Since Arthur Frommer published his first guidebook in 1957, globe-trotters have stuffed dog-eared volumes into their packs. But last March, Google announced that it would dissolve the series—which it bought in August 2012—after mining it for content. It appeared to be one more spasm of a dying industry: sales of travel books dropped 19 percent last year and 10 percent the year before. Last March, BBC sold Lonely Planet to a reclusive tobacco magnate at a loss of more than $100 million.
Blame crowdsourced sites like TripAdviser and Wikivoyage, along with a swarm of innovative digital travel guides and tools like Wanderfly and VerbalizeIt. In the past few years, though, guidebook companies have started to respond. “Traditional publishers need to be platform neutral, so they can repurpose their content for whatever channel their customer is on,” says Mark Henshall, content director for digital agency Propellernet and a former Frommer’s editor. “The guidebook isn’t dead. It’s just evolving.”
Lonely Planet now has 500 e-book editions and in May launched Fluent Road, an online language program. Both Lonely Planet and Fodor’s offer apps and e-books loaded with news and links to maps. The work is starting to pay off: Lonely Planet doubled its e-book revenue last year, helping push overall revenue into the black, and sales of Fodor’s e-books grew 642 percent in the past two years. But electronic guidebooks still make up only 5 percent of the companies’ overall sales—and all digital platforms, including apps, make up no more than 30 percent.
To survive, say industry experts, guidebook companies will need to offer their content in more formats with more features, quickly. Some of that is in the works—animated illustrations and audio phrase guides for e-books are on the way—and startups will push the envelope further. “Travel publishing has been shot in the arm with adrenaline,” says Brice Gosnell, VP of publishing for Lonely Planet. “All these things we’ve wanted to do for years, we now have the tools and platforms to do them.” While it remains to be seen whether companies like Gosnell’s can catch the tide quickly enough, he’s right about one thing: “On the consumer end, it’s all great.”
THE FUTURE Lonely Planet City Guides: Customers can search attractions and services alphabetically or by theme (“parks and gardens,” “sweeping views”). But at $4 a city, they’re pricey for an app.
FODOR’S CITY GUIDES: Splashy photos illustrate reviews, and events and shows are bookable from the app. Plus: it’s free. Unfortunately, it kept crashing on us.
ROUGH GUIDES CITY GUIDES: An interactive map shows lodgings, restaurants, shops, and sights on command. And slide shows link directly to reviews of attractions. One bummer: reviews are organized into neighborhoods, but the app doesn’t show you where they are.
When science writer Jon Mooallem took a hard look at his daughter’s world, he noticed that his four-year-old brushed her teeth with a whale-shaped toothbrush and her hair with a fish-shaped comb. Kids, he realized, live in a world of idealized animals. The adult world, of course, is more complex. In Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (Penguin Press, $28), Mooallem examines the disconnect between our arcadian animal love and the shameful ways we treat real critters. In Churchill, Manitoba, he witnesses climate change’s effect on polar bears—and sees the absurdity of media-driven conservation when he finds himself trapped with a gang of scientists in a tundra buggy chasing Martha Stewart, who’s there shooting a segment.
At a California wildlife refuge that serves as the only remaining habitat of the Lange’s metalmark butterfly, a naturalist rips out invasive weeds and tells Mooallem, “This place will never run on its own.” This is the hard truth of 21st-century environmentalism: humans are now godlike garden tenders. “If we choose to help [polar bears] survive,” Mooallem writes, “it will require a kind of narrow, hands-on management—like getting out there and feeding them.” Among a lot of environmentalists, those are fighting words. All respect to Mooallem for having the guts to say them.
Ben Hewitt made his name writing paeans to rural food systems and the iconoclasts who create them. Now, in Saved: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World($25), Hewitt covers his efforts to step away from the American financial machine, with the help of a 28-year-old wilderness-skills tutor named Erik Gillard, who survives on a four-digit income, lives in a handmade shack, and wears “McEnroe-era tennis shoes,” Hewitt writes. Occasionally, Gillard is heavier on platitudes than depth, but he’s a fun guy, and so is Hewitt.
Outside: When did you realize Erik might be onto something? HEWITT: One thing that interested me was his enviable lifestyle. He surrounds himself with people and things he loves. He has time for his friends. There are a lot of potlucks, a lot of singing.
How does he get away with it? He found ways to meet his needs outside the money system. He doesn’t earn enough to pay taxes.
Your title is Saved. Was there a moment when you felt saved by Erik? I can’t point to an epiphany, but processing my experiences has been transformative. Erik is the most innately generous person I’ve ever met. We went mushrooming for morels. Now, mushroomers are generally a secretive lot, but Erik took me to the best spots. To him these are things to be shared. When you get stuff for free or because of the abundance of nature, it’s such a rush. Who doesn’t like being able to forage a meal? That’s free food!
You now barter beef and chickens with your neighbors and try to source your meals from the wilderness. Any tips for those of us who might not live in the sticks? I highly recommend dumpster diving at colleges the day after the semester ends. Wear gloves. The amount of stuff frat boys throw away is unbelievable.
Do you ever think you might be romanticizing Erik? I do, but I try not to let him off the hook and to look at some of his contradictions. I’ve been privy to enough of his personal quandaries to see that his contentment is real. More than anyone I’ve met, he’s in control of his time.
You refer to the financial system as the “unconscious economy,” but you must hope some never quit it. I need people to consume enough to buy my books or I’m screwed.
As he’s setting out for the west coast of Africa, travel writer Paul Theroux likens travel to dying. “When you’re only a dim memory, a bitterness creeps into the recollection, in the way that the dead are often resented for being dead. What good are you, unobtainable and so far away?” But Theroux’s writing is firmly rooted in the land of the living, and the sparsely traveled locations he writes from are exactly what make it compelling.
In the just-released The Last Train to Zona Verde, a follow-up to 2002’s Dark Star Safari, Theroux recounts with characteristically vivid prose one last, ambitious trip from South Africa through Angola. It may be the last he sees of the continent for a while, but it won’t be the last we hear of him. We spoke to Theroux about his nomadic career, his beef with the “big, horrible cities” of the world, and his next great adventure.
OUTSIDE: You’ve been doing this for almost 50 years now. How have your adventures changed since you first started? THEROUX: I joined the Peace Corps in 1963 in Nyasaland, which became Malawi. That was really the beginning of my adventures in the world—I mean, the real world. At that time, African countries were just becoming decolonized. It was very hard to get to Central Africa. All in all, about five flights. I knew I was going into a country of troops and no paved roads. All that’s changed. The two significant periods I can think of are before the jumbo jet and after the jumbo jet. After the jumbo jet, travel became much cheaper, available to more people.
I understand you’re not a huge fan of planes. Do you know anyone who is? It’s just awful. It’s a quick way of getting from one place to another, but if anyone really wants to see a country, you have to see it on the ground. You want to see Mexico, you go from Arizona into Nogales, Mexico, and travel by road. You don’t fly to Baja. I’m an advocate of overland travel. No matter where you go, there’s more reality to it. Sometimes more difficulty, but it’s not a distorting mirror of going from one national capital to another.
You seem to have a skill for finding those non-touristy places, and moments of serendipity. Where does the planning stop and the luck begin? I think you do basic planning—you have to get yourself to the place. The advantage that I have is time on my hands. If you have unlimited time, you can go anywhere, find out things, and serendipitous things take place. I don’t do a lot of planning. I don’t look people up. It’s a question of I suppose moving on. You get on a bus, walk somewhere, meet someone—you keep moving until you create this sort of vortex of energy, and things happen. But four of the people I met died, so I also had this gloomy feeling about travel, that if you push your luck you might be making a fatal mistake.
Is there anything else you really fear on the road? Meeting a young person carrying a gun. I do not like that. It’s happened a few times—well, half a dozen times. It could happen to you in New York City. But it could also happen to you in Kenya, in Angola. Someone pointing a gun. Everything else is sort of negotiable.
Does it change how you feel about traveling after things like that happen? No, I’m not turned off travel. I love it, I need to do it. The things I don’t like are the big, horrible cities of the world. Outside magazine is a proponent of adventure travel, wide-open spaces. Outside magazine is not committed to the urban nightmare, am I right? So the trouble is that Africa, to use an example off my book, is becoming much more urbanized. It’s become going from one big horrible city to another big horrible city. There’s nothing to report. They’re places that people are trying to escape from as well as trying to get to.
What animates me is getting to a landscape that I can travel in, doesn’t matter safely or unsafely—your luck is your luck. But you want to feel that you’re not confined in a city. I want to feel that, anyway.
What do you think constitutes a successful trip? What I look for is a sense of liberation. The fact that you’re away from home, you’re managing, making some discoveries about the place, about yourself. You just have the sense—even though it might be a struggle—of personal freedom. And then seeing things before they melt away. The world is changing, traditional life just disappears. So see it before it goes away.
That reminds me of the first chapter of the book, where you visit the Ju/’hoansi people, who were living traditional lives in Namibia. But you got the sense that they were putting on a show. There is a certain romantic illusion that people are living traditional lives when they’re really not. There are very few places in the world that live as they used to. So that was certainly an illusion. I thought that I was seeing traditional life, not just seeing people putting up.
But you still appreciate it, even if you know it isn’t exactly real. I met an old man and he was telling me about his life, and I thought, however false this other aspect was, at least I met this guy and he was leveling with me. One of the things that I value in travel is talking to people who remember the way things were. They may be dressed in a Chinese T-shirt and wearing a baseball hat, but they have sort of a sense of continuity that’s not obvious in the way they dress.
Is there anywhere in particular you’d still like to go and learn about that? When I joined the Peace Corps in 1963, if I had tape-recorded, say, a 70-year-old person—they would have been 10 years old at the turn of the century. They would have remembered the First World War, the way it was fought in Africa too. No matter where it is, memory of the past; it’s extremely valuable. In so-called travel-writing, that’s what interests me. The traveler is not going to museums or churches, but actually talking to people and hearing about their lives.
What is it that you want to give your readers, as a travel writer? I’m sharing my experience such as it is, no matter how trivial. I’m also doing what writers ought to do, which is to give some shape to the world. What am I doing really, writing about some far-off place? It’s just a letter to a friend, telling them what happened, and trying to be as truthful as possible. The basic pursuit is to enlighten—and also to divert.
When you decided not to complete your trip at the end of Zona Verde, did you feel you weren’t going to get that out of the rest of the journey? I felt at the end that it would be repetitive. For some people, the metropolitan experience is very thrilling. It’s not for me. The idea of rootless people trying to leave the country, it’s not my line in writing. And I found that I was taking 10-hour bus rides from one big horrible city to another big horrible city, and I was thinking, What’s there to write about it? It would all be a complaint. You know what I mean?
In Zona Verde and Dark Star Safari, the tone does seem to take a bit of a downward turn. Some take issue with your assertion that you’re “not an Afro-pessimist”. I don’t know what people think, but if anything, I feel positive about Africa. I feel down on people trying to save Africa, if that’s what you mean. My general feeling is a lot of people in the rescue business are really trying to rescue themselves—rescue a reputation or make themselves prominent. In the big green beating heart of Africa there’s a lot of hope, so I’m not down on it.
It’s the interest of a lot of people to portray others as more desperate than they really are. I’m not sentimental. All I want to do is try to see things as they are, not as I wish they were. And if you do that, you know, sometimes what you say is unpopular. But that’s my role as a writer.
It doesn’t seem like you plan on retiring anytime soon. What’s next? When I was having an interesting time in Africa, I was thinking how little I’ve seen of the United States. What I’ve seen is, there are parts of America that resemble the third world. They have the same problems of access to health care, high infant mortality rates, serious poverty. They’re often ignored. I’m not a sightseer. I’m interested in seeing the world as it is. So if you ask, something in the South, in the Deep South.
I’ve done a bit of traveling there. I find, in general, that the people I’ve met are very welcoming. People have great stories to tell. I’m gonna give it a try.
Which Chris Dombrowski you know depends on whether you spend more time fishing or reading. Those that fish will know him as one of Montana’s finest guides—his clients include David James Duncan and Jim Harrison. But the one thing he does better than read a river is write poems. Jonah Ogles reached him in Michigan, where he spends the academic year teaching at Interlochen Center for the Arts, to catch up, talk about his new book, Earth Again, steelhead, and how A River Runs Through It made him want to be a writer.
A lot of writers are drawn to fly fishing. Why do you think that is? I’m not sure exactly. I wasn’t ever a writer who started fishing. Pretty early on, I think after reading Zane Grey, I determined that I wanted to be a writer who fished and not a fisherman who wrote about fishing. But it is a noticeable thing. I don’t think you would say, So many writers play an instrument, even though there are presumably as many writers who play an instrument as there are writers that fish. I think it’s because of attention on the physical world. I think that the act of writing can be an entrance into a wilderness in the same way that a canyon can be. I think we’d all agree that when fishing we’re not the same person we are when we’re mowing the lawn or paying the bills. Yeats said as much when he sat down to write. He wasn’t the same person who made oats and bitched about the morning news.
I think there’s a patience that both things teach you. I’ve thought about fishing a lot as a metaphor for the act of writing. Any angler who’s ever spent a good amount of time on the water has struck those kind of magical golden moments, when suddenly the river comes alive. You’re fishing the same pool you’ve fished 15 times and suddenly there are trout rising everywhere in it in a way you’ve never imagined before. I think a similar sensation can occur for the writer, too—when language is coming alive and bristling and sparking. And a lot of it has to do with putting oneself in the stream over and over again.
It’s funny to me how the natural world inspires that. You talk to a hunter or a climber about poetry and their eyes glaze over. You talk to them about their last elk or climb, and they become poets. With the hunter instinct comes a need to tell stories of the hunt.
When was the moment that you realized you had that need to tell stories? I recently wrote an essay about my high school English teacher. He was a fascinating man named Jim Colando. He basically rescued me from being a jock for the rest of my life. I was really involved in sports all through college. He knew that I had just started fly fishing, maybe a year or so before. And he came into class and he handed me A River Runs Through It and said, I think you may like this book. By the time class was over I was on page 20, by the time school got over it I was on page 50. It was the first book I read cover to cover that wasn’t required for class. In that experience came the realization that my experiences in the physical world could be completely re-enacted in language. That was a magical experience. And with it came also a kind of charge. Suddenly it’s not just enough to exist in the physical world, I have to find a way to reconstruct the experience in language. Or re-live experiences, which is what writing is. It’s a second life.
When you get that need to get outside of yourself, does either activity fill the need? Or do you get a specific urge to write or fish? When I’m writing a lot, I feel like I need to fish or walk the dogs or hunt to get out of my head. If I’m not writing, I feel the opposite way, like I need to get back to the desk and spend some hours hunched over it. But I never feel like a day spent away from writing—be it with a fly-rod or a shotgun or with the kids hunting morels—I never feel like that is wasted. There’s a pile of steelhead at the mouth of the Platte right now. I know it. I know it wouldn’t hurt me to spend a morning doing that, but I’ve been working on some stuff at the desk and I don’t want to leave it alone.
Your summers out in Montana, that guide schedule must be crazy. You have to be up really early or really late depending on conditions or the client. How do you balance your writing time with that kind of schedule? Well, a lot of it happens on the backs of receipts or in a little notebook I keep in the car. I just don’t get a ton of writing done from the end of May through the end of August. So then September rolls around and I feel this immense pressure of all the images or the things I’ve jotted down over the months, and I’m going to explode if I can’t sit down and start doing some writing. Norman MacLean called it a recipe for schizophrenia, going back and forth between teaching and his home in Montana. But it’s become more and more part of the rhythm of my life. You know, just about the time. This is going to make it sound too perfect, because usually I could use a little more outdoor and a little less teaching time. But just about the time I’m ready to be done with teaching, fishing season rolls around. And just about the time I’m ready to be done fishing, it’s time for school.
You’re a teacher and now you have kids, who pop up throughout the book. I kept wondering how you were teaching them to either love language or love the outdoors. I don’t think I’ve taught them anything. I think they’ve taught me. Kids exist in a natural state of wonder. There are certain things I can teach, like why, before a pale morning dun emerges, a soft hackle swung through the water does really well. But really I try to learn from them.
Does the guiding ever get old? I’m in my 17th year guiding, and 70 percent of my clients are return customers. So 60 days of my summer are spent with my friends. They’re interesting. I have a Jungian psychologist who's a regular client, a Hollywood acting coach, a world-renowned photographer. A British timber baron. I keep saying that if I didn't have to gas up the car, clean the boat, or get lunch together every day, I'd never stop. If I had a roadie, I'd guide forever.