Lonely Planet: This is Not the End

not-the-endCommenting on the affairs of past employers is bad karma, but the media circus surrounding Lonely Planet’s recent restructuring, with Skift’s hash of disgruntled misinformation and the Guardian’s premature obituary, is sufficiently misguided to warrant an unsolicited opinion.

Lonely Planet is and has always been a print publishing operation. Despite their carefully cultivated hippy-dippy image, the Wheelers ran a tight ship and LP was known in the industry for being able to produce and distribute more guidebooks of higher quality at a lower cost than anyone else in the business. This was achieved by a relentless focus on tweaking the publishing machine, and during my time there were regular mini-celebrations for (say) switching to a new printer that allowed cheaper color pages or trimming editing time by 10% by automating tasks that were previously done by hand in layout.

Yet being a print house left the company unprepared for the digital era, and despite its early web presence, it never seized the chance to become Expedia or TripAdvisor. Two anecdotes illustrate why:

Industrial History Museum, Merrickville, CanadaEarly on, one of the publishing execs was taking me through The Spreadsheet, which forecast in minute detail and often with stunning accuracy how much a book would cost to create and how much it would sell, taking into account everything from the cost of public transport in the destination to the impact of upcoming titles from the competition. Offhand, she remarked, “I don’t think we should be investing in digital until its revenues exceed print.”

Taken at face value, this seemed absurd. How would digital ever grow without any investment? Only later did it dawn on me: “investment” for her meant doing what the spreadsheet measures, which is putting money into books. Digital revenue would come anyway from e-books, which would be faithful replicas of print books, and once the magical 50% tipping point was reached, they could start by adding video clips of the Eiffel Tower to page 294 in the e-book.

But what if people don’t want e-books?

Later on, I mentioned the travel potential of Google Glass to one of the people in the product development team, responsible for dreaming up Lonely Planet’s future products. “Yes!”, he enthused, “just imagine if somebody wearing Glass looked at our guidebook, and they could see the latest edits superimposed on top!”

But what if people stop buying printed guidebooks?

Mind you, these were both consummate publishing professionals who live and breathe print. So at the end of the day, even though they and others at LP knew in their bones that print was falling, and that e-books and apps weren’t making up the slack, they simply didn’t know what to do about it, other than to cut more costs and churn out more books.

The new CTO Gus, on the other hand, does. LP’s asset is its independent content beholden to no-one, which drives its website and its brand. Despite debacles like BBC’s catastrophic mismanagement of Thorn Tree, at 100m+ visitors/year LP’s digital footprint remains head and shoulders above its print competitors, and its vetted content has no match (yet) elsewhere in the digital world. What’s more, they’ve already spent years putting in the hard yards to bring their technical backend up to speed as well. A relentless focus on digital is LP’s best shot at survival, and last week’s layoffs, far from being a portent of doom, are the most concrete sign yet that NC2 Media gets this as well.

National Arboretum, Canberra, AustraliaParticularly important is the unheralded switch to a “destination editor” model, which finally breaks the stranglehold the book publishing schedule has had on the operations of the entire company.  For example, this will allow the website to be updated continuously, instead of having to wait for the next book edition to roll around.  Far from giving up on content, this puts it front and center, and the move parallels The Guardian‘s digital transformation that has seen the newspaper grab a sizable online audience far outside its native UK market.

None of this diminishes the human tragedy of letting go people who have poured years of their lives into what was indeed for many more of a family than a company. But as the only alternative is slow and inexorable decline guaranteed to lead to the elimination of every single job, this is the best hand the company can play.  As the last page of LP’s guidebooks used to proclaim: “THIS IS NOT THE END”.

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9 comments
    • If not a little misinformed.

      • jpatokal said:

        So how about informing us then?

  1. chips said:

    Hmmm. Agree with a lot of this sentiment but not sure why Gus is any different. As an 11-year veteran of the company he’s been in the position for a while where he could have changed all of this, but hasn’t.

  2. An interesting perspective. 100% correct in the assessment of Lonely Planet as a company caught smack in the crosshairs of the Innovator’s Dilemma. Making painful sacrifices in order to unyoke the company from the unwieldy cart of print publishing is almost certainly the right thing for the business.

    However, I believe you oversimplify the challenge faced by the brand. You present Lonely Planet as nearly uniformly committed to being a print-driven organization that was run as a publishing force of nature by the Wheelers. This isn’t entirely accurate:

    * The Wheelers ran the company from 1973 to 2008. From 1973 to 2001—Lonely Planet’s steepest period of growth and, arguably, its best time period as a brand—the company was run less as a business than as a passion play. The metrics you refer to didn’t even surface until late in 2002, with a new CEO and with the beginning of the Wheelers’ moving away from the business. With the purchase by BBCW in 2008, the influence of the Wheelers waned to nearly nothing.

    * As early as 2000, the importance of separating content from product was recognized. From the “partial databasing/full databasing” project (2000) to the Ethyl CMS to the “Content Revolution” effort of 2005 to the Drupal-based CMS of 2009 through to the “LPOS” project of 2010, with many intermittent steps, Lonely Planet consistently attempted to cement its leadership as a digital player. In fact, Matt Goldberg entered the organization as “the digital guy.” Rapidly accelerating digital growth and revenue was a key part of the business strategy.

    So it’s not as simple as “this was a print-only business with blinders on, but now there’s a new sheriff who gets digital.” The issue isn’t getting the importance of digital content. The issue is how to build a profitable business off what has become a commodity.

    The Wheelers founded Lonely Planet because they discovered an experience that they just had to share, and they understood that there was demand for this sharing. Their commitment to adventure and innovation drove the company (at least in terms of growth, if not in terms of profitability) for decades. If Lonely Planet is to survive, it needs to discover what it’s uniquely good at. And it can’t just hope that whatever that turns out to be is somehow valuable to the world. It needs to make it so.

    • jpatokal said:

      Thanks for dropping by, Vivek! You’re right, I’ve simplified the story rather considerably (this is an opinion piece after all, not a history) and you’re far more knowledgeable about pre-2010 LP than I am, but I gather my basic point still holds: LP’s thrown plenty of money at digital over the years, but the company’s focus has always been on print, and digital was never allowed to threaten that.

      So LP couldn’t be TripAdvisor or Wikitravel, because that would have competed with books, and LP couldn’t be Expedia, because books don’t sell tickets, etc. For a long time, lp.com (outside Thorn Tree) only offered sneak peeks at content, as this was meant to drive more book sales, and all LP digital products ever have been based on book content. And while, as you say, this was recognized early on, I gather the first three CMS projects foundered at least in part because they couldn’t tease apart the content from the only product that mattered, the book. “Make more money from digital” has been a goal for ages, but the critical shift to “digital first” only became official strategy in late 2012 — and you could well argue that only translated into action last week, although both the lp.com move to London and the Shared Publishing Platform rollout were critical precursors.

      I think we both know what LP’s good at: “trusted advice from a trusted source”. This has value and is not commoditized, but these days it has a lot of competition from less trusted advice from less trusted but free sources, and figuring out how to extract that value is going to be the brave new Lonely Planet’s main job.

      • Yup, I agree. Digital first (in fact, mobile first) has to be the way to go. Trust is key, and monetizing it is the challenge.

  3. Seb said:

    Very well put, Jani.

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