I originally wanted to title this post: “Wild: how guidebooks haven’t changed in the 20 years since Cheryl Strayed walked the Pacific Crest Trail” but I didn’t want to catch the ire of Wild fans who think this will be about hiking or trekking or anything related to the wilderness. Rather, I wanted to point to the problem with guidebooks, though I admit I was inspired by Ms Strayed’s book in thinking about this. On her hike in 1995, Ms Strayed was guided by a book called “The Pacific Crest Trail” and it came in two parts: California and Oregon & Washington. Every night, Ms Strayed would burn the pages of the book she no longer needed, meaning the section of the trail she just completed, at her campfire. It was her way of reducing the weight on her back.
Now, you may scoff and say that 20 years have passed and surely today she would do it differently. But would she?
Consider that the same guidebook is being sold today in the same format: a thick paperback, for $18.70. It’s also being sold in Kindle format, for an additional $12.49. Assuming that the Kindle reader can last for the weeks between the resupply stations on the trail, it might work to carry it in Kindle format. It’s certainly lighter. And a solar charger might help as well, though that’s adding weight where we should be reducing it. Should buyers of the physical book be given the digital copy for free? At the very least, Amazon could make an attractive package deal for the two.
Let’s take a look at a more general use of guidebooks, shall we? In a city, for example, Kindles and tablets are awkward to carry around but mobile phones, charged and in full color, are already part of a tourist’s day-pack. How do publishers translate a guidebook into a mobile experience?
A guidebook isn’t read sequentially, like fiction, but rather as a reference book, accessing the different sections almost randomly, more like a cookbook. It’s often more convenient to have an actual book for the planning stages of a trip but a digital format is fine as a reference when actually taking the trip. A good app will provide smart access to that content taking into account the current location and making suggestions accordingly.
The guidebook I enjoyed using most for New York City was the DK Eyewitness Guide. I liked that it’s full of photos and maps, with lots of planned walks with places to stop for a snack on the way. It’s a book that’s fun to browse, picking and choosing places to visit. Yet, while in New York, we never took the guidebook with us on our walks because it was too heavy. Occasionally we took a photo of a page or two with a planned walk and a map. This was the ridiculous way we “translated” the book to mobile.
Yet DK is one of the largest travel book publishers, and you would expect them to have a great, content-rich app, right? Well, not so fast. Their app is a meld of an online site and an app. Users plan the trip on the website by stringing destinations into a schedule and download that itinerary to the app. The problem is that the app doesn’t take advantage of the great content the book has, probably out of a fear that users will be happy with what they get on the site and app and not buy the book. DK itself doesn’t seem to think it’s still a good idea because they will shut down the site in May and delete all user profiles and saved itineraries.
Other publishers of popular travel books have made even less of an effort to make good mobile options. The only mobile option many currently offer is a Kindle version. An exception is Zagat, especially in New York City, whose app provides access to all of the information it has in its book. Conversely, when a good travel app launches it usually doesn’t have great content, as good travel content requires a lot of work to gather and to keep updated. Guidebook publishers need better app developers and app developers need better travel content. This may be the reason why Zagat works: it was bought by Google and Google is rumored to have good app developers, right?
So have guidebooks changed since Cheryl Strayed burned pages on the PCT? Not really. Will they change soon? Only if leading travel publishers think it’s important, and I’m not sure they do.