Countless are the questions and few are the solutions publishers encounter when approaching “the digital problem” confronting the industry. But several publishers seem to be cracking the code, albeit from different ends of the spectrum. Travel publishers are capitalizing on its category’s unique potential to be nuggetized and monetized digitally, at times even rendering a physical book unnecessary. Other publishers are inadvertantly solving the problem by enhancing exactly the elements of a book that a download will never have–texture, heft, uniqueness–through issuing special limited editions. PT checks out both strategies.
Part One: Picking, Mixing, and Hitting the Road
Savvy travelers long ago discovered the benefits of chunking content. Always mindful of excess weight, an enterprising backpacker will rip out the 200 surplus hotel reviews in a guidebook once she finds a place to stay, lightening her load by a pound or so. It’s instant self-custom-publishing, if you will. These days, equally enterprising travel publishers are eager to do the chunking for you. They’re ready to help slice, dice, and compile exactly the resources you need, digitally of course.
“If you want to travel to certain cities along the Maya route in South America,” said Greg Benchwick, commissioning editor at Lonely Planet, “you shouldn’t need to buy an entire guidebook for each country.” This is the theory behind Pick & Mix, a new program to be launched in the next few months. As the name suggests, a traveler can browse the contents of Lonely Planet titles online and select relevant chapters. Then, Lonely Planet compiles them into a PDF purchasable and downloadable by the user. Another Pick & Mix option comes with a little help from travel experts. Available through POD, this one will allow travelers to choose specific route guides created by Lonely Planet. So, if you want to travel like the Mayans and then hop over for a float down the Amazon, you’ll only need to carry a slim book and not 900 pages on all of South America.
Though “DK Travel” doesn’t have quite the ring to it as Pick & Mix, it preempted Lonely Planet earlier this year when it launched its own traveler-created guides. Incorporating digital elements that make other publishers drool—user-generated content, ads, downloads, POD—DK Travel allows even the fussiest travelers to tailor a guide suited exactly to their needs. Hoping to be the “MySpace for the travel community” according to a press release, travel.dk.com lets users scroll through hundreds of specific attractions, museums, restaurants, and hotels and cherry-pick the most appealing. This works especially well for someone with a passion, for example, buffet dining in Las Vegas. Who wants to waste time on a lackluster chicken selection? If you’re lucky, another DK Traveler has already made the buffet rounds and rated them in the “shared guides” section of the site. For 2,50 pounds sterling, DK will organize your jumbled picks into a streamlined guidebook complete with directions and maps in the back. You can even add your own title, comments, and picture on the cover. Right now it’s available as a PDF, but by late summer, a POD option will be available in the UK and US.
A Guide As Mobile As You (And Your Cell Phone) Are
The Pick & Mix model isn’t the only way publishers are getting into travelers’ pockets. “When you leave the house in the morning, what do you make sure you have?” asked Rob Flyn, VP and GM of What’s on When, kicking off a panel called “Travel Publishing: How Digitization is Affecting the Industry” at the London Book Fair last month. “Your keys, your wallet, and, of course, your mobile.” Reminding the audience that they should think of themselves as being in the information and not the book business, he argued that the last item and other digital devices are the future of travel guides. “The ‘nirvana’ of online travel guides is a service that can be customized to suit the needs of individual travelers (for example, vegetarian, on a budget, sporty, jazz lovers, etc.), that can be updated as conditions change on the ground, and that has the ability to offer several ‘voices’—the author as well as other travelers/reviewers and rich media—photos, video and the like.” Through licensing deals with major online booking sites like Travelocity and Hilton, What’s on When is helping reach that nirvana.
In the UK, one of the largest travel publishers, the AA, is launching the Smart Travel Guide this July, a memory card that allows travelers to use their Smartphones (3G-enabled phones) to search for restaurants, hotels, sights, attractions, and directions. Appropriately, the London guide will come first. The AA plans on launching 12 more destinations (major European cities plus New York) by mid 2008. With a price point of 24,99 pounds sterling it will be sold in a blister pack at regular retail outlets.
Once again, Penguin can say they’ve been there, done that. In early April, Rough Guides Mobile was launched through a partnership with Creativity Software Ltd, Motorola, and ViaMichelin. Every Motorola handset sold in Europe now comes equipped with the Rough Guides Mobile application, providing information on more than 15,000 points of interest in 200 cities throughout 33 European countries, all through drill down maps.
According to Katy Ball of Rough Guides in the U.S., the partnership with Motorola won’t be happening stateside. It could be that Americans aren’t ready or don’t want a program like this. The closest equivalent to the downloadable-to-PDA guidebook, iFodor’s, fizzled out several years ago. “At times technology is ahead of where consumers are and companies are pouring money into initiatives that consumers aren’t ready for,” said Tim Jarrell, VP and Publisher of Fodor’s. Instead, Fodor’s is focusing on its digital strengths, re-launching its website which already gets 1.5 million unique visitors a month and continuing to explore licensing deals. “At the moment, Fodor’s is interested in initiatives that make an impact in the short-term rather than the long-term.”
Digital initiatives at National Geographic draw on all the company’s travel strengths from magazines to books to tours to its newsdesk. The magazine and book divisions co-produce The A* List, an e-newsletter which is read by over 100,000 travelers and cross promoted on the website. Nina Hoffman, President of National Geographic Books, said “we’re about getting the whole travel experience. It’s a 360۫ approach.”
Being Everything to Every Traveler Everywhere
As if helping you make your own guidebooks and sending information directly to your phone weren’t enough, major travel publishers are doing even more to get your attention online. Long the bane of the travel publisher, booking sites like Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia, and Kayak are multiplying and so are travel planning sites with user-generated elements like Gusto and RealTravel. In an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” move, Lonely Planet opened Haystack, a hotel reservation service (haystack.lonelyplanet.com). The site allows travelers to book rooms at accommodations reviewed and rated in the guides. Once one of the guide writers visits a hotel and deems it worthy, Lonely Planet offers its proprietors the chance to be listed in Haystack for a 10% commission on every booking.
If Rough Guides wants to be MySpace for travelers, Lonely Planet wants to be your YouTube. Once you get to your Haystack hostel in Slovakia, you can then broadcast your experiences, good, bad, and bizarre, to fellow travelers and Lonely Planet editors via lonelyplanet.tv. With an easy interface and a map feature that lets you virtually wander the globe for videos, the site has six channels (travel mishaps and parties are two of the categories) and tagging, integrating pretty much every 2.0 feature a user could want. But not to be outdone on the 2.0 front, Rough Guides is launching iToors podcasts, podscrolls, and audio phrasebooks as part of its 25th anniversary website re-design this summer, all free thanks to ads.
Not all travel publishers are jumping on the digital bandwagon, however. Patrick Dawson, joint managing director at Footprint, said it takes a lot of investment of time and money to get digital initiatives going, and just keeping a high quality guide up-to-date each year is challenging enough. Thomas Cook has a website and online catalog where you can purchase books, but no plans to go digital either. “The real advantage of going digital is the ability to update constantly. All print industries will need to evolve, but the guidebook will never be dead,” commented Benchwick of Lonely Planet. “Crowd-sourcing is valuable, but there will always be room in the industry for expert advice.”
The Bluelist is perhaps the best incarnation of this idea. A word coined by Lonely Planet, to “bluelist” something is to suggest it to another traveler. More general than the user-generated guides at travel.dk.com, a user’s Bluelist is a compilation of favorite destinations, worst hostels, best parks, or most exciting international events. The best user-generated Bluelists are included in an annual book alongside lists and commentary on the year in travel by experts. A sturdy paperback coffee table book, Bluelist 2007 is not one you’d want chunked or sliced.
Part Two: Entering a Widget-Free Zone
After spending $12,500 on 75 pounds of signed photographs and essays on the life of Muhammad Ali, the last thing you want near your “monument on paper” (as Der Spiegel called it) is someone trying to slice it up for parts. At least this was the idea when Taschen released the Champ’s Edition of GOAT: Greatest Athlete of All Time several years ago. “The book has simply become another ‘widget,’” said Charlie Melcher of Melcher Media, and no, he wasn’t referring to the desktop application many now depend on for weather and stock updates. “The book is becoming a commodity with less cultural value than it used to have, and the special/limited edition is a way to increase the value.”
Of course special editions are nothing new. As Peter Beren, VP, Publishing at Palace Press International explained, previously, special editions were confined to signed editions by John Steinbeck, John McPhee or other literary authors. There were also the virtuoso books that focused on craft and sold pretty much exclusively to collectors through antiquarian bookshops. “The book that busted through these categories was GOAT from Taschen,” he said.
Since the success of GOAT in 2003, Taschen started a more approachable limited edition program in addition to the “sumos,” the larger-than-life multi-thousand dollar books, they’ve always sold. “There has definitely been an increase in demand for limited and special editions in the past few years,” said Jason Mitchell of Taschen. The first Collector’s edition, Surf Photography of the 1960s and 1970s by LeRoy Grannis, came out last year. Selling for $400, the numbered book had a larger than typical trim size and included signed Grannis prints. All 1000 copies sold out. About a year later, the “popular” edition with a slightly smaller trim size came out for $40. Taschen has done several more. “They’re extremely popular and sell out well before the pub date,” said Mitchell.
First as a printer, then a packager and now as a publisher, Palace Press by way of Insight Editions has adopted the limited special edition approach as well, perhaps even perfecting the path trod by GOAT. “What we do is publish trade editions of popular culture subjects with production values and quality associated with art books,” said Beren. “People still value the tactile experience of a book and anything that enhances that in the age of the internet works.” As a packager, Palace Press partnered with Abrams to create Dressing a Galaxy in 2005. Written by the costume designer from the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the collector’s edition sold for $295 and famously came with a swatch of Darth Vader’s cloak. Elvis at 21 and 24: Behind the Scenes both came out last year. The latter included bonuses like a DVD and the autograph of the show’s star, Kiefer Sutherland, adding even more to the “book experience,” as Beren called it.
Superficially at least, Muhammad Ali, surfing, Star Wars, and 24 don’t have much in common. What they do share, however, are passionate and loyal fan bases, which has so far have been the key to selling a book priced ten times higher than what the average consumer usually spends. “When we do a special edition, there has to be a pent up demand for it,” said Steve Tager, VP Publisher of Abrams. Its largest and latest special edition is Earth From Above, a five foot wide, 70-80 pound book of photography by Yann Arthus-Bertrand that comes with its own wooden stand and will sell for $1250 when released in November. In its various other editions, the book has sold four million copies internationally. “The book appeals to several markets: the green community, luxury buyers, and gift givers,” said Tager.
Encased in a wooden box imprinted with a stylized gun and bullets, the limited special edition of the latest Michael Chabon novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, will be released this month. At a price point of $150, all 1000 signed and numbered copies have already been sold and will ship to stores, perhaps thanks to an appeal to several markets. Jeanette Zwart, VP of Field Sales at HarperCollins commented that “Chabon has some crossover interest in the mystery market, which has always done well with collectible titles, and those stores have been especially supportive of the Limited Edition.” Kathy Schneider, Associate Publisher at Harper, said they decided to do a special limited edition for Chabon as “a special perk for the rabid fans of a well-loved author. It will add a nice touch to an already intense marketing campaign in addition to generating revenue.”
At Harvard Bookstore, however, buyer Carole Horne expressed some skepticism about the new Chabon. “To customers, this can feel like a ‘forced collectible’ and in general, they’re not interested,” she said. “For a book like this, we tend to call a customer who we think would be interested.” Typically sold non-returnable at only a 40% discount, special editions can pose a significant risk to booksellers, commented Gerard Nudo, former Manager of New York’s Rizzoli Bookstore, and added that “the real incentive to carry them is to offer our customers something special.” Stan Hynds, buyer at Northsire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, said he almost never buys limited editions, though admitted the payoff can be worth it when one sells. “If you sell one, you make a lot of money on the sale. It’s good money. Like furniture. But you have to know you have the customer.”
Also like furniture, a limited edition has revenue-generating potential for the reader down the road. Sometimes worth thousands of dollars individually, the signatures and bonuses included in limited editions can make a $295 book look like a downright bargain. “At auction, a David Plowden print sells for between $5000 and $7500,” said Louise Brockett of Norton whose collection of David Plowden’s photography will retail for $350 in October. “The 100-150 limited editions of Vanishing Point will not only be signed by Plowden, but will include a signed print as well.” Taschen’s $400 surfing book is listed for $2000 on Amazon just a year after publication. Melcher Media decided to give special editions a go for the first time with a 5000 copy limited run of a photography book as well. Illuminations by Lynn Davis was released recently with a party at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. Likewise, a Lynn Davis print is a rarity in the art world as she only prints three copies of each photo.
Though fabric swatches and an inflatable Jeff Koons sculpture like the one that came with GOAT certainly beguile a devoted reader, sometimes the only bell or whistle needed to add value is the author’s signature. As Beren of Palace Press said, the signed edition is nothing new, but Random House is cutting out the bookshop middle man by selling autographed first editions themselves through the formal Signed Editions program (randomhouse.com/signed). Each book comes with a special signature-page embossed with the Random House logo, an official letter of authentication, and a collector’s band. So far, ten titles by ten very different authors such as Tavis Smiley, Bill Bryson, and Kevin Clash, the actor who played Elmo on Sesame Street, are available. for between $29.95 and $59.95. Random House declined to comment on the initiative. HarperCollins and the authors of Freakonomics, on the other hand, have given away over 2000 signed bookplates for free. All a devoted fan has to do is fill out a comment form on the Freakonomics website and both Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner will sign and send a bookplate sticker.
One can’t underestimate the signature for adding value. John Evans of Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi realized this in 1993 when he began the First Editions Club. The purpose of the group was to keep up with all the customers who wanted signed editions of the many notable authors who passed through for readings. Since then, the negative option club has grown from 10 to between 275 and 300 members. They’ve had long relationships with Charles Frazier and Ed Jones who both had their first books chosen long before they were nationally known. “At a time when the emphasis is on discounting, we are adding value to the book,” said Evans. “The First Editions Club is our heartbeat. It keeps the whole store going.”