Publishing: The changing face of the National Trust guidebooks

In this case study we look at how the publishing of the National Trust’s guidebooks affects revenue, how they are organised and managed, how they’ve changed over time, including new innovations such as e-guidebooks, which appeal to the NT’s international audience

It is almost 90 years since the earliest National Trust house guidebook was published for Barrington Court in Somerset in 1936. The guidebooks have been an essential buy ever since – they are one of the highest-margin products in the trust’s shops – and are therefore an important revenue driver for properties.

The National Trust looks after 350 historic houses, gardens and ancient monuments across the country and attracted 21.3 visits in 2014/15 and there are currently 250 guidebooks in print. The number of guidebooks printed for each site is calculated on visitor figures and also sales of any previous guidebooks (if they had an old one). This varies from 1,500 for a small property to more than 15,000 for the bestselling guidebook: Hill Top, the home of Beatrix Potter in the Lake District. The NT generally prints a year’s worth of stock.

At the beginning of 2015 the trust has been producing e-guidebooks for each of its new guidebooks. Though still a small part of the market, these sales are attracting a more international audience and are making NT sites and their stories available to an even wider readership.

“Guidebooks are key means of communicating the amazing stories behind our properties,” says Claire Masset, NT Guidebooks publisher. “They enhance visitors’ enjoyment and understanding of a place, which in turn helps create a connection between visitors and the property and encourages them to return. More generally, guidebooks help communicate the Trust’s cause.”

The Trust’s team produces 30 new guidebooks a year, plus 60 reprints and 10 major revisions. Each guidebook follows a design template which dictates text length and allows the team to work within a framework, but within it there is flexibility to offer each of the properties something unique that reflects their ‘spirit of place’.

“Some of the guidebooks are written by National Trust curators and experts, others are written by well-known architectural/garden/cultural historians, or experienced heritage journalists and writers,” says Masset. “Each project is assessed individually and we select the best author for the requirements of that particular task.”

The NT team also works with a number of out-of-house designers – mostly individuals plus an agency, SteersMcGillanEves and a two printers, Pureprint and Park Lane Press.

Each guidebook project starts with a meeting at the property, during which the project editor discusses the scope of the guidebook – themes, contents, author, photography and illustration requirements, schedule – with key staff. Often new photography is required and this will be commissioned to a brief, with a view to reflecting the property’s character.

“All of our medium- to large-sized properties have a guidebook,” says Masset. “In an ideal world we would love to create one for each of our sites but it is difficult to justify – on strictly financial terms – creating a guidebook for properties with very few visitor numbers, where we would actually lose money producing it.”

However, the NT tries to produce a guidebook for each of its newly acquired properties, no matter how small they may be. For example Stoneywell Cottage – an Arts and Crafts gem designed by Ernest Gimson and 575 Wandsworth Road, the home of poet and novelist Khadambi Asalache.

Throughout the 90 years of publishing, the guidebooks have changed dramatically. Originally they were black and white and small format (A5), and relatively short publications and used to focus on the history of a place and include descriptions of rooms and their contents.

“Nowadays we bring each property to life by sharing the stories behind it,” says Masset. “We answer the ‘how’ and the ‘why’, not just ‘what’. We focus on people: how they shaped their properties and why they were significant (and often eccentric).”

The NT guidebooks also focus on interiors and buildings, but rather than offering dry descriptions, they engage the reader by explaining how they were used and highlighting any specific stories and objects which have particular significance in the story of the place.

“We explore the gardens and wider estate, looking at how they have evolved, how they were used, why they are significant in the history of garden design etc,” says Masset. “With every site, we bring the story right up to the present day and explain the role that the Trust has in keeping the place alive and moving it forward into the 21st century – connecting with the reader on an immediate level and making him/her appreciate the site’s significance today, not just what it meant to its owners.”

For those museums and heritage attractions wanting to produce their own guidebooks, Masset says they should get to know their visitor profile first and then make sure they are clear about what makes their site unique and interesting. In order to know what works for a certain attraction it is essential to look at other guidebooks and examine what might work for you. Then you will need to study your visitor figures and estimate how many guidebooks you think you might sell. Another important element is to establish a marketing strategy with your retail and marketing team. And finally make it your aim to convey why and how your site is special through your guidebook.