The life of a guidebook writer can be full of surprises, such as world-famous clients suddenly disappearing overnight.
I was just about to go out for a Friday evening meal with a few friends, to enjoy a few beers and some witty conversation, then thought that before I left home I should check my email to keep my inbox clear for the weekend.
Ironically it was in an email from the Rough Guide Authors’ Forum that I read the news, posted by a writer who works mostly for Lonely Planet. The headline simply read ‘Google kills Frommers’, and my heart sank.
I shouldn’t have been surprised at the news. When Google bought Frommer’s in August 2012, I guessed they would start using Frommer’s reviews on Google maps, and that eventually they would wind down production of Frommer’s printed guides. It’s just the speed that shocked me, and my hopes that I might soon get an email asking me to update Frommer’s Thailand, Frommer’s Vietnam or chapters of Frommer’s Southeast Asia evaporated in the blinking of an eye.
As everyone knows, print media has been in steady decline as people have switched to smartphones and tablets to get their information and social media fix. The result has been a huge upheaval in guidebook publishing, as websites like tripadvisor.com have been causing travellers’ habits to change—see my previous blog about this ‘new kid on the block’.
Just a few days before the Frommer’s announcement, the BBC sold Lonely Planet, which it had bought just a couple of years before, for about half what it paid for the company, and nobody seems to have any idea what the new owner, Brad Kelley, plans to do with the world’s most successful guidebook series.
And if you think that some guidebook publishers, such as Rough Guides, are somehow immune to these ground-shaking changes, then think again. About six months ago the powers-that-be at Rough Guides announced to their royaltied authors that that they would be cutting unprofitable titles and buying out authors’ copyright to others, effectively bringing to an end the royalties that authors have received since the inception of the company.
The day after reading about the death of Frommer’s, I signed away my copyright to the Rough Guide to Vietnam, after over a decade of involvement with a guidebook that had come to seem somehow ‘my book’ (while updating several editions I have visited every significant town in the country, some of them several times).
I’ve been making a living as a freelance writer and photographer for about 15 years now, and for the last five or six years my work with Frommer’s and Rough Guides has accounted for about 80% of my earnings. And while I may continue working occasionally for Rough Guides and other guidebook publishers, it still feels as if I’ve had the rug pulled out from under my feet. Perhaps I should just enjoy the sensation of floating and trust that I’ll land on my feet.
Anyone got a job for a guidebook writer lost in cyberspace?
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.