Robert Reid is a Lonely Planet writer who publishes an amazing internet guide to Vietnam, and doesn't mince words in his recent interview with WorldHum. He laments the demise of experienced travel guidebook writers for novices who will work for peanuts under the illusion it will lead to fame and riches, and thinks internet travel guides will someday replace traditional published guides, when technology advances and handhelds can display the chief advantage printed guides continue to have over internet sources: maps.

Robert Reid: I used to think the most important thing we guidebook authors did for travelers was hotel reviews. People like to have some sense of security that the $5 or $300 place they’re staying in won’t be a brothel or rat-infested dump. But the Internet has already completely changed this. Previously if I had a new budget hotel in a town center, or a mid-ranger with pool, travelers would have to wait nine or 12 months from the time I “discovered” it until it appeared in a guide.

Now Internet booking sites often get them immediately. When I went to China a couple years ago, I stayed at a brand new hostel in Beijing that the Trans-Siberian author had just found, but that hadn’t yet appeared in the guide. It was already full! I was amazed at how nearly all the people there had found it online, and were booking their full China trip’s accommodations online.

At a Lonely Planet workshop a couple years ago, I asked a high-up at LP who they saw as their biggest competitor, and they immediately answered “Google.” I was impressed. So publishers like LP definitely see the Internet as a growing competitor, and have for a while. When the BBC bought LP a couple months ago, one of the key things they cited for future development was online content.

Another thing is that many sites with travel content online don’t have maps. And maps are HUGE. I sometimes think seasoned travelers need only a map, with barebones details of few places to stay, and barebones details of what to see and where to eat. If they trust the author—and that’s a big if, of course—not as much needs to be said as some people think. This, again, is for seasoned travelers only.

The only other thing I fear regarding online guidebooks is if they follow the “I stayed here and it was great” TripAdvisor or model. Those are useful, no doubt, but they’re only based on isolated experiences. If publishers turn things over at some point to reader-generated content, you won’t have the authoritative overviews that guidebook writers can offer, and it’ll end up with deeper beaten tracks, with more travelers doing the same thing.

But I do want to say David Stanley is right, it’s sad and reckless if an old author who did good work on several editions is cut for a new author. In my opinion, in-house editors don’t completely understand what goes into researching these guides—I was an editor for years, and only figured it out once I started writing full time. The best experience for writing a guidebook to X is not living in X but actually having written a guidebook to X. Sometimes publishers forget that a bit.

Sometimes I think we’re living a doomed profession, and that we’ll look back on the wacky wild period from the 1970s to the 2000s when scores of notebook-toting travelers went and sought out the mysteries of places that are no longer mysterious. People will look back on the era like reading Graham Greene books about far-flung places at wilder times.

Will guidebooks in book form die? Probably so. But to be honest, I think there will always be room for the perspective of the “guidebook author,” at least online. Once hand-held devices get even more sophisticated, so that maps and reviews are more easily referred to—or we old folks die out and the younger generations who are not so soft on books take over—things will probably go online completely.

But I sometimes think people like holding those books. So far, though, the TripAdvisor-type sites are excellent resources, but don’t account for perspective. One person goes to Y hotel and says “it’s super!” But they don’t realize A, B, C are similar and $40 less. Who goes to all 15 museums in Bucharest but a guidebook author? So only they can tell you that something like the Romanian National Museum of the Peasant is about the best museum in the world?

WorldHum Interview with Robert Reid

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