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How to kill a brand

14 August 2012

Google has bought Frommers. That rang a bell: an industry insider told me recently that Penguin quietly tried to sell Rough Guides to Frommers a couple of years ago, but “wanted too much” for it. Ho-hum. Travel publishing is in a really tricky place.

Now I’m not an industry analyst, and I’m not in travel tech, so if you want reasoned, insightful comment, stop reading now and click the links. I’m just a guidebook author. I whinge.

Disclosure: I’ve never written for Frommers. Apart from a bit of freelance editing, in 17 years I’ve never worked for any travel publishers other than Rough Guides.

Back when I started, Rough Guides were huge. They had massive brand recognition in the UK, chiefly on the back of the “Rough Guide to…” TV series – presented most famously by Magenta Devine and Sankha Guha – which ran in the late 80s & early 90s, catching people’s imagination like no TV travel show (arguably, no travel idea in any media) before or since. Lonely Planet had books everywhere, of course, but they were kind of boring, a bit earnest and mundane.

Lonely Planet was Microsoft. Rough Guide was Apple.

Then the Rough Guide founders sold the company to Penguin Books in a two-stage deal, completed in 2002. In ten years since, Penguin killed the brand. Rough Guides went from being a big fish in the small sea of travel publishing to a minnow in the ocean that is the Pearson media conglomerate. Penguin already owned DK, with a huge and globally successful travel brand of its own; RGs became an add-on, with fewer resources and a succession of managing directors who tried to crowbar it into a corporate strategy that was less and less interested in anything that didn’t sell in Jamie Oliver quantities.

Sales reps had bigger fish to fry than the 7th edition of the RG to Farflungistan, so the books – frustratingly, virtually impossible to find outside the UK anyway – began to fade from view in their home market. Cartography and other production processes were hived off to Penguin’s Delhi office: cheaper, but not better. Spinoff pocket guide series came, failed and went. Every year or two came another promise to revamp the RG website to bring it up to LP’s standard; it never happened. RGs remain pretty much invisible online. Ebooks? Digital publishing of any kind? Electronic rights? Negligible.

Those ten years have poleaxed RGs, turning it from a leader into a follower. There’s been a cull of titles, with several dozen 2012/2013 updates “postponed” (read: cancelled): one desperate author has had five of his six titles pulled. The website remains an embarrassment, with the promise of something better to be unveiled, er, sometime soon. The books have been redesigned, though – RGs now feature colour pictures throughout, just like it’s 2003.

The thing that made Rough Guides cool (or, if you prefer, successful) – the voice – has gone. Authors are punch-drunk. Editors are overworked. Even though guidebooks remain trusted (intriguingly, see here for an opposite spin) their raison d’etre has been called into question. What travel brands are cool? None. Content isn’t cool anymore: there’s too much of it.

Devices are cool. Content is just content.

Which is why Google has snapped up Frommers for pennies ($23m). And which is probably why Penguin continues to reckon milking RGs would bring more than selling it – though, as I said at the top, they’ve tried to offload it, to Frommers and also, so I’m told, to a venture capital firm in 2011, who were unimpressed by the offer.

Another industry source tells me there are “people [in the US] who would love to have the Rough Guide brand, if only it didn’t come with so much baggage”.

Penguin has been a disaster for Rough Guides. Remembering RGs in 2002 (and before), and looking at it now, it’s hard to imagine what Penguin could have done worse, short of pulling the plug altogether.

And yet working on one of my titles this year has reminded me how much I love Rough Guides, and just how committed I am to the books. And to guidebooks in general – I’m old-fashioned enough to think that guidebooks can be a force for good, encouraging (and facilitating) the kind of slower, smarter travel that can make a tangible difference to host countries. Guidebooks put power in the hands of consumers in a way that TripAdvisor and 99% of online content providers can’t even begin to grasp.

When the BBC bought Lonely Planet in 2007 – controversial though that was – I allowed myself to daydream about how another dynamic, forward-thinking media outlet with a global reach (and a unique identity as a voice for the world’s marginalised) could compete by injecting new life into a trusted but suffering travel publishing brand. Back then I thought up all sorts of great reasons why Al Jazeera should buy Rough Guides. They didn’t, of course.

So we soldier on. Only now, instead of googling travel and having to wade through reams of SEO’d crud to find anything useful, people are going to see Frommers’ professionally researched and written guidebook material at the top of the list. Why look further?

There’s a massive amount of specialist knowledge and hardcore insight among Rough Guide authors which is, essentially, going begging. Penguin, for whatever reason, cannot or will not exploit it for commercial gain. Is the Google deal curtains for Rough Guides?

Last word to two travel writer friends. First, a prescient author, writing a couple of years ago:

“Guidebook companies should be commissioning thicker, more detailed books. Readers will rely on their excellent content and buy more books. Authors will collect really good information that you can’t find anywhere else, giving the product an edge over competitors that look like their books were done entirely by Google. And this depth of content would give companies an edge online, where a longer tail will bring in more readers by search, and the licensing side can make even more money off selling unique content to partners.”

Amen to that. But to do it would take a leader, not a follower.

Another writer speaks: “Rough Guides? Killer brand, awesome product. Dying a slow death.”

Let us pray.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. 14 August 2012 3.06pm

    This is sad as I’m one of those people who buy guidebooks, scribble on them and keep them long after the trip is over.

  2. 14 August 2012 5.20pm

    Actually, I fell in love with the LP brand because of their amazing TV series (I only learned later that the indie was only licensing the LP name, and continued to produce brilliant shows under the Globe Trekker name). Ian Wright and Justine Shapiro were my heroes. Much more so than those BBC2 worthies. To me, they (and by extension LP) were young, exciting, adventurous. They made me want to explore the world. And buy lots and lots of LP books to places I’d probably never visit.

    On a totally different note, Shapiro produced a wonderful documentary in Israel and Palestine called Promises – go and watch it.

  3. 14 August 2012 5.56pm

    When I first started travelling independently (2000, I think), in my head Rough Guides and Lonely Planet were on a par. I didn’t quite understand the nuanced differences between them then, but I at least instinctively thought of them at the same time. They were as big as each other.

    The Rough Guide brand really seems to have plummeted since then. I don’t know what sales figure trends have been like, but I can guess. I’ll confess to only using Rough Guides when a preferred book (usually Lonely Planet or Time Out) wasn’t available. But that’s mainly because I found the usability terrible. Not Bradt terrible, but still hard work nonetheless. The new look guides are a massive, massive improvement on that front – probably more usable than any of the competition, come to think about it.

    I agree, however, that depth – analytical, explanatory, incisive – is the way to fight against web content. But there’s no reason why depth and usability can’t be married. It’s the usability that slowly garrotted Rough Guides, however. And, alas, it is now way behind on electronic publishing.

    While I don’t know the ins and outs of the Penguinisation of Rough Guides, I do know that the DK Eyewitness guides are the guide books that piss me off the most. If they’ve taken them as a good role model, then no wonder Rough Guides has struggled.

  4. 14 August 2012 7.33pm

    This is a great (albeit sad) perspective. I love guide books and think they have an invaluable place in travel. Good travel writing takes time, effort, and resources. Most importantly, good travel writing leads to responsible, respectful traveling — something that benefits the entire travel industry.

  5. 14 August 2012 8.13pm

    Great comments, all. Thank you.

    @maria – Try that with an app… ;-)

    @sakhr – Great perspective – thanks. But I think you might be mixing up the original Rough Guide tv series from the early 90s with the later one from 2007/08, with Julia Bradbury and that bloke whatisname. I’m only saying that because I can’t imagine Magenta Devine being knowingly described as a “BBC2 worthy”…

    @david – Plummeted is right. Your point about usability is absolutely key. If you forced me to pinpoint one thing which contributed to the demise of Rough Guides over the 2000s, it wouldn’t be management or cost-cutting or all that backroom stuff – it would be the page redesign brought in in (from memory) 2002, which lasted all the way through to this year. It was an unmitigated catastrophe, mixing zigzaggy Bembo with blobby expanded Helvetica, using scrunched-up leading and random spot-colours on onion-skin paper stock. It told the readers to go & poke their eyes out with electric cable. And that’s aside from the incomprehensible formatting of information. As you say, there is no reason at all why depth and usability can’t be married.

    @hillary – Couldn’t agree more. Thank you.

  6. 14 August 2012 9.05pm

    Ahhh, the brilliant work of Magenta Devine and Sankha Guha. That show caught my attention when I was working as a journalist covering wars and such. Later when I went to work with Lonely Planet (in 1997) I was asked the world over “Did I know Ian?” (At the same time a long-gone LP executive – one of a brigade of dopes that managed NOT to stop the company from flourishing in the late 90s – told me that “Ian is an embarrassment” and then severed the deal with the LP-branded TV show production house.

    Watching the Pearson empire squash RG has been sad to see. In my pre-LP days I always though of them as the “cool” guide to carry (thanks Magenta and Sankha!) and RG has been one of the few guidebook brands I’ve maintained respect for. There’s something about books written by smart, savvy, professional and highly motivated authors.

    So I too pray for all of us.

  7. 14 August 2012 10.39pm

    I love guidebooks – despite their flaws. Long may they continue. Scrolling down a screen on a laptop or iphone just doesn’t give me the same travel thrill as leafing through a book. But it’s nice to find a balance between the two (up-to-date online stuff and in-depth, well-researched printed info). I hope enough people/customers agree with me.

  8. 15 August 2012 8.45am

    Thanks @ryan – I’ve also had “Do you know Ian?” – but, funnily enough, never “Do you know Magenta?”

    @Steve – thanks, too. I don’t think it’s just about “travel thrill” though: read something on a page, then read the same words on a screen, and it feels different, conveys different nuance and – arguably – evokes different responses. Some bright PhD student needs to get cracking on a thesis.

  9. 15 August 2012 2.33pm

    Sad, sad, and agreed on every point. I only got on board RG in the Penguin era, and after a frenzy of growth early on, it’s been sad to see the operation get whittled down and lose steam. And as I work for LP and Moon as well, it has been interesting to see how each company has dealt with changes in the publishing industry. None of them are as nimble as they ought to be, though RG seems the most doomed.

    Excellent point about the commissioning thicker books, especially now as info goes digital. It’s ridiculous that books get shaved down to size for the physical world, forcing readers to Google for extra info in the digital realm.

    Guidebook publishing (in any form) is not so much about writing as it is about data management. So a giant book-publishing house is not the natural home for a guidebook series. RG is doomed on this front because Penguin can never give it the resources it needs to development the digital info-management side that will help it compete.

    (Frommers did well by getting all its info online and searchable, and profiting from that, early on. I believe it also had a back-end content management system–proprietary software authors used to enter the text–early on too. I wonder if Wiley helped them develop it? Or did it come earlier? Does anyone with Frommers experience know?)

  10. 11 February 2013 8.55pm

    I personally always preferred LPs. Roughs have bad, bad translations into Czech language, and its excruciating to read it, especially when one knows the language of names of places and foods. The English ones are available as well, but the Czech ones more practical. So LPs were what I used and liked, except for the last edition – horrible!! Bought it for Morocco, it seems like they cut out all good history and facts to replace it with vague descriptions of feelings of a fellow that first saw the Marrakech souk – I want to barf just thinking of that. Bad maps as well. But maybe Im just past the travel guides in some countries …

  11. 12 February 2013 9.33am

    Zora – I replied personally yonks ago; didn’t realise I hadn’t here – apologies.

    Katka – many thanks for that. Interesting!

  12. 12 February 2013 10.55pm

    I hope the Rough Guides published by Jota that Katka has seen are exceptions – I always liked Rough Guides’ publishers in the Czech Republic and felt they were doing a reasonably good job (I looked after Rough Guides’ foreign licences for a number of years) considering how low their budgets and sales were. It looks like they sometimes dropped the ball…

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