The Financial Times article about new technology and the future of printed travel guidebooks was picked up on a Google Group called Travel Guide Writers, and brought up an excellent discussion on travel apps. All you budding travel writers should join this group to keep track on what's happening and new in the fast changing world of travel writing.

Here's the original post from the app vendor at Sutro:

Some thoughts and questions from the "other side" of this conversation

- I'm an App vendor that focuses on publishers with trusted content.


Promotion - There are 225,000+ applications in the Apple store, with the travel section growing by the day. We believe that creating the application is only a small part of the problem. Unless people purchase your application then you make no money regardless of how cheap it was to create it in the first place.
For people to find your application you either rely on luck, or you have to promote through other means such as web site or blog traffic. This is where the big name brands have the leg up - they built their brands when travel guides were physically printed books because they were big enough to bear the printing and distribution costs, and now they can leverage their brands to enable people to find their applications. Think about a LP book - how many people really recognize the author's name compared to LP's name? Yes, it is the author's (and editor's) work that created the book, but the brand is, in this example, LP.

Volume - Our applications are often in the top 12 "what's hot" list of the travel section on iTunes but the volume isn't where we want it to be. When we're the #1 travel application for a few days and still want to see increased volume, what does that say about the volumes of all of the other applications? This is a direct impact of the promotion piece above (we still need to help our publishing partners with their promotional pieces), but also raises the question of whether the market is yet ready for this new approach to delivering travel content. See below on this question.

Price - There is definitely a race to the bottom for application prices. Even LP has reduced their prices (across the board?) to less that $10; many travel applications are even lower than $5. We have heard that a $0.99 application is the sweet spot for Apple's developer iAd advertising as the conversion rate for a higher cost application will be too low to warrant the cost of the "pay per click" model that iAd offers - although we're not sure if that is general across all application types or specific to value add products such as mobile travel guides. A low volume at a low price is not a lot of money,whatever the revenue share split.

Shelf life- Newer applications covering the same destination are preferred by buying customers to older applications. This is human nature (magazines are always published a month ahead of time) but is also encouraged by Apple's store that by default lists applications
newest to oldest. A typical print guide book has a 24 month edition
life before being revamped for the subsequent print run. We find a one
or two monthly refresh of our applications helps to keep them higher
in the various lists. But refreshes have to be meaningful; you can't
just republish the same application with a new version number as
existing users will start to moan in the reviews, and a bad review is
hard to overcome. In our model we roll out new platform features every
few months to have a meaningful refresh. But in a "roll your own"
model" this could be hard to sustain, especially if a large number of
titles are published to have enough volume to put food on the table
and the only real means of improving the product is to add more
content.

Questions that we have at the moment are:

Is the market ready? Yes, there is a great deal of buzz around mobile
applications (it's why we're playing in his arena) but is the buzz
substantiated by people actually buying content? Big brands are able
to dump their books into a mobile application but is that just their
brand momentum carrying over into the mobile space for now? Given the
race to the price bottom how is the value of the content promoted so
that it bucks the pricing trend?

Travel books are likely to disappear, or have significantly less
volume - see the figures that started this thread. What replaces them?
Clearly the smartphone is the new "in" device with projected 10 times
growth in the next three years. So travel guide users are likely to
have a smartphone, but how is travel content delivered to this
platform in a way to make it appealing enough to make people pay money
for the content?
Will we have to wait out a period where users have
tried the free Wikipedia content before realizing that there is a
reason to pay for content from an author that knows his/her stuff?

Is there a minimum size of publisher that can survive? Is the "anyone
can build a cheap application" belief even true? Yes anyone *can*
build a cheap application, but can they earn a living from it? Is the
traditional "big organization with lots of dependent authors" model
still true today and will be tomorrow? I wonder if some of the bigger
publishers are working towards maintaining this status quo - I would
if I was them. But does the technology enable newer author led
consortiums to build their "big enough organizations" to publish
electronically, and do authors want to even do this?

Are mobile applications just the "loss leader" to bring eyeballs and
wallets to other products? Is this true now, and if so will this be
true forever?

Even if money cannot currently be made from mobile applications, do
authors still need to produce applications to stake a claim?

If we could wave a magic wand and have the perfect mobile application
distribution solution tomorrow, what would it look it?

We have our own hypotheses and answers to these questions that we're
actively testing out and discussing with our publishers. But I'm very
interested in hearing the "author's viewpoint" to these questions,
whether publicly here on this forum or via a private message.

Regards,
Colin


Financial Times recently looked at new technology and how new gizmos may eventually replace printed travel guidebooks. While it seems inevitable, I'd say printed guidebooks will remain dominant for the near future until the technology is sorted out and ebook readers and IPad clones bring down the cost significantly.

A few notable comments here, but do read the entire article and be prepared for some technology headaches.

“The publishing world has been talking for years about how we are going to follow the music industry down the pan,” says Mark Ellingham, founder of the Rough Guides series, which has sold more than 30m books worldwide.“I don’t think that is going to happen tremendously quickly for publishing in general, but travel guidebooks are absolutely the front line. In travel it makes much more sense to have digital rather than traditional paper books.”

And the latest news from the front line is not good. In fact, over the past two and a half years, guidebook sales in Britain have fallen off a cliff. Sales for 2009 were down 18 per cent on 2007, and if the second half of this year follows the first, 2010 will be down 27 per cent on 2007, according to data from Nielsen BookScan. If the current rate of decline continues, the final guidebook will be sold in less than seven years’ time.

Lonely Planet’s Australia guide sold 20,015 copies in 2008, and just 13,530 in 2009 – a drop of a third (again, the figures are from Nielsen BookScan, covering sales from British retailers). The Rough Guide to France, which sold 11,943 in 2008, fell 45 per cent to 6,561 the following year. Worse is that these are considered bestsellers.

Of course, the fortunes of individual titles fluctuate with the launch of new editions and the fashionability of destinations, but average sales across the whole range paint an equally bleak picture. Last year, the average UK sale of each title from the leading five publishers was around 1,500 copies.

The reasons behind this sales collapse are all too apparent – a combination of new technology and recession. Fewer people are travelling so buy fewer guidebooks, while those that do still go away are more likely to download free information online rather than spending money on a book.

Sales figures may be dire, the challenges mounting, but this summer there’s a buzz in the world of travel publishing, a sense of being on the verge of a totally new era. The internet allowed people to research their trips themselves before setting out, but smartphone apps and iPads travel with them. Suddenly the guidebook publishers, who for years seemed to be looking on from the sidelines, unsure of how to make websites work for them, have found themselves with a medium that makes sense.

“I could see that if you got in early and created the most compelling products then it could be fantastically lucrative as well,” says Douglas Schatz, who last year gave up his job as boss of Stanfords, the venerable London travel book shop, to become Lonely Planet’s managing director for Europe, Middle East and Asia.

Remember those guidebook sales figures? The average title selling just 1,500 copies a year? Compare that with the fact that during the volcanic ash crisis, 4.2m Lonely Planet apps covering 13 destinations were downloaded within four days. Admittedly they were being given away as a free promotion to help stranded passengers, but it hints at the potential.

Selling apps online also lets publishers cut out conventional retailers, who have been squeezing margins aggressively and often dictated at what price a book will be sold.

Of course, over the past couple of years have seen many travel-related apps, some from airlines, hotels and others in the travel industry; others as extensions of travel websites, and lots of them free. But this summer publishers are piling into the app market, hoping to persuade customers that it’s worth paying for an app that comes with the guidebook brand’s trusted tone and voice.

Last month Ellingham, who sold Rough Guides in 2008, launched Cool Places, a series of 30 slick apps to UK destinations, including St Ives, Brighton and Whitby. In June, Footprint Travel Guides released its first apps, with 50 being rolled out by the end of this month. Rough Guides’ new apps debut later this year, and last week Lonely Planet launched its new Compass app – the first augmented reality app from a mainstream guidebook publisher. Their jostling for position is given extra impetus by the assumption that the market will explode as mobile roaming charges fall.

So will the printed guidebook disappear altogether? One scenario sees print becoming the preserve of photo-led “inspiration” books, for armchair reading before you go away. But even that market could be squeezed by the iPad. Lonely Planet, for example, recently released 1,000 Ultimate Experiences, an innovative iPad book for pre-travel inspiration that mixes photos, text and video.

Another theory is that books will become niche products covering special interests or remote, developing destinations without mobile coverage or the visitor numbers to merit an app. Bradt – known for its guides to almost comically uncommercial destinations, including North Korea and Iraq – actually saw sales rise by 2.25 per cent in 2009. And one of the few real success stories of recent years has been Punk Publishing, which produces the Cool Camping and Wild Swimming series, and saw sales double in the last four years.