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It used to be that savvy travellers wouldn’t dare hit the road without a trusty, well-worn guidebook in hand. But today most travellers eschew the hefty tomes for online trip planners and smartphone apps.

And the marketplace has noticed. Last Thursday word came that Google, which purchased Frommer’s Travel in August 2012, will cease publication and production of the iconic Frommer’s guidebooks immediately. Though Google made no formal announcement and declined to comment, travel news site Skift reported that Frommer’s authors were notified of the change. Considered a bible by generations of US travellers, Frommer’s had nevertheless experienced a significant drop in sales.

Last week, BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC and owner of BBC Travel, sold travel guide business Lonely Planet to US company NC2 Media for $78 million – far less than the $200 million it originally paid. BBC acknowledged that the Lonely Planet purchase, made in 2007, had not proved to be a good commercial investment.

Taken together, the news comes as a blow for guidebook publishing. And it appears to be part of a larger downward trend in the industry. While sales of guidebooks soared in the 1980s and ’90s, they began dropping off in the 2000s, according to a May 2012 report in the Guardian by travel publishing expert Stephen Mesquita. By the mid-2000s, guidebook sales were plummeting. Between 2005 and 2012, sales fell roughly 40% in the UK and US, according to Mesquita.

A number of factors are behind the decline. The recession squashed leisure travel at the same time as budget-conscious travellers began going online to research, plan and book trips. Major websites such as Expedia, Orbitz and TripAdvisor popularised digital reviews and made online booking cheaper, more up-to-date and more convenient than guidebooks. To top it off, the shrinking bookshop landscape made it more difficult to browse and buy guidebooks, driving more travellers online.

Rest assured, the guidebook won’t go the way of the dodo. For starters, Brad Kelley, CEO of NC2 Media, has promised to continue publishing Lonely Planet travel guides. Though it’s considerably smaller, there is still a market for print guides, just as the market for print books, magazines and newspapers endures.

Nonetheless, travellers will encounter far fewer print guidebooks in the future. What they’ll see instead are apps like TripIt, online booking tools like Expedia, many competing travel start-ups and cheaper e-book versions of popular guides.

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