Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Musings on eBook travel guides

(I'm biased, I admit it. I have a personal preference for using Lonely Planet's travel guides. I tried others for a while, but then went back to LP. So, while the following musings might apply to other brands of travel guides as well, my experience is mostly focused on LP's.)

When I first tried reading a Lonely Planet guide on my Kindle Touch a while ago, I got frustrated. Reading a travel guide in black and white is less fun, for one. And the free-flow formatting of text irritates me. Not to speak of displaying maps and other graphics on a black & white e-ink device. I don't recommend it.

Looking at the same guide on my Kindle app on the iPad is significantly nicer. But one thing that it still doesn't give you is the easy ability to flip back and forth between pages in different sections of the book. I don't often read travel guides serially, from page one to the last one. I flip back and forth between chapters that interest me, the map pages, and other sections cross-referenced in the text. Setting bookmarks just doesn't cut it.

However, Lonely Planet also sells PDF versions of their books for download (or even just individual chapters of them). When I was looking for the city guide for Bangkok tonight, I noticed a few things that I found worth pointing out:
  • While the paper version was still available on Amazon, it was sold out on lonelyplanet.com. Why? Because in September (two months down the road) they will be distributing a new edition of it. It's really nothing new, but always worth mentioning: Check the publication date of the guide before you buy it, and when the next edition is due. (Lonely Planet makes this easy for you nowadays - they mention the current and next planned publication date on their web site. Back in the days, you had to email them and ask.)
  • They give away the book index for free (well, that's of limited use), but also the map section of the book. I think that's just awesome. Another limitation of electronic travel guides is that you have to pull out your device for public display whenever you want to look at a map. Having the maps in a PDF, regardless of the form you bought the book in, (be it on paper, the Kindle edition, PDF, or whatever,) you can just print out the maps you need from the PDF file and carry them around on pieces of paper. And it probably benefits some folks who aren't interested in the whole book but only in the maps - I think that's a good call on LP's end, mixing commercial interest without being paranoid about giving something away for free.
  • The PDF version of the guide that's coming out in print in September is already available for purchase.
Alright, so I decided to give the PDF version a try. Here are my first observations:
  • If you buy the whole book, you still download the individual PDFs of its individual chapters. A little annoying to handle, but I use GoodReader and that allows me to organize documents into folders, etc., making that aspect less of a hassle.
  • I like being able to read the chapters the way they were laid out for the print publication.
  • Flipping back and forth between sections is still not great. Although at least I can switch back and forth between the individual PDFs, and my reader will remember where in a PDF file I stopped reading.
  • The index PDF contains an index referring to page numbers. Not too helpful, because it's hard to relate the PDF file names to page numbers. The file names hint at some of the chapter titles, but if you sort them alphabetically, it doesn't result in an order of PDF files that would match the order of the chapters in the printed book. Adding the page numbers to the file names would be a quick fix, not sure why LP didn't do that for me.
  • Likewise, the Contents page does refer to page numbers only, and the PDF file names don't help me figure those out. Which of the PDF files contains the Survival Guide that's starting on page 219??
Ah well. At least I saved a tree. Or some such.