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Overguiding: notes from a gilded cage

1 May 2012

Digital was supposed to liberate travel.

Once, travel was about putting yourself out there. You went to a new place, and you figured stuff out. You got things wrong. You paid too much. Maybe you carried a guidebook – but they were sketchy at best. Hand-drawn maps. Skimpy on the detail (the 1987 Lonely Planet guide covered Jordan and Syria in 200 pages: the current LP Jordan alone is 360 pages). Dodgy, pennypinching advice (“Carry a pocketful of Smash with you, so the first time it rains you get a free meal” – apocryphal line from an unspecified guidebook, as related to me by a veteran writer in the late 90s. He was joking. I think.).

Now, though, there’s an urgency in the air. An author friend recently sent in his updated chapter on Palma de Mallorca, only for the editor to return it because he hadn’t supplied a street address for the cathedral. Another friend, working on a Cotswolds app, was required to find every public wifi hotspot between Cheltenham and Oxford, with price where applicable. Another, in Tuscany, was told to supply phone numbers for every church.

27.175444,78.042096 – Taj Mahal, Taj Ganj, Agra (U.P.) 282 001, India

Then there are the geocodes. Rough Guides have abandoned – for now – their newly announced requirement for authors to supply geocodes for every named building, attraction, point of interest, hotel, restaurant, bar, shop, cow and haystack, after authors (I’ve been one for the last 15 years) jumped up and down and shouted a lot about copyright and workload and other stuff, but the requirement will no doubt resurface in some other form, sooner or later. Geocodes in NYC or NSW I can understand – they can be useful in a big city – but geocodes in the Jordanian desert? As part of ordinary guide content for people touring around? Put the damn phone away. Talk to the bedouin. Look at the road. If there is one.

If you think travel is a sequence of unconnected dots which need linking, knowing geocodes make perfect sense. But if you think travel is about people, local knowledge, local stories, landscapes, journeys and experiences, knowing geocodes is about as useful as knowing the Taj Mahal’s address.

But the impulse to overguide doesn’t stop there.

When is a price not a price?

Since Rough Guides started, in 1982, they’ve had a system of price codes for accommodation: the author draws up nine brackets relating to the price for a double room in high season (e.g. 1 Under $10; 2 $10-20; 3 $20-30; and so on) so that every hotel in the book is given a price code, indicating an approximate range. When you’re travelling you quickly establish that hotels in, say, the 3 or 4 brackets suit you, so your eye goes straight to them. Or you stick with 1s and 2s – or you splurge on a 9.

It was a rough guide – and it matched what travel is like. But if you have that system you HAVE to tell the reader what the price code means. Rough Guides took their eye off the ball. With tweak after design tweak they hid the info that explained the price code system. You had to read the whole book to know where it was. By the end it was squashed into the gutter of the inside back cover, between some corporate blurb and the photo credits. It forced you to keep flipping to and fro. So when Rough Guides went to focus groups (oh yes, publishers pay through the nose to find out what you think), they realised people had to flip to and fro. Nobody explained price codes, so readers didn’t understand them. What does 5 mean? Where’s the price?

As of this year, Rough Guides have abandoned price codes. Now they will – like Lonely Planet – list an actual price for every hotel. Good, eh? Progress?

“In the book”

Except most hotels don’t have an actual price. There are different rates depending on how you book – direct, through a local travel agent, through a travel agent at home, through an online booking system, and so on. Prices shift according to demand. And season. And how far in advance you book. Some hotels offer cut-price deals every weekend; others drop prices midweek. There may be a range of room types, at different prices on different days. And then, of course, this year’s price is out of date before it can even be published.

A single price is actually a lie. It looks like it’s pinpoint accurate, putting power in the hands of the consumer – and it lets the publisher boast about how great their book is – but it’s really hiding the truth, and it’s really misleading the reader. A range of prices would be more honest, more accurate and more informative. Something like, ooh, a price code would do the job really well.

Hoteliers, too, prefer price codes, because they know that the inevitable result of quoting a price to a guidebook writer is that, 12 or 18 months down the line (if they’re lucky; perhaps years in the future), some white-kneed foreigner will be standing in reception, stabbing his fat finger into a guidebook and demanding a room AT THAT EXACT PRICE and not a penny more “because it says so in the book”.

Need to know

Online updates, in one form or another, get around some of that – but which publisher is going to pay to have authors keying in updated prices for every hotel in every book, every six months? Apps go out of date too; it’s just, when you download them, it doesn’t feel that way. They feel permanently new. Another lie.

The awful truth is that PEOPLE DON’T NEED TO KNOW an exact price for a hotel; they just need to know roughly how much to expect, then they can check out the booking options for themselves. They don’t need to know phone numbers for all the museums in Yerevan. They don’t need their mass-market guidebook to Oman or Brazil to be quoting geocodes for every village (unless they’re on a serious offroading expedition, in which case they wouldn’t be buying the Rough Guide anyway). It’s a waste of everyone’s time.

One researcher can’t find every public hotspot in a single city, let alone an entire region – and even if they did, what value would that information have in 3 months, when it’s only 95% accurate? And 12 months, when it’s 75% right?

The gilded cage

Overguiding – turn-by-turn directions, precise information that isn’t precise, contact information for places nobody needs to contact, illusory prices – is a gilded cage. It’s like Google: apparently beneficent, actually evil. We’ve been seduced by it, imagining all this information makes us more powerful, more knowledgeable, more travel-savvy. In truth, it traps us, by cutting off the need to explore. It packages the world; it’s an attempt to eliminate strangeness that is doomed to fail, because travel is strange. What does travel mean – in Cheltenham, as in Kamchatka, as in your very own street – if not finding stuff out for yourself?

Newspapers and travel magazines do it too, with their relentless Top 10s and Best Ofs – gutting and filleting destinations to shield us from the horror of Getting Something Wrong. Eating an unremarkable meal. Sightseeing in a touristy part of town. Sleeping in an ordinary hotel. The shame.

But who’s kidding who, here? If overguiding is bad for readers, bad for writers, bad for travellers and bad for locals, why do publishers do it? Who benefits?

24 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 May 2012 9.33am

    Matthew, Well done — I agree 100%! The internet age is turning people into control freaks. Nothing left to chance, no serendipity. I see people in the market streets of Jerusalem’s Old City with their eyes glued to their GPS units, essentially oblivious to their surroundings — I want to smack them (but I don’t). My favorite T-shirt, seen in an Old City shop (being too chaste, I could never buy it): “F*** Google — ask ME!”

    TOM POWERS / Private Guide / Jerusalem

  2. 1 May 2012 10.32am

    Agree with much of this, apart from bit on geocodes – they are needed for the development of location-aware apps, so while RG authors may not have to give them anymore, some poor lackey will still have to look them up for the app to be produced (possibly with less accuracy).

    I suppose your wider point about whether we need to be GPS guided by digital at all times stands, but for the majority of app downloaders — those on short breaks not long adventures — it’s a useful feature which people will pay for, and not necessarily bad for readers/users. And so I can see the business rationale in not making an exception for the Jordanian desert…

  3. 1 May 2012 11.40am

    @Tom – many thanks. So true.

    @Nicholas – much appreciated. You’re right about location-aware apps – but that’s more or less what I said: geocodes are useful in big cities (subtext: people on short breaks). But my wider point does still stand: if people are spending their time in the desert/jungle/mountains staring at their GPS, I’d say that’s “bad for readers/users” as well as “bad for locals”.

    As for the geocode lackeys (who don’t exist, btw), there are two issues here: one is whether we need to be GPS-guided at all; two is who’s going to pay the content-originators to research coordinates for every point in a book/app. Cuz at the moment everyone seems to think information just drops from the skies for free…

  4. 1 May 2012 1.24pm

    What a great post Matthew. Guidebooks keep losing their appeal more and more the more countries and cities I tick off my list. I don’t understand the UNREALISTIC deadlines they impose on the authors (which, in turn, have no option but to bullsh*t a big chunk of the guidebook), the exact pricing SPECIALLY in Middle Eastern countries (don’t they know about bargaining!? BASIC concept!)…I could just go on. But you covered most points ;) I am saddened that many tourists are deprived of so many experiences because they try to follow a guidebook to the T–when, in reality, authors probably keep to themselves THE best, unspoiled paradises ;)

  5. Richard permalink
    1 May 2012 3.34pm

    The only problem with this article is: “There is way to much truth to it”. Technology takes a lot of the fun out of traveling. Getting lost is the best part of the trip.

  6. 1 May 2012 4.54pm

    Thank you @Latin – and you hit the nail on the head: people so often forget that a guide isn’t gospel…

    Thanks, too @Richard – though that’s not quite what I’m saying. I don’t think technology takes the fun out of travelling (quite the opposite: technology can inject a lot of fun into travelling). It’s how publishers use the technology – and the material they put out on it – that I think sometimes threatens to do that.

  7. 2 May 2012 5.54am

    Nice read. I remember a long, long time ago in country far far away a friend showed me a Rough Guide. I liked it. The writing was good, in-depth and far more “interesting” than the other book.

    Years later I went on a little jaunt and purchased a Rough Guide as I wanted a little reading too. I have to say your post above resonated why I never bought another one again. Hotel prices were a nightmare of flipping back and forth and still not getting it. I just kept saying to myself “But why?? Do they have commission with the hotels or something?”

    Anyway since those dark days I’ve bought neither book and prefer to photocopy pages and stuff them into a pocket.

    I’d love to see something like that old Moon guide (maybe not Moon). erm … something, something, to Kathmandu. Anyway, the map, hand-drawn with with a big circle saying “cheap hotels here”. It works. But then again as mentioned the control freaks couldn’t handle not having an address.

  8. 2 May 2012 9.30am

    Thanks @Dave – spot on. That’s the tragedy: Rough Guides have (or had?) something that really marked them out as special. Informed, in-depth, high-quality writing. But it feels like upper-level corporate management didn’t (don’t?) know how to present that on the page, or promote it to the market. They’ve spent years trying to react to changing conditions, rather than leading with their unique attributes. Now the uniqueness has gone. And with it has gone the “rough” attitude to travel.

  9. 2 May 2012 11.57am

    I really like you comment, ‘Newspapers and travel magazines do it too, with their relentless Top 10s and Best Ofs – gutting and filleting destinations…’ As a travel writer I refuse to do them now, because you can guarantee that the next magazine you open will have the same list, so you learn nothing new or find anything worth ‘discovering’. It’s hand-holding journalism, aimed at those who are too scared or too lazy to actually go and find something themselves.

  10. 2 May 2012 12.36pm

    I completely agree with what you say, Matthew, and I loved your comment about ‘gutting and filleting destinations’. Guidebooks have been finessed so much in recent years that now many of them tell travellers what they don’t need to know in quite ridiculous detail. As a guidebook writer myself, I have sometimes been asked by one publisher, until quite recently at least, to include fax numbers for restaurants. Hmm. I have never faxed a restaurant in my life but is it just me that’s the oddball? Perhaps it is this sort of precise, but only ephemerally correct, information that has created a dependence culture for less imaginative travellers? Most of the feedback I get is positive – ‘I wouldn’t have found that without your guidebook’ type of thing – but now and again I receive an email from an irate reader who is incensed that ‘Restaurant X is no longer there – it’s closed’. How stupid of me to flag up an eatery that may not be operating in perpetuity.

    By their very nature, guidebooks are at least a year out of date on publication. Digital media, of course, have the advantage of being far more readily updatable but, as you say, which publisher is willing to pay authors to do that? And do we really want a sort of rolling news of travel options anyway? Well, some do it would seem.

    I am old enough (just) to remember independent travel pre-Lonely Planet. The overland trail to India may have been lined with pitfalls but there was never any problem finding a place to eat, sleep or get a bus. Travellers – a veritable rainbow nation – spoke to each other exchanging news and advice; locals happily answered questions; it was all a great adventure. In contrast to this is the sad situation found these days in some outposts of the (young) backpacker circuit where the phenomenon known as ‘Lonely Planet syndrome’ is manifest. Take a row of perfectly good restaurants lining the street in a traveller hot spot, all serving the same sort of food at similar prices. Travellers crowd into the LP-endorsed eatery, where as a result of oversubscription the service has become indifferent, the food bland. Meanwhile, its neighbours lie almost empty, awaiting customers brave enough to enter their portals to taste unverified and undocumented food. A travel guide should be a hand pointing the way, a calm friendly voice that understands the territory. What it should not be is a hand held firmly, or worse, a collar and leash.

  11. 2 May 2012 12.47pm

    Brilliant and bravo! As a Lonely Planet writer (I guess Im one of the vets by now – my first guide for them was in 1998), Ive lived everything you talk about here (except the geocoding – *shiver*).

    It’s sad that serendipity, getting lost, and meeting nice strangers is no longer a part of many travelers experience. Since that book in 1998, Ive rec’d that people “ditch their guidebook” at least once on their trip.. That wasn’t all that well received way back when but I think we’re going to see a return to DIY….

  12. Jules Brown permalink
    2 May 2012 3.35pm

    Since Rough Guides started, in 1982, they’ve had a system of price codes for accommodation

    Actually Matthew, no – for many years, the early books, including my first few, quoted actual room prices. And I remember well the hoo-hah when it was decided to replace prices with price codes – “why would we travel around acquiring actual hard information”, many of us authors argued, “only to replace real prices with vague codes?”

    So RGs is really only turning full-circle on this one, and I think they’re right. I just don’t buy the argument that a single price hides the truth or is a lie (though I accept that some readers might misunderstand how the system works).

    If my review says a B&B room somewhere in England say costs £90, then clearly you do know roughly how much to expect to pay – ninety quid, maybe less in the depths of winter, maybe more on August bank holiday – and you can judge the price against the style of place reviewed and against other similar reviews. If the same review says Price Code 3 (£70–100) then how do I know if it’s a good-value £70 or a bad-value £90 or £100 or even a good-value £100, for example? And if you simply narrow the price ranges, as many authors did, to 10 and 20-pound ranges, for example, then you might as well quote a single price (given that my “£90″ could easily be £80 in winter and £100 at bank holidays).

    Bottom line? I just don’t think is an example of overguiding, just a difference in a way of presenting useful information.

  13. 2 May 2012 6.21pm

    Great topic – although it also gives me personal pause in seeking out guidebook writing commissions:) Anyway, I don’t know all of the answer to your question as to “who benefits”, Matthew, other than to share the opinion that what you call “overguiding” fits in with the overall reliance by too many on hyper-connectivity wherever you now are on the planet. What happened to the notion of travel as a pause from the everyday, and to me a large component of the everyday has become being overconnected. A guidebook used to be a resource as far as being a starting point or portal – and not necessarily the endpoint and be-all for every bit of information being listed. So yes, let’s have rough guides, and not nanny guides. If one needs a nanny, then best to stay at home in the familiar comfort zone where there are no challenges or discoveries.

  14. 2 May 2012 9.10pm

    Many thanks, all, for some great comments.

    @valpaparazzi – you’re right, there’s a lot of sameyness out there, but it depends a lot on the editor and/or the publication. Occasionally, a Best Of is just a design-friendly way to slice and dice a destination, covering the same ground as a feature but with bits of prose no longer than a paragraph. Love that or hate it, at least it can tell you something new. Most of the time, though…

    @East – fax numbers for restaurants – that’s great!

    @connergo – “ditch the guidebook”: essential advice.

    @Jules – many thanks for the correction; much appreciated. I hear your point – but it sounds to me like when you print £90 in the book, you’re saying you might actually mean £80 sometimes. And £100 at other times. If it’s £90 only some of the time, why not print Around £90? Or, better still, Around £80-100? And there’s also the issue that prices at Jordanian hotels tend to be a touch more fluid than at Yorkshire B&Bs ;-)

    @Hal – it’s a good point. Sometimes knowing less is an asset.

  15. 2 May 2012 9.58pm

    A great post Matthew, it definitely touches a few of my guidebook writing nerves!

    My personal favourite was working on an un-named African country a few years ago and jumping through hoops to find out the name of a road, which was called either ‘Cathedral Avenue’ or ‘Hospital Avenue’ depending on who you asked and where it was you wanted to go. Ultimately meaningless, but gosh the editors hate it if you can’t provide the exact name!

    I’m currently writing a guide for Bradt – since I did my last book with them they’ve actually switched over to the price bracket system for listings instead of exact prices. From a personal point of view I’ve found it quite liberating in terms of research and writing, and not having to worry about whether the rate was seasonal or if I added in the tax to get the final total (which will have changed by the time the book is a year old anyway). I hope that works for the reader. But what I’m really enjoying about their particular format is that while the listings are important, they’re only really a part of it – the text has the space to breathe so I’ve got the chance to dig a bit more into the context of the place, so the reader can get to understand the destination a little better. To me, that feels more important than providing an email address for a dry cleaner or whatever.

    To some degree it’s horses for courses – if you get two travellers together you’ll get three opinions about makes a good guidebook, but I do think that the two big beasts in the jungle are converging and becoming less distinctive. I think the success of the DK Eyewitness guides – with their lists and visually seductive bite-sized snippets has been a big influence here. For my money, over-burdening readers with information for the sake of it isn’t the way to go though, and the ‘one-size fits all’ that these template approaches encourage aren’t always helpful when it comes to distinguishing a guide to Barcelona with a guide to Bolivia, where users have very different needs.

  16. Stuart McD permalink
    3 May 2012 11.12am

    While I generally agree, will say particularly with regard to GPS longlats and accom pics, traditional publishers are nuts (or even nuttier than I thought) if they’re not requiring authors to record this info. Equip them with a smartphone (any flavor will do) and it only adds a coupla minutes to the job to snap a streetside shot & stamp the longlat. May seem tedious at first but easy once one gets the hang of it. This is very valuable info longer term regardless of if they’re cooking up apps or not. Author doesn’t have a smartphone? Buy them one. It’s a no brainer.

    Otherwise, more generally, totally agree. It’s called a guidebook rather than a gospel book for a reason.

  17. 3 May 2012 11.39am

    @Paul – thanks for a great comment. Dead right. The world looks so SO different from corporate HQ in London…

    @Stuart – hahaha! HAHAHA! Brilliant. Love it. “Buy them one”. That’s fantastic. Publisher should just BUY EVERY AUTHOR A SMARTPHONE! Of course! Hahaha. Wooh. They’ll get right on it. I’m sure, straight after buying me a pina colada every afternoon.

    ;-) You can’t get a paper-clip out of a publisher these days, Stuart.

    Sure it’s only a coupla minutes. That’s, say, 50-75 “coupla minutes” per city. Say 8-10 cities in a book. That’s three full 8-hour working days added, per project, just simply recording longlats. Never mind transcribing them into whatever format the publisher is using. And that’s just cities. We haven’t talked about the desert/jungle/outback/offshore islands.

    In the current situation, imho that’s not a viable addition to the author-publisher relationship…

  18. Stuart McD permalink
    3 May 2012 12.58pm

    Well, you’re working for the wrong publisher aren’t you ;-)

    Cities are where the longlats are important – I agree longlatting (word? – please tell me it isn’t) some desert sand dune is a bit silly, but we do it for waterfalls and general points of interest.

    You may consider them to be a non viable addition to the author publisher relationship, but they will become essential to a publisher that wishes to remain viable.

    Longlats aside, as I consider them a bit of a special case, more generally I agree that chasing the finer points of data and treating everything as a POI is a bit ridiculous.

  19. 3 May 2012 1.10pm

    ;-) Thanks for that, Stuart.

    I agree, cities matter most for this. And I also agree geocodes/longlats will certainly become essential, you’re absolutely right. I said “currently” – meaning, under current payment terms. Collecting them for a guidebook/app is a massive amount of extra work, for which publishers should pay. Just wrapping the task into the current terms is the non-viable bit.

  20. 5 May 2012 12.05am

    Such a timely post Matthew, and in many ways I agree with you, but I think you’re being a little hard on the publishers! They don’t have any better idea than you or I how to avert the ongoing decline in sales. Yes, we can say to them: let authors focus on our core strengths of good writing and a truly open mind to the joys of travel and discovery. But reps still have to sell our books. The sales people have to be convinced that what they’re selling can compete with every other list. And there’s no question that competition between the publishers, and fear of being left behind as new digital platforms arrive, has driven them to this obsession with creating nuggets of hard information (even if it’s sometimes spurious as you rightly point out), that few if any readers are ever likely to read, let alone use. Hence: phone numbers for fast food stalls, exact prices where there are none, street addresses for for the huge cathedral dominating the town. . .All intended to populate the digital platforms that are still not quite there yet.

    To judge by decades of readers’ emails (though nowhere near as much correspondence as in the aerogram heyday of the late 80s when I used to bring home box loads from the office) I’m convinced that at least 90 per cent of guide book readers only ever read 10 per cent of the guide, and if you spend any time on the country forums at Trip Advisor or the Thorn Tree, the focus of those users on the same bog-standard list of targets in any country or city is clearer still.

    So the publishers are right, to a large extent, to be putting the weight of their efforts into the areas that most people seem interested in – few choices, more copycat styling so that the guides are increasingly indistinguishable. The only problem with that approach is that those same areas are precisely the ones that are covered in such apparent detail on a million websites. And if all the travel info you need is available online, for free – right? as we’re always being told – why would you buy a guide?

    We travel authors need to look to the expertise we have and use it/sell it as well as we can to the 10 per cent who are prepared to pay for it. Increasingly I think that means getting involved in the business of organising and selling travel, from offering blogs and background text to actually working for tour operators, rather than just commenting from on high in our guides and articles. And maybe we can find a way to compete for eyeballs with the unverifiable mass of Trip Advisor’s output (“the only thing in travel publishing that’s not falling off a cliff” according to one industry cheese, but I think we can all see that) by offering curated expertise from trusted sources.

  21. alastairhumphreys permalink
    9 May 2012 1.01pm

    I really agree with this and yearn for travel experiences based entirely on spontaneity, serendipity, wanderlust (and every other long word I can think of!).

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