Google kills its Frommer's division, and the travel guidebook industry takes another step towards obscurity

Frommer'sI actually made a private pact with myself yesterday that we wouldn’t run any more Google stories on TeleRead, at least for a few days.

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.

Frommer's

Brad M. Kelley, America’s favorite reclusive billionaire

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.

I have a sinking feeling that Rough Guides, the travel brand that was sold to Penguin Books in 2002, will probably be the next soldier to fall. But I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

3 Comments on Google kills its Frommer's division, and the travel guidebook industry takes another step towards obscurity

  1. From a customer perspective, I can easily imagine traveling with a Fromers or Lonely Planet guide in the form of an eBook, with or without network connection. Unless, perhaps, in a country where having such a device is an invitation to mischief. This and all of the other Google news of late might make one suspect that a gaggle of MBAs is running amok in the land of Google.

  2. My guess is that there has been a management shakeup at Google. Vice president XYZ, who pushed for, and authorized the purchase of Frommers has just been fired or has been reassigned to a position of zero power. Meanwhile, his/her replacement, newly appointed vice president PQR has decided that the best thing to do is to dump Frommers.

    As for any other guide book publisher going out of business, I doubt that it will happen soon. Any guide book publisher who might have been struggling can hope to pick up some of the Frommers market share, thus restoring their imprint to profitability.

  3. Another perfect example of companies buying what they don’t understand and the best they can ever do is run it to the ground. I couldn’t understand why they want it in the first place. They had no prior experience in this field. Much like how B&N purchased fictionwise.com a few year ago and now it is gone.

    To think Google purchased the entire brand without knowing the decline in print sales is just sad. To think they want to just throw out 25 million and write it off as a lost is just as strange…for them to draw this conclusion, they have to also assume 1) people are travelling less…well, are they?! 2) people want to use free internet info all the time…where in the world do they think that info came from in the first place?

    I use Frommer and Lonely Planet travel forums often for tips from fellow travelers but again someone has to share that info and tips to start something.

    I’m so tired of reading about how print is dying. I grow up with Calvin and Hobbes…there is no way in the world I would read and experience that on a tablet or e-reader. There are plenty of subjects that can only exist make sense in print format…travel book is one of those.

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