© Karen Cummings
What happened to guidebooks? Over the years, guidebooks have begun to disappoint. They have some severe limitations in terms of space (number of pages); when published, the information is already a year old; plus, these days, guidebook writers are rarely the kind of travelers who can truly appreciate the kinds of establishments I would want to dine or sleep in.

However, guidebooks have a place in travel — but, a new place.

I used to publish guidebooks back in the mid-1980s. My company, World Leisure, was listed as one of the 100 top publishers in the country and the company had a best-seller in its list. Eventually, our business shifted to the Web because of many of the following limitations.

The first problem with guidebooks is that they are physically constrained by their pages. Guidebooks need to be small enough that they can be carried by travelers. An 800-page book won’t make it. I remember the old days when travelers would buy Europe on $5-a-day and tear out individual chapters.

The number of pages also limits content. There can only be so many restaurants and hotels that can be reviewed within the available pages. Hence, many wonderful restaurants and hotels just don’t make it. Even if the researchers managed to get to them, they don’t have the room to include all of the dining and lodging establishments they visit.

Constrained by time — the amount of time from writing to publishing is long and distribution to bookstores takes longer. The timeline for guidebook writing needs to take into account editing time, press time, shipping time, warehousing and getting the books on the bookstore shelves.

Even the most aggressive timeline for an early year publication starts at least a year in advance, with almost all writing done in the preceding spring months. The basic, inescapable fact is that guidebooks are out of date the day they hit the bookstore shelves.

Constrained by writers, editors and publisher budgets — In the heyday of guidebooks, writers were experienced, and diligently visited every sight, hotel and restaurant that they covered in their guides. They balanced the basic service items of attractions, lodging and dining with history that put much of a traveler’s experience into perspective. That rarely happens anymore.

Travel-book writers, for the most part are young freelancers or students on summer vacation who are severely underpaid by publishing companies. These writers commit to a guidebook in order to “get their name in print.” Why? Guidebooks can be an arduous steppingstone to many better freelance assignments or work on a magazine staff.

These still-wet-behind-the-ears writers are expected to have the experience to discern the difference between various restaurant service standards and cuisine levels when they have no idea about either. These writers are supposedly capable of assessing luxury hotel service extras vis-a-vis budget hotels when they have never experienced luxury standards that they have paid for with their own money.

Simply put, the travel writers who are updating or writing new guidebooks and the preponderance of their editors are not trained, nor experienced enough to make these kinds of decisions.

They often make their minds up based on which hotels and restaurants treat them the best — this means, bluntly speaking, businesses that provide them their meals and lodging for free. Any real traveler who understands how much travel costs these days and who knows how much guidebook authors are paid can easily understand the need to collect as many “comps” as possible (comps are freebies).

So what happens? Not only are recommendations skewed by in-kind bribes, the recommendations are then copied by other overworked writers of guidebooks. Often, marginal establishments which “bought their way” into a guidebook, find themselves included year after year in that series and in other books where authors crib their reviews.

Note: A lot of these practices are forbidden by many publishers; however, based on writers’ pay, expecting them to eschew freebies and press trips or special press rates is unrealistic. On the other hand, ironically, old-time travel writers who are eventually “bought off” by everyone in the business become the most trusted. Unlike young writers, they can’t be influenced by freebies when their entire travel life is, basically, free. They represent the experienced side of travel writers where a kind of Mexican-standoff integrity reigns.

Exacerbating this problem of plagiarized-then-reworded reviews is the phalanx of editors that stand between a writer and the final copy found in guidebooks. Many times these editors consult other references and change the travel writer’s assessment.

Years ago, when writing a guidebook section about northern Spain, my copy was changed based on what a major-publisher editor saw in Travel and Leisure magazine. The editor moved one of the magazine-recommended restaurants into my copy, even though the restaurant, right on the main square where tour buses parked, was overpriced, avoided by locals, full of tourists and was only included in the magazine because it took American Express cards.

In another instance, editors changed my copy regarding the start of Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls. I noted that the run started at 8 a.m. and the editors (never having visited the city) declared that I was wrong. They cited other guidebooks that stated the run started at 7 a.m. and, over my objections, changed the time. The old guidebooks, were once-upon-a-time correct — not when I wrote the section, nor anytime since.

There is a place for guidebooks
Publishers need to reexamine the position of guidebooks. Before the Europe-on-$5-a-day, Fielding and Fodor’s time of hotel, restaurant and sightseeing recommendations, guidebooks were focused on sights, history and anecdotes. I still gravitate back to those kinds of books when I travel. They add a depth and texture to travel that is more than just seeing something in person rather than in a glossy book or on the TV or at the movies.

One of the reasons that the Rick Steves’ guidebook series is so well received is his initial emphasis, together with his buddy Gene Openshaw, on art and history. Walks through the town and guided tours of museums made these books something special and different. Plus, the researchers actually visited smaller, affordable hotels and came up with a different and unique collection of lodging and accommodation suggestions. I still enjoy this series, not for its dining and hotel recommendations (now packed with Rick Steves’ aficionados), but for his walks, history and museum tours with comments about individual pieces of art.

At any rate, any veteran traveler knows that guidebooks have become basic copies of each other or collections of magazine articles. Most of us now delve into the Web to find up-to-date information about where to dine and stay.

How guidebooks change will determine whether they survive the Internet age of instant information. Publishers need to give their approach a fresh look and use their publications to enhance and improve the travel experience rather than to only do what online guides can do better.

Photo: Karen Cummings