Are travel guides worth the money?

Buying all the guides to your chosen destination would probably cost more than the holiday itself. Mike Gerrard reads between the lines

When asked to work on a guide to the Lake District recently, I phoned Stanford's travel bookshop for a list of Lake District titles in print. There were 171 of them. There are now so many guidebooks that the Book Marketing Council's Catalogue of Maps and Travel Guides runs to 88 pages from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, via Algeria, Libya, Zaire and other popular travel spots. Not even the uncharted wastes of Antarctica have remained uncharted. Lonely Planet has published a 256-page guide to it. There are 12 guides to Boston, and 41 to Paris. Are there just too many guidebooks?

"Yes," says publisher Hilary Bradt, with 53 titles in print. "There are too many guidebooks, but then there are too many books. There are too many churned out by big publishers who think a series of guides would be a useful addition to their lists. They sell because they have the marketing clout, not because the quality is high."

Bradt's best-selling book in recent years has been a guide to Ethiopia, which surprised her, as did the success of their guide to Eritrea, a country that many travellers would be pushed to find on the map. "We did a cautious print run but it sold well and was reprinted after two months and is now in its second edition."

Bradt specialises in more adventurous places, while at the opposite end of the scale is AA Publishing with their Outdoor Leisure Guides, Thomas Cook Travellers Guides, Explorer Guides, CityPacks and others. There are 76 titles in their Essential series alone. Have they reached saturation point?

"I think we almost have with the Essentials, though there are always new titles to bring out," says Rachel Alder, the Editor in charge of the Essential guides. "With 76 Essentials, I think we've covered most of the places people would want a guidebook for at the moment. As to whether there are too many guidebooks, I know that when we launched our CityPacks series they sold out their print run of one million copies within the first few weeks, so someone must want them."

Given the bewildering choice, how can a traveller make a choice? "Check the author's biography," says Rachel Alder. "What credentials do they have for writing about that place? Check the copyright date, to make sure it's recent. Look for the year of publication and whether it was recently updated. We work on a two-year revision programme. Any guide which has sold well will be brought up-to-date."

Jennifer Cox, Publicity Information Manager for the Lonely Planet guides, doesn't think there are too many guidebooks: "It's a competitive industry and our sales are better than ever so there must be a demand. There are certainly a lot around but the ones that aren't good simply won't survive." Which is, however, not much compensation for those who happened to buy them.

Lonely Planet's list now runs to over 250 titles, from Travel with Children to The Karakoram Highway. Unlike most publishers, though, they began with off-beat destinations and are only now covering some of the more popular countries.

"We publish guides," says Jennifer Cox, "because we feel we have something to say about a place. We started off doing places like the Solomon Islands and Mongolia, but only this week we've published our first guide to Spain. Next week is our first guide to Portugal, and soon our first guide to Germany. So where many publishers began with those destinations and are now looking round for ever more off-the-beaten-track places, we're working the other way. We don't just choose places because we think they'll be best-sellers. We have to have something to say about a place. For instance, Micronesia is never going to be a best-seller but we still do it."

Mike Gerrard admits responsibility for Essential Mainland Greece, Essential Athens, The Globetrotter Guide to Corfu, two guides to the Yorkshire Dales, half a guide to the Lake District and large parts of the Eyewitness Guides to Mainland Greece and the Greek Islands.

FACT FILE

AA Publishing (01256-20123)Book Marketing Ltd (0171-580-7282

Bradt Guides (01494-873478)

Lonely Planet (0181-742-3161)

Rough Guides (0171-379-3329)

Stanford's (0171-836-1321)

The Travel Bookshop (0171-229-5260)

Maps and guidebooks are available over the Internet from maps@elstead.co.uk

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