Travel Guides Still Selling Well, Saved by Portability

This article from the New York Times talks about efforts being made by the travel guide industry to avoid being disrupted by the Internet.

“We want to be in a position where, if the business suddenly collapses in five years, we have a plan — unlike the music industry,” said Martin Dunford, publishing director of Rough Guides, which is part of the Penguin division of the media company Pearson, based in London.

So far, the digital media revolution has been much less turbulent for guidebook publishers than for record companies, which are fighting rampant online copying. Sales of travel guides, while flat in some traditionally stalwart markets like Britain, have been growing strongly in developing countries and in the United States (…).

Travel publishers sold 14.8 million books in the United States last year, up 11 percent from two years ago, according to Nielsen BookScan. Still, guidebook companies may have missed an opportunity on the Internet.

Travel Guide books

(Flickr photo by Malias)

What it means: Portability, brand and content are this industry’s key success factors. I think they’ve been saved from disruption so far because of the combo of crappy mobile devices, bad wireless access and half-baked applications. When you travel, it’s still much easier to carry your print guide book with you than try to access online sites and applications. The industry is doing interesting stuff right now but, if I was running their online strategy, I would be putting a lot more energy behind social travel mobile applications. This is where the industry will be disrupted, when mobile comes of age (check out Dopplr for a glimpse at the future).

By the way, the following excerpts/quotes from the article could have been written about the directory industry (or the newspaper industry):

  • “While many travel publishers have had Web sites for a long time, some of them, along with booksellers, initially worried about cannibalizing sales of guidebooks”
  • “Digital business still generates relatively little revenue for guidebook publishers — less than 5 percent of sales at Penguin’s travel division, for example, according to executives there.”
  • “There’s been a lot of experimentation, but maybe not enough revenue coming back from digital,”
  • “The travel guide business, the good old-fashioned paper book, is still a strong and healthy business,” Ms. Slatyer said. “And we think it will be for some time.”
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Forbes Online Success does not Cannibalize Print; Future Focus on Local Business News

I had missed that news last week:

The head of Forbes.com told an industry conference that online success has not come at the expense of the print product. Speaking at the OPA forum for the future, in London today, James Spanfeller, president and CEO of Forbes.com, told delegates that his site drew 16 million unique visitors per month.

“The success of Forbes.com has not come at the expense of our print product, in fact the two media platforms have been a great complement to each other… we’ve had all the magazine content on the site for ten years, from launch, during that time readership for the magazine has increased. “The strategy has paid off handsomely for us not only in terms of increasing readership for the print product but we have also seen tremendous uptake of folks reading our sites.”

Mr Spanfeller said that growth was based on the recognition of the Forbes brand rather than a specific single delivery platform. “The manner by which people find our content is less important than having a brand that stands out and that people recognise.” He added that Forbes was prepared for a platform agnostic publishing world where the focus was on providing business news on a local basis. He said Forbes had just launched a Polish version and further local language services with geographically specific content were planned. He added that Forbes was investing heavily in creating original video.(…)

(via Journalism.co.uk )

What it means: it’s common knowledge in the industry that Forbes has done a very good job with their online properties, building specific content for the Web and launching vertical sites like Forbes Autos . What’s interesting is that they say it hasn’t dented their offline revenues and that’s good news for an industry that has seen its share of problems recently. Premiere Magazine is shutting down its print edition in the US but will keep operating its web site. In the videogames industry, Computer Games Magazine, the second oldest pc-focused game magazine, has apparently been shut down by publisher TheGlobe.com. (Personal note: I’ve known Steve Bauman, the editor-in-chief, since my days at UbiSoft in the ’90s).

Coming back to Forbes, according to this New York Times article, “the Forbes site attracted almost $55 million in revenue in 2005, the most among business publications” The Times article also debates whether they have as much traffic as they claim, bringing back to the surface the whole third-party measurement issue. “Some competitors argue that Forbes.com’s popularity derives in part from racy, provocative or wealth-obsessed lifestyle features that have little to do with traditional business news — examples from this year include “The Hottest Billionaire Heiresses,” “Top Topless Beaches” and “America’s Drunkest Cities.” Those kinds of articles, unlikely to appear in Forbes magazine, may be a small fraction of those that Forbes.com posts each day, but they are often featured on mass-market Web portals.” I call that smart marketing. As long as you don’t over-extend and dilute too much your brand, there are a lot of things that can be done differently online. You want to capture those eyeballs.

Update1: InfoWorld kills print edition, will focus on online. Owen Thomas from the Business 2.0 blog says: “I’ve heard from IDG insiders that IDG is keeping other print titles on life support, on the theory that the print edition adds brand awareness and gravitas to the websites.”

Update2: Time Warner announces that Life Magazine will be shut down