Lonely planet publish books. They’re a book publisher. Books, in their traditional paper form, are dying. I attended a talk by Frances Linzee Gordon on Wednesday night at Gleebooks. Frances is a travel writer for Lonely Planet. She’s a great traveller. She’s a good photographer. She has some fantastic stories. It’s a pity her employer is bound to fail. That is, unless they evolve, and evolve fast.
This got me thinking, what would I advise Lonely Planet to do? I’ve thought about it a little. Here’s a quick summary.
At it’s core, a Lonely Planet guidebook is 2 things. First, it’s a guide. Second, it’s a directory of information.
The guide is the bit that people like Frances make wonderful. The guide inspires you. It motivates you. It captures your imagination. You can fall in love with a place just by reading the guide. The information in the guide stays fairly constant. If a place is charming today, it’ll be charming a year from now.
The directory is indispensable. It’s a list of accommodation, sights, attractions, entertainment for the kids, emergency services, embassies, etc, etc. This information changes almost daily. New businesses open. Old businesses close. Places get better, places get worse. Opening hours change. The book can only hope to be “good enough to be useful”. It can’t possibly be “current”.
I think firstly, Lonely Planet needs to recognise this divide. Then they need to start separating the parts.
Wikipedia, Wikitravel, Mahalo, they all work. They’re all using user feedback in one way or another. It works. Mahalo are trialling a great model. Something similar would work for Lonely Planet. Let readers update the directory. Business owners, bloggers, anyone. Let them all update the directory. Then have Lonely Planet staff check the facts. Anything else would be madness in this day and age.
The fact checking can be done mostly remotely. By telephone, email, or even online. It’s relatively unskilled work, so it’s cheap and easy to outsource. All sorts of smart algorithms could be used to prioritise what gets fact checked first.
So the content in the directory stays fresh, almost live.
Print is what makes Lonely Planet great. You can buy it in a shop and take it with you. No wires, no batteries, no breakages. Split the book into two sections. Firstly, the glossy guide. Full colour, luxurious pages, beautiful photos. Secondly, the directory. Lighter paper, black and white, no photos. Here’s the genius. Make them two separate books. Put the directory inside the guide. In a back pocket. In a separate holder. Whatever.
Then print the guides every year. Every 18 months. As often as the books are currently printed. But, here’s the catch, print the guides every month. Grab whatever’s ready at the deadline, and print it. Mark what’s been verified and what hasn’t, and print anyway. Offer cheap updated directories for existing book owners. Let existing book owners print their own guides online.
Focus on the strengths. Lonely Planet has a great reputation. Let the travel writers focus on being great writers. Let the readers update the directory. Split the book in half. Print-on-demand the directory, pour even more splendour into the guide.
The reality is, if Lonely Planet don’t do it, somebody else will, and they’ll be the next Facebook to Lonely Planet’s MySpace.