Is an Electronic Guidebook Packing Too Light in 2010?

Rick Steves: On Kindles, guidebooks, and whether the two are ready to be mixed

11.10.09 | 10:50 AM ET

There’s an exciting buzz among travelers and travel publishers about electronic books replacing paper ones. For those of us in travel publishing, this is a season of digital scrambling. And users’ heads are spinning with all the new technological options: iPhone apps, books on phones, electronic books on Kindle (the Amazon electronic book reader), small books printed on command (like our popular new Snapshots series), Urbanspoon, and Yelp.

I’ve met lots of travelers in Europe enthusiastically toting Kindles. Some are obnoxiously evangelical about them. Others are not so happy. I just received this interesting email report from someone upset about traveling with an electronic “book.”

Dear Rick,

We made a huge mistake. We thought we could use the Kindle version of your Venice guidebook. Wrong! We just arrived and there is no way to use it as a guidebook while traveling. It is great reading, but not convenient to use while exploring. (That is a Kindle issue.) Is there someplace in Venice that carries your guidebook? Or, is there one of your people in Venice that we can get a copy of your book from? Please help.

- Charlie and Mary

I am pretty slow in all of this. And, while determined not to be a Luddite about the demise of paper, I recently invited one of my employees (who I thought was a bit over-enthusiastic about futuristic forms of travel information) into my office, pointed to the 30 different Rick Steves guidebooks lining my windowsill, and said, “This is what we do ... paper guidebooks.”

I know the publishing world is changing very fast. I just like paper guidebooks. I’ve bumped into lots of people in Europe thrilled with their Kindles. While it is a brilliant innovation and certainly the future, at this point some find the technology still clunky for guidebooks.

I’d love to hear about your own thoughts and experiences in the Comments.

Rick Steves

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. He is the author of Travel as a Political Act.

13 Comments for Is an Electronic Guidebook Packing Too Light in 2010?

Arthur Pignotti 11.10.09 | 1:56 PM ET

I don’t think the Kindle will replace guidebooks just yet because there are some navigation difficulties that need to be fixed. However, I would encourage writers like yourself to try to work with digital readers like the Kindle and the Nook to help develop the devices into tools that would be good for traveling. I would like to say that my Kindle has replaced all the rest of the books in my bag though, which saved me a lot of space for recent trips to the UK and the east coast.

Gary Arndt 11.10.09 | 4:09 PM ET

Guidebooks are really databases. A flat repositioning as an ebook will probably not work as well as an iPhone application or an application on another device.

Stacey S. 11.10.09 | 8:00 PM ET

I certainly agree that all e-books, not just travel guidebooks, need some significant adjustments to adapt traditionally print content to the electronic format. For example, how does an e-reader replicate the simple act of flipping back to a previous chapter, or dog-earing a page to save for later, as elegantly as its printed counterpart? Don’t think we’ve seen it done yet—and may not for a few generations of reading devices—but that should make it all the MORE imperative for book publishers to start thinking and innovating now, not riding the coattails of software developers who don’t approach books the same way. I’d much rather have an e-guidebook conceived and designed by Rick Steves—who really understands how folks travel and what we want from a travel guide—than one designed by Sony or Amazon (or any other such company). And while I’m hard pressed to imagine an e-book experience that can take the place of a print book in my backpack or pocket, I hope for and am excited for the day that an inventive publisher or author comes up with some cool new features to entice me to switch.

scott 11.10.09 | 11:15 PM ET

Any one know about living in South Carolina?

Adam Bray 11.11.09 | 12:19 AM ET

I’m a guidebook writer for SE Asia myself, so very interested in the topic. Those of us in the publishing industry know that it, like similar industries, is in very hard times. As you pointed out, there is a lot of excitement over electronic books, aps and readers, so I think its only natural to go in that direction. I just tested out Lonely Planet’s new iPhone city guides. They were fun to use, and features like the maps with GPS, and ability to click on websites and phone numbers and make immediate calls were very helpful. However, there were some notable disadvantages. Tables of Contents, directories and lists tend to be very long and unwieldy. It’s impossible to get the overall feel of the city with an eguide like this—it can only be read in bits and pieces—so it only really works if you already know where you want to go but want more information about a sight or venue or how to get there.

An iphone ap or electronic book does present the opportunity for a publisher to update the content more often (after all they don’t have to pay to re-publish a paper book if a few phone numbers change—they simply issue an electronic update), however with the low budgets and stone-age business models guidebook publishers still use these days, I don’t see this happening. And this is the problem… technology and platform can never replace good content… but the outcome I propose may not be what you expect. The interesting thing in all this is that the advantages of publishing with new electronic platforms, specifically things like iPhone aps, are geared more toward small publishers and individual developers—rather than the large book publishers. In this game, anyone with time, skill and expertise has the capability of producing a competing guide—with much more up-to-date content than a big publisher can manage. Inevitably everything will probably move to electronic format of some kind, but in the end, I think the big publishers will still be the big losers down the line—unless they revolutionize their processes behind the scenes.

Still for now, I know I appreciate putting my reference books all on one device if I can. As a guidebook writer that likes to work on my books while on the road, I otherwise tend to have to carry a whole heavy reference library on my back, which is not very nice!

Erin Van Rheene 11.11.09 | 2:35 AM ET

I’m a guidebook writer and a fan of the physical book, but today I bought a second-hand Kindle 2 and in a week will take it on the road, to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. What pushed me in that direction was stacking up all the books—guidebooks, reference, and pleasure reading—I wanted to take with me. It was one tall stack, and would have needed its own suitcase. I’ll be traveling by bus, car, boat, and maybe light plane, so I need to pack pretty light.

I thought of getting a non-Kindle e-reader (like a Sony, or the Barnes & Noble Nook) because I really wanted to be able to download and read all the books available in epub format (check out or that are free once their copyright lapses—you can download Jane Austen and Edgar Allen Poe and old scholarly works to your heart’s content. Of course Kindle can’t read epub (or maybe it can—I’m working on it).
The problem was finding up-to-date guidebooks or new fiction—I could find that only in the KIndle store. And even there, Lonely Planet had the monopoly, as they do elsewhere. For Nicaragua guidebooks on Kindle, I get to choose between Nicaragua Adventure Guide and Lonely Planet. What about Moon, Footprint, the Rough Guide to Central America? But I bit the digital bullet and downloaded the Lonley Planet chapter on San Carlos, Islas Solentiname, and the Rio San Juan. It is cool that I can choose just part of the book—no more ripping sections out of guidebooks.

But the navigation is driving me crazy. I didn’t realize ‘till now what a wonderful technology flipping through a book is. It works perfectly for a guidebook reader’s needs. And if there are maps (other than a small map showing the whole country) in my download, I haven’t found them yet. A guidebook without maps? What’s next, footless tights?

But I’ll try it out, this traveling with a Kindle thing, and see if I can adapt. It was fun to download my own book, even if I did have to pay for it. I’ll have to ask my publisher what kind of cut I get for Kindle sales. I don’t think I’m going to like the answer.

Tim L. 11.11.09 | 10:50 AM ET

I sell almost as many copies of The World’s Cheapest Destinations in electronic format as I do in print format, but that’s a book that’s easy to navigate and search. Guidebooks in electronic form are really frustrating and time-consuming to use, especially when you see how badly the graphics port over to the Kindle. If going to one or two countries, I wouldn’t dream of giving up a print guidebook because it’s so much more pleasurable to use. The problem comes in when you’re going to multiple places and you end up with the stack that Erin describes. If I were going on a round-the-world journey, I think I’d go electronic just because of the packing issue.

Arthur Pignotti 11.11.09 | 12:38 PM ET

Erin: If you have a mac, all you need to do is download a program called Stanza, which can be found at: When you download the epub file, open it in Stanza. Then go to ‘File/Export Book As/Amazon Kindle’ and you have your book in the kindle format. I’m pretty sure there is an equivalent program for windows, but I don’t know it off the top of my head. I hope this helps.

Christina H 11.11.09 | 1:22 PM ET

I went to Paris & Brussels recently with my Kindle 2, and had Rick Steve’s Paris 2009 and his Brussels/Bruges/Amsterdam books on it. I had bookmarked or highlighted all the sections I wanted to refer to when I was in those cities, and everything worked out pretty well. There were some drawbacks - Kindles are slow to navigate through, even when you have bookmarks or notes. And the maps are harder to read, although the Kindle has a feature to magnify the images. But it was worth it because it saved me 2 heavy guidebooks. Plus with the search feature, I could look up additional information (somewhat) easily, like restaurants. Verdict: Worth it if you do your homework beforehand, but could still stand some improvements.

Jennifer @ ApproachGuides 11.11.09 | 2:37 PM ET

I don’t think it has to be an all or nothing option. We travel with traditional bound guidebooks and online sources that we can use on the web or iPhone.  However, there is a middle-ground in PDF guidebooks.

The sales of our PDF guidebooks (specific to cultural subjects) have been up as travelers like the ability to print out only the pages they need and can store them online in case something happens to the pages they printed out. For us they are very cost effective as we don’t incur inventory costs and we can update them easily.

I await an improved Kindle that better blends the benefits of on- and offline reading and does not use a proprietary format.

Grizzly Bear Mom 11.12.09 | 1:35 PM ET

Paper books also give one the ability to rip out unnecesary chapters and even share them with other travelers, like I did with an Indian family traveling from the Middle East last year at Charles De Galle airport.  I’m not too technologically savvy.  Can one share chapters form e-books?

Erin Van Rheenen 11.12.09 | 2:17 PM ET

Thanks, Arthur, for the tip on Stanza.  I have a Mac at home but travel with an Asus netbook (I’m sure there are Stanza-like programs for Windows). Interesting, too, to hear from authors/publishers selling at least as many digital books as paper ones. I may try that route—would like to self-publish a book about moving abroad ( and might try out a sample downloadable chapter to start.

I agree with Jennifer that it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach. I’ll take the Kindle, but will also take a few books, some for gifts (I don’t think Kindle allows you to share chapters, and not everyone wants to read books online) and others than I can’t get in electronic format (like Wade Davis’ One River and Alice Munro’s new book of short stories).

Has anyone tried Calibre, software designed to let you manage your e-library (Kindle’s bad at that, it seems) but that also converts non-Kindle file formats to make them readable on a Kindle? I want to try it but don’t want to crash my Kindle.

Larry J. Clark 11.16.09 | 11:00 PM ET

I made a trip to Paris in October and tried a couple Rick’s books on the Kindle.  I took along his “Travel as a Political Act” as something to read as—well—a “book”.  It’s something you read serially, so it worked (I have a standard Kindle 2, so there were some awkward format thing that happened now and then.  As for the Paris guidebook—on the Kindle it was miserable. 

I’m not in the “tear out the pages you don’t want” category, but travel guides are like technical manuals.  I flip back and forth, stick little slips of paper into spots, bend a corner, etc.  Further, if it’s evening, I might be looking for a restaurant or a night spot.  During the day, I’m probably looking for more mainstream attractions, or information about neighborhoods, transit, etc.

Amazon just released Windows software that supports Kindle books on a computer, but dragging out a something even as small as a netbook doesn’t sound like a step up on convenience if you’re on a Metro platform, trying to navigate around London in the rain, or hoping not attract too much attention at the Naples train station.

Unless radical navigational improvements are made with the Kindle (and despite all the screaming, Amazon has not even been able to implement folders in which to organize your books) I won’t buy another Kindle travel guide.

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