17 years -- she was founding editor of Frommers.com and travel editor for MSNBC.com -- Pauline Frommer took a break from editing one of those upcoming titles to chat about the travel-book business and why she thinks the Frommer's franchise will return stronger than ever.
"During October, November and December we have 30 titles coming out, and 20 of them are part of a new series called Easy Guides," she says. "With the cost of carrying luggage, we don’t want to take up too much space. Easy Guides are to the point. We'll tell you which hotels will enhance your experiences, which restaurants say something vital about where you're staying. We're here to give guidance, not information because there are reams of information -- too much information -- on the Internet."
This authoritative voice sets Frommer's guides apart and is what will ultimately win over travelers, she says. "People still need guidance. With user-generated Web sites, we have a lot of factoids, but not a lot of guidance."
Guidebook authors canvas all hotels or restaurants in a given destination, and their broad scouting means they'll direct travelers away from mistakes they might make by relying on online reviews. She points to a little hotel she visited in Hawaii. "It's a falling-down little B&B, but it had a top rating on TripAdvisor. The owner said she had gotten a bad review so had asked former clients to write good ones, and they boosted the rate. Meanwhile, there was a better, cheaper hotel down the road that people looking to TripAdvisor wouldn't necessarily know about."
As for mediums, Frommer says many upcoming titles will be available in either print or digital editions (for uploading to a Kindle or similar digital reader). "We are in talks with other entities regarding developing some travel apps, as well," she notes. Publishers Group West (PGW) will distribute and market the upcoming titles, and Constellation, a PGW digital publishing unit, will produce the e-book versions.
"A lot of the coverage [of news of the reacquisition from Google] has been saying 'Frommers are nuts for reviving the guidebooks.' Well, we are very aware that bookstores are closing left and right. It breaks our hearts. But we've never been naïve, thinking guidebooks are for print only," she says.
Regardless of format, Frommer believes "people are still going to pay for intensely researched content" in all types of publishing. "It all comes down to the value of journalism. We are taking the bet that people will see value in what we do."
Are you faithful to your favorite guidebook publisher or have you taken to online, user-generated reviews for help in planning itineraries? Leave a comment and let SmartPlanet know.