Google kills its Frommer’s division, and the travel guidebook industry takes another step towards obscurity
March 22, 2013 | 3:10 pm
By Dan Eldridge
Over the past couple weeks, it almost feels as if the site has morphed into something of a Google wire service.
But then Joanna Cabot filed her daily Morning Links roundup this morning, and one of the items nearly took my breath away: Google has decided to kill off the print editions of all its Frommer’s travel guidebooks. The Frommer’s brand, don’t forget, was sold to Google just seven months ago by its previous owner, Wiley, for a reported $25 million.
To be honest, I don’t believe I’ve ever used a Frommer’s guidebook, printed or otherwise, but there are still a couple reasons this news upsets me so much. For starters, I have a very long and special relationship with travel guidebooks; I worked as a full-time travel writer for years, and I’ve either authored or co-authored a half-dozen guides for Moon Handbooks/Avalon Travel and Lonely Planet.
And that’s a perfect segue into one of the other disturbing aspects of the sale: Something similar happened to Lonely Planet just a couple weeks ago. I was still freelancing for the company when the BBC purchased a big chunk of it for something in the range of $200. And yet just a few years later, the Beeb has gone and sold the company for a piddling $78 million to a Nashville-based digital media company owned by a reclusive billionaire, Brad M. Kelley, who made his fortune in the tobacco business and is supposedly the fourth-largest private landholder in the U.S.
The reasoning behind all these sales is always the same: Sales of travel guides are down because everyone is getting their information online for free. And yet while the first part of that statement can be, and has been, verified, I’m not so sure I’m buying the fact that most travelers are abandoning well-written and painstakingly research print guides in favor of free online information.
In a CNNMoney story about the sale that was filed earlier this morning, Lonely Planet managing director Stephen Palmer did confirm that “U.S. guidebook sales are down 10% to 20% since 2008. I don’t think anyone is pretending that sales of travel guides aren’t down,” he added. “But they aren’t off a cliff. What we’re seeing now is a level of stability.”
Huh. Well, don’t tell that to Google, right? Apparently, they’re no longer interested at all in products or services that don’t bring in massive returns. Which begs the rather obvious question: Why on earth did they spend $25 million on what was almost entirely a print product?! I honestly don’t understand it.
As for Frommer’s, at any rate, Google is reportedly keeping its website along, along with its digital books.