By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/2/2010 12:52:35 PM ET 2010-08-02T16:52:35

Still carrying one or more of those space-hogging, scale-tipping printed guidebooks when you travel? If so, relief may be near — strangely enough, from some of the same folks who convinced us to lug those paper-based guides in the first place.

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This week, Lonely Planet is introducing the Discover e-book series, a new collection of digital guidebooks that the company calls the first-ever interactive travel e-books. Covering France, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy and Spain, the iPad-based guides bridge the gap(s) between printed guidebooks, mobile apps and other e-reader offerings.

As John Boris, executive vice president at Lonely Planet, explains it, a lot of early e-book-style travel guides were basically PDFs with some embedded links. The Discover guides — along with soon-to-debut offerings from other publishers — promise to provide a more interactive, less static experience.

Quick links and digital dog-ears
Compared to most books, which are read sequentially, travel guides present a unique challenge for mobile users. “People like to jump around in a guidebook,” says Carroll Rheem, director of research at PhoCusWright. “They’re looking for tidbits of information that are particularly relevant to the task at hand. It’s almost more like search.” As currently used, the average e-reader probably isn’t the best tool for the job.

On the other hand, smartphone apps are generally better for specific tasks — reading restaurant reviews,  searching for hotels, etc. — than for reading longer narrative passages. Nobody’s going to delve into the history, architecture or other evocative aspects of an area on one of those itty-bitty screens.

Currently available for an introductory price of $14.99, the Discover e-books get around those constraints by adapting Lonely Planet content to the iPad’s larger, multi-functional, touch-screen display. Each guide features 3,000-plus hyperlinks that connect to listings in the book and external websites, detailed maps with embedded points of interest, a search engine to find specific content and bookmarking and note-taking capabilities.

The guides “speak to how people use travel guides,” says Boris. “They dog-ear pages; they write notes in the margins.” (This being a digital world, such personalized additions are collected in a special folder.) Add in a glossary, hundreds of images and the ability to share information with others via e-mail and you have what Boris calls “the richness of the [print] book on overdrive.”

And Lonely Planet isn’t alone in the emerging e-guidebook game. Later this month, Fodor’s will introduce its first four guides created especially for the e-book platform. Focusing on U.S. national parks, the titles will cover Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon; Yellowstone and Grand Teton; the Grand Canyon and other natural areas in Arizona, and California ($8.99 each).

“Each park will have its own tiered table of contents,” says spokesperson Meg Rushton, “so you can click through to the exact section you want.” The guides, which will be available for all e-readers and the iPad, will also feature full-color maps and photos, a browsable section of recommended sites and experiences and live links to external websites.

An explosion of iPads and e-readers
Of course, no one — least of all none of the big guidebook publishers — is suggesting that print is dead, but there’s no escaping the explosive growth of the market for e-readers, tablet computers (e.g., the iPad) and reading material for both.

According to James McQuivey, senior analyst at Forrester Research, the total number of e-readers in the U.S. market will jump from 3.9 million in 2009 to 10.3 million this year, led by the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader and Nook from Barnes & Noble. And that was before last week, when Amazon introduced its newest, lowest-priced model, a Wi-Fi-equipped, $139 device that’s bound to goose sales even higher.

(Speaking of Amazon, last month, the company also announced it was selling 180 e-books for every 100 hardcovers sold and that e-book sales would likely surpass paperback sales within a year. The numbers are a bit squishy, but the trend lines are hard to miss.)

Meanwhile, sales of the iPad are skyrocketing, with 3.27 million units sold in the first three months after its April 3 introduction. With new tablets in the wings from HP, Samsung and others, McQuivey estimates that there will be almost 60 million tablet users in the U.S. by 2015.

How many of those devices will be used as travel guides is unknown, but it’s a perfect fit, says Yankee Group analyst Dimitriy Molchanov: “Imagine you’re traveling to Maine. You don’t want to just read about restaurants and hotels; you’ll probably want to look at pictures or take a tour. If you’re thinking about visiting a museum, you might want to hear the curator talk about its new exhibition.” Add in a camera (as future tablets almost certainly will) and suddenly augmented-reality walking tours don’t seem so far-fetched.

Ultimately, and however it shakes out — printed book or phone app, iPad or e-reader — only one thing’s for sure. As Molchanov says, “Five years from now, guidebooks will look entirely different.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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