Seventeen years ago, when I started work at Stanfords in Covent Garden, London, the world was a very different place. No one had heard of easyJet, the Channel Tunnel had not yet opened, airports were a pleasure to use – and the internet was almost unknown. Stanfords, as the planet's biggest map and travel guidebook store, stood unchallenged in the provision of good advice for the intrepid traveller.
In these past 17 years, though, things have changed. And, as this weekend marks the end of my tenure at the store, it seems a good time to reflect on those changes. In this time, publishers have expanded their lists enormously. Lonely Planet, the market leader in the UK, has more than 450 titles; to paraphrase a famous beer advert, there really are very few parts of the globe that Lonely Planet does not reach. The image of this iconic travel publisher has changed somewhat since Maureen and Tony Wheeler wrote their first guide around a kitchen table to being part of BBC Worldwide, but the influence of Lonely Planet is profound.
Rough Guides, meanwhile, showed how a shrewd travel-guide concept could be extended to anything from opera to online shopping.
In the desire to cover all possible destinations, some travel publishers stand out for launching the first guides to previously neglected areas. Bradt especially has excelled, with unique titles to Burkina Faso and Paraguay. Next year, Somaliland joins the list of destinations covered by their guidebooks.
But publishers were often slow to work out what was changing – as shown by Bilbao, hugely popular after the Guggenheim Museum opened in 1997 and the Basque city joined the no-frills network. At that time, no UK-based travel publisher produced a guide to the city; Stanfords was reliant upon an English-language guide published in Spain. Now, there are six guides to Bilbao in stock. As the cheap airlines opened up new routes, publishers frantically played catch-up. In doing, so a plethora of new titles was published.
In recent years, the Thomas Cook list has included guides to Aarhus, Gdansk, Porto and Tirana – the first three served by no-frills airlines, the last a destination for travellers seeking the few as-yet undiscovered parts of Europe.
Yet an equally powerful trend has been to produce guides for the UK market, as people discover their own country. For a long time, there was a belief that, aside from London and Edinburgh, there was insufficient demand to justify expanding lists to elsewhere in Britain. But that has changed. All the major publishers have titles to UK regions, and, indeed, some less-glamorous cities, such as Dundee, now have a guidebook of their own.
The short-break phenomenon has led to a decline in the publication of all-encompassing guides to a whole country that ran to 600 pages or so. The look of guides has changed, too: the information is more digestible, with special-interest sections and magazine-style features.
Another trend has been the need to make better use of the information that publishers spend money collecting. So the same data is being delivered in different formats at different prices. Most imprints now have a pocket-guide series, priced at £7.99 rather than £14.99: Eyewitness has a "Top 10", Time Out has a "Shortlist" series, Michelin a "Must See", AA Publishing has its "Essentials" product.
Traditional book formats are under threat from free information available online. I am still not sure if publishers know how to combat this. They depend on book sales to finance the cost of creating travel information in alternative formats. The trouble is, people are less inclined to pay for expertise. Guidebook sales have fallen in each of the past four years.
Paper maps have also endured competition from technology. The biggest casualty was street maps of UK cities. In some cases, there is less availability of detailed mapping. The Directorate of Overseas Survey was an excellent source of 1:25,000 maps covering Caribbean islands from Antigua to St Vincent until it closed in 2003.
The way forward is for map stores to have the data and to print on demand, Stanfords can do this for Australia now and for the US, and is talking to other cartographers, both commercial and state-owned. Good maps, like good guidebooks, have a future.