After more than a decade of writing for the US-based guide book company Frommer’s, I learned this week that the popular titles that have accompanied travellers around the world for more than 50 years are no more.
It’s a sign of the times; the need for the kind of guide books that were born in 1957 when American traveller Arthur Frommer produced his first, Europe on 5 Dollars A Day, seems to have diminished. At least, that’s the perception of Frommer’s new owner, Google. The news filtered down through an article on Skift, written by a former Frommer’s editor with whom I had worked. It said some authors and editors had been told the printed guidebooks under the Frommer’s imprint would no longer be published.
Others, like me and my Frommer’s Australia co-authors, had to learn of it third-hand. But we already knew the writing was on the wall. The online bookstore on frommers.com disappeared some months ago, leaving potential buyers to find the titles they wanted on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or other online bookstores, or still sitting on the shelves of their local bookshop.
Google bought Frommer’s Travel and Unofficial Guides from Wiley for $22 million last August. They are the third new owners since I joined the Frommer’s Australia writing team in 2000.
When invited to write for Frommer’s, I was at first somewhat reluctant. I remember wondering how creative or interesting it would be, but being reassured that I might be surprised, for Frommer’s – following the lead of Arthur Frommer – demanded their writers be opinionated and write with a very personal voice.
And so I signed the contract. At first, I researched and wrote the Brisbane and Queensland chapters of Frommer’s Australia and Frommer’s Australia from $50 A Day (eventually stretching to $60 A Day before being discontinued after its 14th edition in 2006). Another writer moved on to other work, and I took over the Western Australia, Tasmania, Top End and Red Centre (Northern Territory) chapters as well. When I moved to Melbourne, I swapped WA for Victoria.
Along the way, I updated three editions of Frommer’s Portable Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and co-wrote the first and only edition of Australia For Dummies. While living in Melbourne, I wrote the pocket-sized colour guide, Frommer’s Melbourne Day by Day. I had loads of fun researching and writing Frommer’s Melbourne Free & Dirt Cheap, discovering my city on a budget.
In 2007, I also contributed to Frommer’s Dream Vacations, a gorgeous glossy coffee table book in which Frommer’s top writers were asked to nominate their favourite destinations around the world. Three of my pieces were accepted – on Heron Island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in Australia’s Red Centre, and the Scottish Highlands, the land of my ancestors. Assignments like this were what kept things interesting; it’s true that there is some tedium involved in the detailed fact-checking that goes with guide book updates!
My bookshelves bulge with Frommer’s titles. Planning a New York holiday with my family some years ago, I was surprised by the arrival (unasked for) of a package of Frommer’s guides, including the useful Frommer’s New York City for Kids and Frommer’s NYC Free & Dirt Cheap – both ideal for family travel.
Among the titles is a reprinted version of Arthur Frommer’s first book. In 2007, as Frommer’s celebrated its 50th anniversary, the company reprinted it and sent a copy to every one of its authors. It was a touching gesture, I thought.
I am saddened – but not surprised – by the reported demise of the Frommer’s guide books. And maybe they are not alone. Lonely Planet, founded by Australian couple Tony and Maureen Wheeler in the early 1970s, has just been sold by current owner the BBC to US media company NC2 Media for 51.5 million pounds. Who knows what the future will hold for LP?
So is the guide book dead? With the rise of travel apps and mobile devices, we have new ways of sourcing and carrying our information around. But I was heartened to hear from a friend embarking on an across-Australia road trip to a new life in Western Australia: “I’m happy to say I have the Australian guide you gave me safely tucked up in the car ready for our marathon expedition westward!” she emailed last week.
Perhaps guide book buyers are a dying breed. But whatever the future, I’ve loved my time writing for Frommer’s. And there are other companies out there still seeking the services of guide book writers – I know that for sure! Meanwhile, there are blogs and apps and all manner of new forms of writing to explore. I’m looking ahead…but grateful for the books behind me that have helped propel me into the new digital landscape.
And I’m almost certain I’ll find myself dipping into them again from time to time!