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The Life Cycle of a Travel Guidebook Series  

Travel guidebook series have "lifespans." They progress through distinct stages from foundation to disappearance. 

The character and quality of the guides changes with each stage:

Stage 1 - Foundation
An avid traveler sees a lack of good travel information of a certain type or style and decides to fill it by writing and publishing a guidebook. The traveler/author sets up a seat-of-the-pants publishing business with a simple distribution network, a few thousand people buy the book, and revenue begins to flow.

Stage 2 - Storefront
With revenue, the fledgling publisher hires some help, often young, bright, ardent and willing to do whatever is necessary: editing, accounting, order fulfillment, even cartography and illustration. Now that the mechanism is set up, why not publish additional books?

A series is born!

The publisher may write the next book, but eventually s/he accepts other author's books for publication as well, signing royalty contracts with authors. The publisher chooses new authors carefully because failure of a title would be a serious blow. Trusted, accomplished authors are given full freedom to write good books; weak authors are quickly weeded out as being unaffordable.

Stage 3 - Small Publisher
The publisher's list grows, as do sales, and distribution improves. The company moves into a proper office with a dozen full-time staff: office manager, accountant, editor-typesetter, cartographer, layout artist, etc. Freelance editors, proofreaders, cartographers, etc. are used when there's excess work.

As sales grow, authors earn more royalties for their work, which empowers them further and provides a keen incentive to increase the accuracy, timeliness and appeal of their books. Trusted authors take on additional books, putting their freelance careers on a more solid footing and tying them more closely and loyally to the publisher.

Stage 4 - Market Leader
The vitality and fresh approach of the series wins ever more loyal readers, and soon the larger, more established publishers take notice and may even attempt to emulate the series style. Their emulation is cosmetic at best, and though it may steal some small amount of market share from the young publisher at first, the older publishers lack the vitality, creativity and flexibility of the young publisher, whose sales continue to grow as older publishers' stagnate.

Stage 5 - Publishing Powerhouse
Ever growing sales of an ever-growing book list produce substantial revenues, which require an ever-larger business structure. What started as a handful of young friends has become an important business. Experienced managers are hired, org charts are drawn, hiring practices detailed, medical and retirement benefits instituted. An experienced editor, hired to take charge of the series, works to make content and presentation more uniform across all the books. Other editors, assistant editors, copy editors and proofreaders are hired. The company becomes a well-oiled book production machine; the production schedule is its nervous system. Authors are still said to be the driving force, the "talent" of the enterprise, but as the central-office structure grows, freelancers are increasing seen as "suppliers" rather than "creators."

Stage 6 - Mature Publisher
The publishing company is now mature and fully ramified, an important business with a well-known brand, an elaborate office and corporate structure, large staff (and consequent concern about staff turnover), and structured planning process. Authors are now seen as suppliers of raw material, even "data drudges," whose "crude" work will be properly processed by the central office into a polished finished product. Authorial creativity and individuality, which had contributed to the company's early appeal and success, is now seen as problematic: it strays from series consistency and can interfere with the smooth flow of the production process. Experienced authors come to be seen as troublesome, expensive, dispensible: "we have the texts, anyone can revise them," the publisher thinks. Authors are disempowered, editors are empowered. The locus of power for the series moves from out-on-the-road to behind-the-desk.

Stage 7 - Decadence
Ever more revenue stays in the central office, or floats up to owners/shareholders; ever less is sent to authors and others working at the interface with the public. When sales flag, the problem is seen as one of marketing, design, publicity, etc.--ie, a problem solvable only at the central-office level (where, indeed, all power now exists). Series design and format are changed, "refreshed;" marketing tricks such as promotions, free fold-out maps, publicity, etc. may boost sales over the short term. But the connection to the traveling public has been weakened. New small publishers--vibrant, flexible, in touch with readers--have popped up, though they present no real challenge to the publisher's market dominance at the moment.

Stage 8 -Senescence
The publishing enterprise is now seen as a cash cow for investment returns or other pursuits: a TV or video series, tour programs, sales of boilerplate travel text online, etc. The brand is well established and can easily be "extended" to other areas, a tried-and-true corporate formula well understood by the MBA types who now run the company. The publisher sees small upstart publishers nibbling at the edges of its market are resolves to "steal their thunder" by producing similar books. A new concept is produced by a committee of top office staffers and sent down the org chart to the young, low-paid editors and authors at the bottom. Start-up costs of the "upstart-killer" books are high, however, and profit margins disappointing, so the effort is soon abandoned. Editors attempt to incorporate some of the upstarts' appeal into the publisher's series, but the vitality and originality are lacking in this also-ran effort. If anything, it merely slows the erosion of the publisher's market share. Because all content and design decisions are now made by committees in corporate offices far from the "travel interface" (ie, the traveler or author on the road), the connection with the real world of travel is lost.

Stage 9 - Endgame
The series is dying: readership is aging and declining, profit margins getting ever slimmer. The one thing that might invigorate the senescent series is a substantial infusion of power (and money) at the interface—ie, to the author—but this is the one thing certain not to happen because it would make the balance sheet look even worse—perhaps terminal.

The series may be sold to another publisher, but the new publisher will look at it the same way: cut expenses! Raise the return-on-investment! Ever younger, cheaper, less experienced authors—and editors—are hired as data drudges, and they do their best, but all direction now comes from the top or from tradition. Their vitality and creativity is not engaged; for one reason, because their suggestions usually require increased expenditures at the working level of the enterprise. At some point the series is unfixable, and ceases publication.



Tom Brosnahan