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Canadian travel publishing hits its stride

(illustration: Carl Wiens)

Last August, after John Wiley & Sons sold Frommer’s to Google for $22 million, it was rumoured that the travel giant’s ubiquitous guidebook series would soon be discontinued. Those concerns appeared to be justified when reports emerged in March that Google had quietly ceased print production of new series titles.

Google has since sold the company back to its founder, Arthur Frommer, who has stated his commitment to print publishing in several interviews, but the situation demonstrates the tumultuousness experienced by the travel-guide industry over the past decade. Several independent Canadian publishers, including Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press and Toronto’s Formac Lorimer Books, have ceased producing travel guides altogether, and most guidebooks sold in Canada are now published outside the country by international companies like Avalon Travel, Lonely Planet, and Fodor’s.

However, after several years of declining profits and increased online competition, the market appears to have stabilized. Canadian publishers and booksellers are reporting steady sales bolstered by ebooks, specialized guides, and new editions of classic titles.

Montreal-based Ulysses is the only Canadian publisher devoted exclusively to traditional guidebooks. In 1990, the company, which started as a bookshop a decade earlier (and still operates two Montreal stores), began publishing its own titles. According to publisher Claude Morneau, Ulysses specializes in books that combine the cultural and practical aspects of travel in Canada and the Americas, targetting international and domestic tourists.

One of Ulysses’ biggest challenges, says Morneau, is convincing travellers to pay for guides when so much free information is available online. Travel publishers have to highlight their expertise and their editorial independence, which other sources of information can’t guarantee, he says.

Ulysses titles have been available as ebooks since 2009. Although growth has been slower than expected, sales are up 34 per cent from 2012 and represent approximately four per cent of overall sales. The company is also developing its first app, although Morneau notes that the financial investment required rarely seems to pay off.

One decision that has paid off is Ulysses’ commitment to the French-language market, a success Morneau believes is due to the diversity of Francophone retailers in Canada and Europe. Ulysses’ French-language series, Guides Escale, aimed at short-term visitors to Montreal, Toronto, New York, and other cities, is a recent bestseller for the company. Recreational guidebooks that focus on regions and themes other publishers are not covering also do well, including the new Guide to Creative Montréal, which provides 10 tours of the city’s arts scene.

Other Canadian publishers in the travel market have found success by keeping things local, focusing on regional-interest titles, nature guides, and updated editions of old favourites.

Vancouver’s Greystone Books, a former imprint of D&M Publishers now owned by Heritage House Publishing, began releasing travel books with Jack Bryceland’s 103 Hikes in Southwestern British Columbia. First published in 1973 by the British Columbia Mountaineering Association, the guide is now in its sixth edition.

When a book works, and it keeps working and it’s kept up-to-date, it can be very successful over a long period of time, says Greystone publisher Rob Sanders.

Sanders observes that guidebook sales tapered off slightly five years ago, but have been holding their own ever since, with ebooks selling about 10 to 20 per cent the volume of print. (A similar division exists in the rest of Greystone’s catalogue.) To date, Greystone hasn’t produced any apps, but Sanders says he’s exploring the possibilities.

Although Halifax’s Nimbus Publishing has decreased the number of titles it produces annually and has yet to make its travel books available digitally, recreational guides and regional-interest books continue to sell.

We have a guide to Kejimkujik National Park that has information that’s nowhere else, says sales manager Terrilee Bulger. I think there’s still a market for that. Also, Halifax Haunts, a guide to haunted sites in Halifax, does well.

Specialized travel booksellers have also felt pressures of a shrinking market, but Jeff Axler, owner of Toronto’s Open Air Books & Maps, has observed some customers returning to print books, frustrated by tiny device screens, cellphone roaming charges, and an inability to quickly thumb through pages or add notes.

Despite 37 years in the business, Axler is uncertain about the future but cautiously believes the Frommer’s sale is a positive sign. Things are slightly better this year than last, he says, but it’s definitely never going to get back to where it was.

Open Air Books & Maps does not offer online shopping “ Axler notes the challenges of competing against major e-retailers like Amazon “ instead focusing on its physical store, a strategy shared by The Travel Bug in Vancouver. Andrew Schoulten took over the store, which specializes in travel books and luggage, earlier this year after the retirement of long-time owner Dwight Elliot. He notes a big resurgence in book sales after a major dip around four years ago, in particular for series like Lonely Planet, Bradt, and Rick Steeves. Schoulten doesn’t plan to make any major changes to the business except to increase the floor space dedicated to luggage.

As booksellers and publishers continue to adapt to a transitioning market, one fact continues to bode well for the industry: Canadians’ appetite for travel is alive and well. The only question that remains is, who will help them reach their destinations?

This story appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Q&Q.