Apps and the Future of Travel and Photo Journalism

By Lee Foster

As old markets collapse, new markets emerge for the travel journalist.

As we approach the end of 2012 and the third year of the travel app phenomena, what are the leading concepts today for the individual travel journalist? Some are:

*Travel ebooks may be as important as travel apps, considering the explosion of electronic tablets. Apps are for greater functionality, such as sorting and maps. Ebooks are for a reading experience.

*Authors must personally market their apps. Apps do not sell themselves and outfits such as Sutro, which allows the author to be a royalty participant in the sale, are not capitalized to promote and sell the brand energetically, carrying the app sales forward.

*”Freemium” may replace outright sale, at perhaps $2.99. Under the “freemium” model, you give away the app, but charge for an “upgrade” if someone wants to avoid ads and also see other content. I have my San Francisco app now in “freemium” with Sutro, but my other two apps are presented for payment only. The initial results for San Francisco are cautiously optimistic. The app is returning to me, in cash dollars, slightly more each month  in “freemium” than in the outright sale model.

*Viral sales remain an allure. My San Francisco app sold more than a thousand units in the month after Apple declared it a “Staff Favorite.” I am waiting for some new “freemium” viral sales to occur.

*Big sales occur for people who do apps on big destinations, such as Las Vegas, New York, and Orlando. My San Francisco and Washington DC app are second tier. My Berkeley app is a smaller potential market.

Looking back, with some nostalgia, here is what has transpired.

For me, December 2009 was an especially poignant illustration of the changing scene.

Another of my good travel magazine markets folded. At the same time, I released my first travel app in the Apple iTunes App Store.

The magazine that folded was National Geographic Adventure. I had five sales to them for about $1,500 in 2008-2009, so there went another good magazine outlet. Travel writers/photographers are a little like polar bears, just barely surviving on incremental protein.

However, on another front, my first app went on sale in the Apple iTunes App Store.

Here is the December 2009 announcement and the iTunes write-up. The San Francisco app went on to become a best-seller in the App Store, selling a thousand copies in the month of May.

The Announcement:

Lee Foster Releases San Francisco App for iPhone

foster-sf-app-cover-150Lee Foster ([email protected]) has released his first travel app in the Apple iTunes App Store. The title is San Francisco Travel and Photo Guide (originally $2.99, now a “freemium” app in late 2012). The direct link to the App Store is The app, viewable on iPhones, assists users to create, collect, and enjoy their own postcard-perfect photos and memories of San Francisco. Lee presents his top 100 views of The City, from vistas to iconic details, and shows the user how to duplicate them. The app has Lee’s comments on how to make the photo and why the view is significant, even if you only want to enjoy the view and not photograph it. Interactive maps show what photos/views can be savored in a given neighborhood. The app is both a travel guide and a photo guide.

I followed that up in February 2010 with the release of a second app, on Washington, DC.  Here is that announcement:

Lee Foster Releases Washington DC App for iPhone

Lee Foster ([email protected]) has released his second travel app in the Apple iTunes App Store.  The title is DC Travel Photo Guide ($2.99).  The direct link into the app store is
The app, viewable on iPhones, assists users to create and collect their own postcard-perfect photos and memories of Washington, DC. Lee presents his top 100 views of the nation’s capital, from vistas to iconic details, and shows the user how to duplicate them. The app has Lee’s comments on how to make the photo and why the view is significant, making this app both a travel and a photo guide.  Interactive maps show what photos/views can be savored in a given neighborhood. Lee’s first app title was San Francisco Travel Photo Guide. The direct link to that is

150-washdcappcoverIn November I came out with my third writing/photo app, this one on my home town of Berkeley, CA.

The announcement:

Lee Foster’s New Travel App Berkeley Essential Guide Released in the Apple iTunes App Store

Lee Foster’s latest travel app, Berkeley Essential Guide (Sutro Media, $2.99), has been released in the Apple iTunes App Store ( The app celebrates 120 favorite aspects of Berkeley, as chosen by local resident Lee Foster. Foster is an award-winning travel journalist, winner of eight Lowell Thomas Awards. The entries include selections related to food and the Gourmet Ghetto, the University, the cultural/arts scene, the neighborhoods, and the lovely parks, such as Cesar Chavez Park on the Bay. All the write-ups and all the 500 plus photos in the app are original content created by Lee Foster. The app has interactive maps with GPS capacity, slideshows of photos, and external links for each entry to further information from the Internet. Anyone who purchases the app also receives free future updates.  The apps run on Apple iPhone, iPod, and iPad mobile devices. Lee Foster’s 10 books, 4 apps, and 200 worldwide article/photo subjects can be seen on his website at

What is my further analysis now of this app phenomenon?

Since those original announcements, there have been two dramatic developments:

*Android emerged as a viable market, and Sutro responded by creating an Android engine and placing my apps in the Google Play store.

*The iPad and other tablets emerged, and Sutro responded by creating an iPad version of my apps. This necessitated swapping in higher-resolution photos for all three apps. That alone was a major undertaking.

As I think about my apps, plus the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices, many considerations flood my mind:

-The devices are quite elegant and lovely. The more time you spend with an iPhone, the more its simplicity and elegance becomes apparent. iPhones are fun, and travel info-and-image products on them are a natural. The iPad and the Android devices have a similar allure.

-The market for apps is huge, but one wonders if direct pay or “freemium” will become the preferred model. Over 10 billion app downloads were said to have occurred from the Itunes store by January 2011. My own San Francisco app, a best seller, has been downloaded in 46 foreign countries. By contrast, my parallel printed book on San Francisco will almost never sell outside North America because of the additional expensive mailing charges. Paid travel apps are not the largest category of app sales (the games category is way ahead) and many apps are free, but there has been a robust market for paid apps, and perhaps “freemium” will be the best response. Free apps have proliferated, especially from CVBs and tourism destinations. Possibly, giving away the app and then charging for an “upgrade,” to avoid ads and access further content, will be the model of the future.

-My apps are totally unlike a travel photo book. In my case, I have books parallel to my apps. I have books out, with Countryman Press, titled The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco: Where to Find Perfect Shots and How to Take Them and The Photographer’s Guide to Washington DC: Where to Find Perfect Shots and How to Take Them. The first and most obvious difference, suggesting that an app is an entirely new product category, is in the number of photos. The book is frozen forever, with about 75 photos presented. My app rollout for San Francisco had 100 photos and later versions had 600 photos. An app allows the presentation of a much larger range of writing and photography than a book. The text can be infinite in size. Travel books are difficult to sell beyond North America. Apps and ebooks can be sold worldwide. My app on San Francisco has sold in 46 foreign countries.

-Apps require a different style of writing and research than is used in a book. App writing needs to be quite truncated and brief, just a couple of paragraphs for each subject. Books encourage a more leisurely approach to the subject. Writing more concisely is an art. Also, one critical part of the research for an app is the appropriate website to present for further information on a subject. You don’t need to do that for a book, but you might, of course, for an ebook.

-Royalty rates for authors of apps are much higher than for authors of books, and for good reason. The deal I get is about 30% of the gross income from my $2.99 app sale, or $1 per sale. This is roughly typical of the app world—30% each to the author, developer, and app store, with 10% going to admin. For my books, I have a 15% of net rate, which is good and possibly a little high. So, for selling one apps for $3, I get about $1. For a sale of my $14.95 book, my royalty is 15% net, and the book will typically be discounted 55% to sell on Amazon or through a distributor. My royalty for that sale is $1.01. Typically, there will be many more sales of a $2.99 product than of a similar product costing $14.95. The app Author and Publisher/Developer have no printing press to buy, no paper or ink costs, no warehouse needed to store product, no distribution hassle, and no quantity manufacturing cost to achieve economies of scale, etc. The traditional publisher strengths of capital and distribution do not apply. However, the app publisher needs Software, and that is a substantial intellectual investment to create or license or buy off the shelf, if and when such software is available.

-The low price point of apps will build a new market. I set my price, so the price could be anything I wish. I chose $2.99 and am now leaning towards “freemium.” At these low prices, a purchase of my app travel product almost becomes an impulse sale. A huge number of buyers will enter the app market, compared to a small number who will pay for a book costing $14.95. On my first app, the San Francisco travel photo app, I had buyers in 10 foreign countries in the first month, including, among others, one buyer in Korea, two in Italy, and one in Japan.  Apps can be sold worldwide in a rarified electronic ether.  As mentioned, my physical books will rarely sell in these remote, foreign countries.

-A referenced website in an app can carry the volatile information, which may go out of date. The app can concentrate on evergreen insight and helpful qualitative observations. A classic example of this would be an app entry for a restaurant. Listing the restaurant website for further information, just a click away, puts all that changeable info, such as menu and price, as a burden for the restaurant to convey and keep up-to-date. One of the major traditional problems with guidebooks has been information that is out of date.

-Apps have an interactive map capacity, far beyond the two-dimensional maps in books. The use of mapping capacity is one of the delights of an iPhone. I no longer need paper maps to get around Northern California. For my San Francisco app, the map can show me where the locations are, with respect to where I am. The map can show me the cluster of photo opportunities in a neighborhood, such as “Golden Gate Park,” for example. The mapping revolution can now be applied to travel products. Who would want to go back to paper maps?

-The device is small and compact, whether a phone or a tablet, not large and heavy, like a book. In the old days, a traveler  would need to carry around large guidebooks, possibly several. Or one would judiciously rip out sections of guidebooks, eliminating all the subjects irrelevant to the trip. With the app, there is nothing to carry around. You need a phone anyway, so why not carry all your info, insight, directions, and images also on the phone, which is also your email device?

-Apps represent a virtuous future in green publishing. Print materials will eventually become assessed as another cause of global warming. It is only a matter of time before printed travel books and magazines will be stigmatized in the buyer’s mind for their “carbon footprints” and rejected as luxurious. Global warming and resource depletion will be tied to the production of physical products, such as printed travel books and travel magazines. Why not convey all this info, insight, and photography in an electronic format at small environmental cost?

Apps, once created, require care and feeding and marketing, if the author wants them to survive and flourish. Apps are software, and there is an expectation of new releases, perhaps on a 90-day cycle for apps. There are always new entries to write, more photos to create, and an ever more energetic promotional effort needed to help your app stand out in an increasingly crowded field. The public expects an app to be fresh and current. The evolving software also begs for a new release. For example, one update release from my Sutro Media partners allowed a user to email an entry to a friend. I needed to re-release my products just to activate that new software enhancement. Most importantly, the author needs to keep marketing and selling the app. The assumption that the apps would sell themselves or that the royalty publishers (such as Sutro) would sell the apps has proven incorrect.

iPhones (plus iPads, Android phone, and Android tablets) and apps are revolutionary. The iPhone and parallel mobile devices will have consequences as immense for all of us as was the personal computer rollout in roughly 1980. The Apple iPad has emerged as a further, elegant app-reading device. The Google Android platform for mobile devices will be pursuing Apple’s early lead. The Apple and Google platforms require different product engines, so it is important that the app publishers keep developing their software.

Apps will assist in my survival as a For-Profit travel journalist. They will provide a modest, new income stream to replace some of the old streams that are drying up.

(Note: Lee Foster presents several instructional articles on his web site. If you find this instruction useful, you are encouraged to make a contribution/donation of $1 or more to Lee Foster’s PayPal account at [email protected] Funds will be used to develop further such instruction.)