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Travel guides in the digital age…why e-guides are still in the invention phase

When printed travel guidebooks had a spectacular fall out of fashion, electronic guides failed to fill the void. Piet van Niekerk spoke to a number of travel guide writers engineering the travel book’s big comeback.

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The term ‘paperless office’ was coined as a marketing slogan in the early days of the IBM computer. Today ‘paperless travel’ is very much in vogue, from carrying boarding passes on mobile phones to downloading hotel and car booking details to tablet.

Yet, ditching printed guide books in favour of digital editions has not gone as smoothly as predicted. While most travellers agree that guidebooks are heavy and antiquated relics pushing up your baggage weight and reducing luggage space, the main reason some people have stuck with them is the fact that they find it cumbersome to navigate digital guidebooks, which is obviously not the straightforward page-turning experience associate with reading a novel.

Lonely Planet, for many years the reigning emperors in the travel guide publishing kingdom, has continuously been criticised for failing to format their digital publications in a way that empowers travellers with seamless navigation between relevant sections. Many people also found the lack of inspiring images and informative maps to be a less immersive experience.

The fix, says seasoned guidebook writers, lie in the way digital guides are conceived and formatted. Re-publishing printed guidebooks into digital format will simply not cut it.

Jeanne Oliver, who has forged a lifelong career as a travel guidebook writer, launched her own website croatiatraveller.com and travel e-guides in 2005 after “meticulously transforming, reformatting and reworking” content to fit the e-book domain. PDF versions of these books have also been launched only a few months ago.

She says she had to devote a lot of time an effort to rethink format and navigational options for e-guides. “Prior to writing my guides, I looked at what the big publishers were doing and then thought about what I could do differently and better. I found that I was often getting lost in chapters or unsure, for instance, how to go from general food information to dining listings.”

Her solution was to put a contents listing at the beginning of each chapter and then link to it from each relevant section. So Dubrovnik Dining, as one example, is divided into ‘Restaurants’ and ‘Specialties’ with a link back to the contents page of the dining chapter at the end of each sub-section. This principle needs to be continued throughout the e-guide to allow the traveller to get skip forwards and backwards to relevant information effortlessly as and when they need to.

In fact, she says, deliberate and simplistic internal linking between sections is crucial to satisfy the navigational demands that come with handling a guidebook. She uses many internal links: “So a photo and brief description of a top sight will link to a more extended description later in the book. Then the back button on the Kindle would take you back to your top sights.” Although she warns that certain apps work better than others on your tablet of choice, she believes that internal linking “is the way to go”. It is also crucial that readers instantly recognise if links are internal or if they will take them to an external website.

 On the matter of PDF guides she warns that they are more problematic because PDFs do not have much in the way of internal linking and are therefore more difficult to navigate. Yet, PDFs allow her to include up-to-date schedules (like ferry departure times or train and bus rosters), which are normally in PDF format.

“Kindle, and other versions, cannot handle PDF tables well - or at all, however I think having updated ferry timetables is a major convenience for travellers and something that sets smaller PDF publications apart from those of big publishers. I can refer to a ferry connection to various destinations and make it possible for readers to flip to the end for exact details.”

Nielsen BookScan, a company specialising in measuring and analysing book sales and consumer behaviour around the world, says the sale of printed travel guides plummeted 41 per cent in the immediate years following the 2007 financial crisis. This was twice the fall experienced by general book sales. Yet, it is widely accepted that the decline in printed guides was not brought on by the emergence of e-guides. It was rather the ease with which travellers could access destination content online, making perishable printed information obsolete. Travel guides - both printed and electronic – needed to reinvent themselves.

Oliver references the elaborate hotel listings with descriptions and contact information which writers used to research and publish in guidebooks back in the days she worked for Lonely Planet and Frommer’s. “These days I assume people will make their accommodation decisions on a website where they can read visitor reviews. Hence, I have de-emphasised any lengthy and colourful accommodation descriptions I once put in the paper guides.”

Interactiveness and instant updates are of vital importance in the age of digital publishing. Oliver says each book now contains several links to a dedicated "Book Feedback" page on a website. Each book also contains a link to an “Update” page where readers can check for important new information after they purchased the book.

While Kindle and PDF are easy to update, formats with Nook, iBooks and other formats involve a complex and arduous process of going through the Smashwords interface, meaning that updates cannot happen as easily. “For those readers, the Update page is essential. Kindle will push out an update to readers who have already purchased a book if I ask them to and the update is crucial.”

Tom Sykes, author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Ivory Coast says with the right approach the advantages of e-guides are numerous. “We can quickly and easily update new information, from price changes to fresh foreign office advice and even weather warnings. When writing guides you do have to ‘plant’ a number of keywords throughout the text to make searching for specific pieces of information much easier. In fact, finding keywords or specific information in a properly written e-guide is actually easier than flicking through hundreds of physical pages to find what you need.”

While he adds that Kindle's search functions are actually pretty efficient, the downside is  photos and maps. “They just never look as good as they do in print.”

Maps can also be too small and illegible on tablet, which renders them next to useless. Some users download and print maps before leaving home, which can be seen by some as an solution but is in fact counter intuitive to the principle of e-publishing.

The solution lies in further digital development. As soon as maps on e-guides become interactive and “properly zoomable” - similar to Google maps, for instance - it will add immense value to any e-guide.

Add to this external factors such as longer battery life of tablets, screens with higher resolution and adaptability to high and low light, as well as better connectivity for interactive functions and the era of the e-guide could eventually dawn on us.

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