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”.

Farewell Lonely Planet Melbourne, hello Google Sydney

On the Metro, Helsinki, FinlandAt 18, I spent the summer delivering mail at minimum wage minus 15% (it was “training”, you see), and promptly blew my meager savings on a frenzied one-month Interrail trip through Europe.  When my parents read through the angsty, near-incoherent notes I’d scribbled into a diary while waiting for trains in Holesovice or Ljubljana, complaining about expensive yogurt and Hungarian orthography, they ruffled my hair the same way I now praise our two-year-old for going potty and said “This is amazing!  You should go work for Lonely Planet!”

“Ha”, the cynical teen thought.  “Fat chance of that ever happening.”

Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, Little India, SingaporeYet 15 years later in Singapore, as I sat warming my hands over the dying embers of Wikitravel Press and glumly contemplated a return to the grim meathook world of telco billing systems, I received an e-mail from Lonely Planet.  A few days later, I took Gus to Komala Vilas for roti pratas, and he outlined the vision for what would become the Shared Publishing Platform and why they could really use a travel wiki kind of geek for it. A few weeks later, I was in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray, staring at the world’s largest accumulation of travel knowledge in the Void and pinching myself: “Holy crap. This is for real, I’m standing inside the HQ of Lonely effing Planet, and these people want me to come work here.”

Industrial Science Laboratory, U. of Tokyo, JapanNow I sit here in equal disbelief, voluntarily saying farewell to the best company and best team I’ve ever had the privilege of working for, and that’s not just the kind of hyperbole expected for these public farewells.  The past three years of replacing a jet’s engines in mid-flight have been an intense learning experience, and the work is nowhere near done, but unlike the company’s three previous attempts, it’s now over the hump.  All authors are now writing directly into the content management system, where editors and curators weave their magic, with printed books, e-books, apps and the website being pumped out the other end, and Lonely Planet can now start fully focusing on its shiny digital future.

Sydney Opera House
And me?  I’m joining Google’s Geo team in Sydney, where I’ll be working with the world’s most popular travel application, Google Maps.

I plan to continue to write this blog, although there will be less idle speculation about what the Big G is up to next and less of a focus on the print publishing business I now depart. That said, my next post ought to give some food for thought to those in the industry, so don’t unsubscribe just yet!