Travel guide sales had appeared to stabilise - then there was another fall. Stephen Mesquita investigates
In the seven years 2005 to 2011, sales of general travel guides in the UK market fell by 35% in Nielsen's Total Consumer Market; in the six years from 2012 to 2017, they rose by 1.5%. The reason for the sharp fall from 2005 is well documented. It coincided with the rapid growth of free online information, particularly of consumer-generated content on sites such as Trip Advisor. This challenged the commercial model of printed travel guides - but it also challenged their long-standing authority. How could one author have the breadth of experience that hundreds, even thousands of consumers could offer?
Many commentators felt that the guidebook was in terminal decline - but in 2012, the UK market came out of its tailspin and reached a more comfortable plateau. Some publishers even saw their sales grow back towards 2005 levels. It's true that the category of guides most directly in competition with Trip Advisor, Accommodation and Restaurant guides, fell by 50% in the period 2005 to 2011, and have continued to fall (by 26%) in 2012 to 2017. By the end of this year, this category will have fallen by as much as 80% in direct response to free online information created by consumers. It is hard to see a future for printed saleable guides in this category.
But the trend has been different in general travel guides, with an end to the decline and a stabilising of the market. Until last year, that is. In 2018, the sale of Destination guides fell by 4%. This year is shaping to fare worse; at the end of August, sales had fallen by nearly 8% - and that figure would be nearer 10%, if the market had not seen a 6% growth in guides to UK destinations.
The graph above shows the picture over the whole 15-year period in which the Travel Publishing Year Book has been published (including an estimate for 2019 sales based on January to August sales). Compare this to the sales of Where To Stay/Where To Eat guides over the same period in the graph on the left.
So were the years 2012 to 2017 simply a temporary respite from an overriding trend of decline - or is the fall in sales in 2018 and 2019 a blip in an otherwise stable market? Only time will tell, but there is certainly credible evidence that the past two years have not been typical. First, there does not seem to be any reason to suppose that the decline in travel guide sales in 2018 to 2019 has been subject to any further disruption from other sources of travel information.
Part of the cause for the market stabilising in 2012 to 2017 may well have been a renewed appreciation by the market of the benefits of the printed guide over online consumer-generated information.
Holidays at home
In 2017, while the overall market for Destination guides fell, guides to UK destinations grew by 15% while guides to overseas destinations fell by 3%. In 2018, both categories were down. But in 2019, sales to the end of August showed overseas destinations down by 9% while sales of UK Destination guides rose by 6%. Sales of UK Destination guides constitute only 20% of the total, with overseas destinations at 80%. Not surprisingly, guide sales reflect the trend over the past three years away from international holidays and towards the UK. The weak pound has made travelling outside the UK more expensive - and the economic uncertainty caused by Brexit may well have led to fewer Brits holidaying abroad.
As most of the major travel publishers' lists are focused outside the UK, a decline in international travel has a greater impact than a rise in UK travel. Will it continue? Ask me this time next year. But, there is probably some pent-up demand out there somewhere waiting to be released - at some time in the future.
Stephen Mesquita is a travel publishing analyst and author of the Nielsen BookScan Travel Publishing Year Book. The 2020 edition (out in February) is available from email@example.com.
This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch Frankfurt Book Fair Show Daily.