Robert Reid: A Guidebook Writer in the Digital Age

Travel Interviews: Eva Holland asks the Lonely Planet writer turned Web publisher about the rise of online guides and why he sometimes believes he's "living a doomed profession."

03.14.08 | 10:47 AM ET

imageDuring the past five years, Robert Reid has researched and written a dozen Lonely Planet books totaling almost a million copies sold, and he has helped update a half-dozen more books. In 2006 he passed up a chance to work on Lonely Planet’s Vietnam title and instead created his own free online guide to Vietnam, Reid On Travel. After we recently wrote about the death of a classic guidebook, I contacted Robert for a chat about changes sweeping the guidebook publishing industry. I tracked him down in Burma, where he was updating Lonely Planet’s controversial guide to that country.

World Hum: How do you think the Internet, and online travel guides in particular, have affected the guidebook publishing industry? Do the traditional publishers see it as a dangerous competitor, an opportunity to reach more readers using a new medium, or maybe a bit of both?

Robert Reid: I used to think the most important thing we guidebook authors did for travelers was hotel reviews. People like to have some sense of security that the $5 or $300 place they’re staying in won’t be a brothel or rat-infested dump. But the Internet has already completely changed this. Previously if I had a new budget hotel in a town center, or a mid-ranger with pool, travelers would have to wait nine or 12 months from the time I “discovered” it until it appeared in a guide. Now Internet booking sites often get them immediately. When I went to China a couple years ago, I stayed at a brand-new hostel in Beijing that the Trans-Siberian author had just found, but that hadn’t yet appeared in the guide. It was already full! I was amazed at how nearly all the people there had found it online, and were booking their full China trip’s accommodations online.

At a Lonely Planet workshop a couple years ago, I asked a high-up at LP who they saw as their biggest competitor, and they immediately answered “Google.” I was impressed. So publishers like LP definitely see the Internet as a growing competitor, and have for a while. When the BBC bought LP a couple months ago, one of the key things they cited for future development was online content.

In the About section of Reid On Travel, you mention a couple of advantages of the independent Web-based guidebook: turn-around time, and the ability to be more frank about the places you visit. Do you see any downsides to the Web format, areas where the traditional guidebook still has the edge?

I still think many, many travelers like holding a book in their hands. One of the things I really want to have on my site is print-friendly PDFs with alternate covers and directions on how to bind your own customized version of the guide. That would be fun to have.

I’m also talking with a Vietnamese publisher about making a mini version of “alternate Vietnam” for Southeast Asia distribution. That would be fun, too.

Another thing is that many sites with travel content online don’t have maps. And maps are HUGE. I sometimes think seasoned travelers need only a map, with barebones details of a few places to stay, and barebones details of what to see and where to eat. If they trust the author—and that’s a big if, of course—not as much needs to be said as some people think. This, again, is for seasoned travelers only.

The only other thing I fear regarding online guidebooks is if they follow the “I stayed here and it was great” TripAdvisor or model. Those are useful, no doubt, but they’re only based on isolated experiences. If publishers turn things over at some point to reader-generated content, you won’t have the authoritative overviews that guidebook writers can offer, and it’ll end up with deeper beaten tracks, with more travelers doing the same thing.

What about the idea of diminishing regional expertise —the notion that publishers are increasingly turning to writers unfamiliar with the regions they’re being asked to cover? Do you agree that’s a trend in published guidebooks? And is that something the Web can improve on?

When I was at LP I used to have arguments with some editors about the issue of regional expertise.

Of course, if you have an author who’s been to Slovenia 11 times, lived there a year, and worked on the guidebook three times in a row, that is going to be better than a new young hot-looking author that would “love going to Eastern Europe at some point.” That’s clear.

What’s less clear is how “local insiders” can be vastly overvalued. For example, me. A few years ago LP asked me to update the hotels section for the New York City guide; as I’ve lived their eight or nine years now, I was seen as a good candidate. But actually I had never visited a New York hotel before. Sure I knew the difference between the Lower East Side and the Upper East Side, but I couldn’t tell you much about the Mercer or the Mark. Actually a far better qualified author to give judgment on hotel perspectives and how they’ve changed is the author who has done it before—an author living in Cuba of all places. (In this case, she didn’t want the book back, so—to be honest—I was a pretty good choice for them. And if I update the hotels again, I’ll feel about as well-qualified as anyone in the author pool…)

Another example is, say, if a publisher wants to do “Trekking in Nepal,” and they have two author choices: one who spent two years in the Peace Corps in a remote Nepal town, and another veteran author who wrote extensively about Patagonia in South America. In my opinion the Patagonia writer very well may be the better choice, even if that person hasn’t been to Nepal. Some don’t see it that way.

It’s possible to “build expertise” if publishers are willing to stick with an author on a few successive editions. A few years ago I updated Bulgaria for Eastern Europe having never been. Last year I updated it a second time, then was able to write an article on a student bar scene for the New York Times. I feel confident I’m as well-prepared to work on that guide as about anyone out there. And only because I was asked back. A second time updating a place is so much easier than the first.

I’m sure all the publishers now are wondering about how to hand off guidebooks to stringers, local experts who don’t have to pay high costs to fly across the world. They could update sections—Time Out-style—and have more frequent updates. That’s easier for urban areas, where restaurants and bars and hotels frequently change. In the next LP Russia guide, a great Muscovite writer has been added to the multi-author team—that should be good. But he’s not doing Moscow, but parts of Russia farther east. And I think that’s a perfect plan. Stringers may work for a “Cool Berlin Guide” online, but will have more trouble getting a traveler-oriented perspective of Xian, China or Nicaragua. Sometimes it’s harder to write about home.

But I do want to say David Stanley is right, it’s sad and reckless if an old author who did good work on several editions is cut for a new author. In my opinion, in-house editors don’t completely understand what goes into researching these guides—I was an editor for years, and only figured it out once I started writing full time. The best experience for writing a guidebook to X is not living in X but actually having written a guidebook to X. Sometimes publishers forget that a bit.

I don’t know if you packed your crystal ball for your trip to Burma, but any predictions for how all this will play out? Are paper guidebooks an endangered species? Will Google create an online guidebook empire, crushing paper books and indie Web sites alike?

Sometimes I think we’re living a doomed profession, and that we’ll look back on the wacky wild period from the 1970s to the 2000s when scores of notebook-toting travelers went and sought out the mysteries of places that are no longer mysterious. People will look back on the era like reading Graham Greene books about far-flung places at wilder times.

Will guidebooks in book form die? Probably so. But to be honest, I think there will always be room for the perspective of the “guidebook author,” at least online. Once hand-held devices get even more sophisticated, so that maps and reviews are more easily referred to—or we old folks die out and the younger generations who are not so soft on books take over—things will probably go online completely. But I sometimes think people like holding those books. So far, though, the TripAdvisor-type sites are excellent resources, but don’t account for perspective. One person goes to Y hotel and says “it’s super!” But they don’t realize A, B, C are similar and $40 less. Who goes to all 15 museums in Bucharest but a guidebook author? So only they can tell you that something like the Romanian National Museum of the Peasant is about the best museum in the world.

Thanks, Robert.

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

12 Comments for Robert Reid: A Guidebook Writer in the Digital Age

Julie 03.14.08 | 1:25 PM ET

Great interview. I’m no guidebook writer, but I disagree with some of Robert’s ideas about who is best qualified to writea guide. I think his responses, though, present a compelling argument for something I DON’T see in the guidebook industry—collaboration. Guidebooks cover such a vast range of territory, it would make sense if a two person team worked on them together—the local, lived perspective combined with the outsiders’ view. Personally, I think both are important.

Jack from 03.14.08 | 2:49 PM ET

There certainly seems to be a backlash against printed guidebooks lately, with Moleskine City Notebooks for this reason, as they give me a chance to find my own favorites.

There’s definitely a place for the experienced reviewer to share knowledge about a destination - the trick is to make it profitable and have people willing to pay now that Tripadvisor et al are giving away (mostly very poor) advise for free.

I don’t know what the future of travel guides are yet. Google maybe? Except of course there are so many aggregators spewing unuseful information into the results that finding real reviews that aren’t paid for is nigh impossible.

Julie 03.14.08 | 2:54 PM ET

Interesting reflection, especially about sites like TripAdvisor. I’ve never quite understood why someone is willing to trust the opinions of people who they not only don’t know, but also people whose identities can’t even be verified. I have a friend who owns a guest house in the Caribbean and who is a top ranked lodging in her area. She consistently receives rave reviews on Trip Advisor, and from my own experience there, I can see the props are deserved. A few months back, though, there was a scathing review. The owner was puzzled because the information the reviewer provided with respect to the specific property they stayed at and the dates they were presumably there didn’t match up with her records. Turns out that it was a competitor who wanted to undermine her #1 Trip Advisor status.

Nick 03.14.08 | 4:04 PM ET

As a fellow guidebook author I thought I’d chime in. The future of the guidebook industry is moving online. No doubt about it. Every print publisher has cut their fees for guidebook authors drastically in recent years as there is just so much more competition on the web. However, few people trust the quality of travel writing on the web. You can find good travel information online, but you have to dig through a mountain of virtual poo to get to it. I still feel that when a person really wants to visit a country, they are going to go to a bookstore and pick up a guidebook, because they know there has been real work and research put into it and they trust it. Plus they like carrying a book, something that has been around for a long long time, and it’s not as hard to read as an iPod, Palm, or loose sheets of computer paper that get folded and shoved in your pocket.

AzurAlive 03.16.08 | 8:51 AM ET

Great post.

As another fellow guidebook author, I agree that online formats will eventually replace print. What it will take is an easy to read, multi-media, cheap and WIFI and GPS-connected transportable platform, whether it be cell phones or whatever. I’ll walk up a street in Nice, and my subscription to a travel service will tell me where I am, what to to see, what’s open, what’s cooking on the plat-du-jour menu around the corner…

It may take a while, but it’s within reach.

No matter the format, I think there will always be a need for well-researched, well-crafted, edited and reviewed travel stories from professionals. For straight restaurant/hotel reviews however, I still trust the law of numbers over a single individual’s personal experience and preference.

chip 03.18.08 | 8:11 PM ET

Eva! thank you for a wonderful interview with someone who knows his stuff and is pretty opinionated.  Mr. Reid seems to have the unique perspective of being on “both” sides of publishing a guide book - an editor and an author.  I do agree that two things people want are books to hold in their hands with nicely printed maps.  There may be less and less demand for printed books, but i can’t imagine it will go away completely.

I would be interested in knowing how a self-published internet guidebook author gets the word out - how do they go about promoting their sites?

XtoF 03.25.08 | 8:29 AM ET

I think both medium (books & online) are complementary. Websites are more reactive and you can find loads of infos and different points of view online.
On the contrary informations presented by a book are more restrictive but you don’t have to sort the good stuff from the poo.
Most important : I can read a book everywhere ! Even in an old bus travelling trough the Bolivian Altiplano. They don’t have a top notch wireless network there… yet ;)

Jarrett 03.25.08 | 9:05 AM ET

It seems to me that the real solution has to be the “print your own guidebook”, where a trusted source like LP can provided most of its content online, but still sell the same content, maybe with a bit more, in a print-on-demand form.  No?

Elise Krentzel 03.25.08 | 1:31 PM ET

I agree with most of what Mr. Reid says. As a guidebook writer and former electronic guidebook publisher, I’ve worked with a team which helps to alleviate the workload, delineate areas of expertise and speed up deadlines. It’s certainly true that seasoned writer/travelers who understand the mechanisms of research, social networking and fact checking shouldn’t be passed up just because “they don’t live in a certain location”. Don’t forget, we did this kind of work pre-internet age and didn’t get too lost.

Roberta Beach Jacobson 03.26.08 | 8:17 PM ET

Robert Reid makes a valid case in support of professionally written guides and why locals won’t cut it. However, updating is a costly undertaking. Changes are on the horizon, no doubt about that. Perhaps the answer is to assign the work to a team. I can add I’ve worked in such an arrangement for a publisher in London and things worked smoothly.

Jeremy Head 03.27.08 | 9:57 AM ET

In a nutshell - Who goes to all 15 museums in Bucharest except a guidebook writer. As one myself (from Frommer’s) I’d say that’s why guidebooks in some form will never be replaced by user generated content. Time poor travellers in particular will always need authoritative well researched info - be it in print or on-line or a bit of both.

Alex Millar 04.05.08 | 5:20 PM ET

Hi Eva,

You asked some good questions and got some thoughtful answers.
Out of curiosity: How long did this interview take?

My mum told me you were travel writing and it inspired me to do some of my own.  My writings about my trip about LA is

Cousin Alex

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