How to kill a brand

Google has bought Frommers. That rang a bell: an industry insider told me recently that Penguin quietly tried to sell Rough Guides to Frommers a couple of years ago, but “wanted too much” for it. Ho-hum. Travel publishing is in a really tricky place.

Now I’m not an industry analyst, and I’m not in travel tech, so if you want reasoned, insightful comment, stop reading now and click the links. I’m just a guidebook author. I whinge.

Disclosure: I’ve never written for Frommers. Apart from a bit of freelance editing, in 17 years I’ve never worked for any travel publishers other than Rough Guides.

Back when I started, Rough Guides were huge. They had massive brand recognition in the UK, chiefly on the back of the “Rough Guide to…” TV series – presented most famously by Magenta Devine and Sankha Guha – which ran in the late 80s & early 90s, catching people’s imagination like no TV travel show (arguably, no travel idea in any media) before or since. Lonely Planet had books everywhere, of course, but they were kind of boring, a bit earnest and mundane.

Lonely Planet was Microsoft. Rough Guide was Apple.

Then the Rough Guide founders sold the company to Penguin Books in a two-stage deal, completed in 2002. In ten years since, Penguin killed the brand. Rough Guides went from being a big fish in the small sea of travel publishing to a minnow in the ocean that is the Pearson media conglomerate. Penguin already owned DK, with a huge and globally successful travel brand of its own; RGs became an add-on, with fewer resources and a succession of managing directors who tried to crowbar it into a corporate strategy that was less and less interested in anything that didn’t sell in Jamie Oliver quantities.

Sales reps had bigger fish to fry than the 7th edition of the RG to Farflungistan, so the books – frustratingly, virtually impossible to find outside the UK anyway – began to fade from view in their home market. Cartography and other production processes were hived off to Penguin’s Delhi office: cheaper, but not better. Spinoff pocket guide series came, failed and went. Every year or two came another promise to revamp the RG website to bring it up to LP’s standard; it never happened. RGs remain pretty much invisible online. Ebooks? Digital publishing of any kind? Electronic rights? Negligible.

Those ten years have poleaxed RGs, turning it from a leader into a follower. There’s been a cull of titles, with several dozen 2012/2013 updates “postponed” (read: cancelled): one desperate author has had five of his six titles pulled. The website remains an embarrassment, with the promise of something better to be unveiled, er, sometime soon. The books have been redesigned, though – RGs now feature colour pictures throughout, just like it’s 2003.

The thing that made Rough Guides cool (or, if you prefer, successful) – the voice – has gone. Authors are punch-drunk. Editors are overworked. Even though guidebooks remain trusted (intriguingly, see here for an opposite spin) their raison d’etre has been called into question. What travel brands are cool? None. Content isn’t cool anymore: there’s too much of it.

Devices are cool. Content is just content.

Which is why Google has snapped up Frommers for pennies ($23m). And which is probably why Penguin continues to reckon milking RGs would bring more than selling it – though, as I said at the top, they’ve tried to offload it, to Frommers and also, so I’m told, to a venture capital firm in 2011, who were unimpressed by the offer.

Another industry source tells me there are “people [in the US] who would love to have the Rough Guide brand, if only it didn’t come with so much baggage”.

Penguin has been a disaster for Rough Guides. Remembering RGs in 2002 (and before), and looking at it now, it’s hard to imagine what Penguin could have done worse, short of pulling the plug altogether.

And yet working on one of my titles this year has reminded me how much I love Rough Guides, and just how committed I am to the books. And to guidebooks in general – I’m old-fashioned enough to think that guidebooks can be a force for good, encouraging (and facilitating) the kind of slower, smarter travel that can make a tangible difference to host countries. Guidebooks put power in the hands of consumers in a way that TripAdvisor and 99% of online content providers can’t even begin to grasp.

When the BBC bought Lonely Planet in 2007 – controversial though that was – I allowed myself to daydream about how another dynamic, forward-thinking media outlet with a global reach (and a unique identity as a voice for the world’s marginalised) could compete by injecting new life into a trusted but suffering travel publishing brand. Back then I thought up all sorts of great reasons why Al Jazeera should buy Rough Guides. They didn’t, of course.

So we soldier on. Only now, instead of googling travel and having to wade through reams of SEO’d crud to find anything useful, people are going to see Frommers’ professionally researched and written guidebook material at the top of the list. Why look further?

There’s a massive amount of specialist knowledge and hardcore insight among Rough Guide authors which is, essentially, going begging. Penguin, for whatever reason, cannot or will not exploit it for commercial gain. Is the Google deal curtains for Rough Guides?

Last word to two travel writer friends. First, a prescient author, writing a couple of years ago:

“Guidebook companies should be commissioning thicker, more detailed books. Readers will rely on their excellent content and buy more books. Authors will collect really good information that you can’t find anywhere else, giving the product an edge over competitors that look like their books were done entirely by Google. And this depth of content would give companies an edge online, where a longer tail will bring in more readers by search, and the licensing side can make even more money off selling unique content to partners.”

Amen to that. But to do it would take a leader, not a follower.

Another writer speaks: “Rough Guides? Killer brand, awesome product. Dying a slow death.”

Let us pray.