A Round-up of Reaction to Lonely Planet’s Rogue Author Thomas Kohnstamm

From the Horse’s Mouth

This behaviour is completely contrary to what Lonely Planet is all about. Because of the nature of Thomas’ claims, we’re carefully reviewing all the Lonely Planet content he has worked on. Where we find problems or discrepancies, we will tell you immediately and replace that content with accurate, up-to-date material.

Authors who are in these destinations now, or who have recently researched them, are conducting a full review of his text.

Thomas talks most about his work on Brazil (6th edition). This book is now out of print and has been replaced by the current edition.

Thomas has claimed that he was not paid enough to travel to Colombia when he was employed as an author on our Colombia guide. The fact is that Thomas was not employed as an on-the-ground author on that guidebook. …

Thomas claims he was not paid enough by Lonely Planet to do the job without shortcuts. While we ask a lot of our authors, we lead the industry in the fees we pay, and are committed to a yearly review of author fees.

We’re confident that the vast majority of our information is sound and accurate. Where we find any problems, we’ll make it right by providing new content. We know that you place a huge amount of trust in us, and we will live up to that trust.

I didn’t expect this kind of huge controversy or backlash. As for Lonely Planet’s reaction, I think when they actually sit down and read the book, they’ll realize it’s not such a hatchet job,Hell and my points are more nuanced. And I say in the introduction to the book that I’m still a fan of Lonely Planet guidebooks and still use the guidebooks.

  • Tony Wheeler, Lonely Planet founder, on pay: “Authors not paid enough? We don’t have blank author cheques at our disposal, but I hope we pay fairly.”

Fellow Travel Writers

Guidebooks have become a very streamlined business and there’s less and less chance to ’stretch your wings’ as a writer these days. Again, this is also a consequence of the fact that there are far fewer untouristed places on the globe today compared to say 15-20 years ago, when the content of an individual guidebook could still be groundbreaking. I mentioned boxed texts earlier — these are a chance to write as much as 800-1000 words on a topic — but for the most part it is very much templated work, there’s no getting around that.

  • Comment from another Lonely Planet author, Jolyon Attwooll, in The Telegraph

Of the six Lonely Planets that I have contributed to, Chile was my first guidebook assignment and I took it very seriously. I pushed myself – as guidebook authors have to, given their tight deadlines – walking the streets of Santiago from daybreak till nightfall to review new hotels and restaurants. Torrential rain hampered me as I travelled south, but I negotiated flooded roads and mudslides to check out the more remote places. I did so because I was conscious that someone buying the guide might just be relying on what I wrote. The vast majority of travel writers, I know, feel the same sense of responsibility.

Of course, guidebooks have their limitations. Authors are fallible, although we may hate to admit it. Most are horrified if they discover a wrong telephone number or hostel price. But guidebooks are not – as they are sometimes dubbed – bibles. They are
simply guides.

Kohnstamm

What I’m really getting at, though, is that Lonely Planet’s rebuttal is probably right: There actually aren’t any serious factual errors in Thomas’s work. LP has probably combed through and made allowances for the usual closures, bus-schedule changes and so on…and discovered no more than the usual level of mistakes.

Depressing as it is, as I work my little brain to data-crammed jelly, Thomas’s Lonely Planet work is probably no more inaccurate than anything I’ve ever written–especially after it has been on store shelves for a year or so. Righteous Amazon.com Dude is just going to have to live with that…and so am I.

Finally, getting back to the pay issue (as we inevitably do): Stephen Palmer, LP exec, says, “We’re pretty confident that we pay right at the top of the range.”

I suppose they do, at least in terms of cold, hard cash. There are other factors–do I get copyright? Royalties? How helpful are editors? Will people freak if my manuscript is late? Do I have to make sure the formatting is flawless?–that change that flat number.

But the end result, even if they’re paying “at the top of the range,” is that they’re not paying a wage that anyone can live on, at least not for more than a few years in your mid- to late 20s. So Lonely Planet has to churn its authors every few years–that’s fine, as everyone wants this job–but it also means that there are going to be plenty of newbies on the road who totally underestimated what the job entailed (as Thomas did) and the money involved, and get a little desperate. And the books are going to suffer.

Do guidebook writers make up stuff? Do supermodels snort cocaine? Did we actually need to see photos of Amy Winehouse with a crack pipe in her hand to suspect that her half-naked barefoot wanderings around east London were evidence of more than simply her exuberant personality?

The revelation by a Lonely Planet writer, Thomas Kohnstamm, this week that he didn’t actually visit the country he was writing about… was greeted with the sort of response you’d expect from a class of five-year-olds on learning the truth about Santa Claus.

As it turns out Kohnstamm has a book to flog – Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? – and he was only writing the preliminary sections of the Colombia guidebook and wasn’t actually expected to go there.

From the self-righteous indignation that came pouring forth from travel websites this week… you would think that he’d taken to murdering kittens or claiming War and Peace as his own.

Lonely Planet isn’t amused. Judy Slatyer, the chief executive, called Kohnstamm’s behaviour ‘shit’. But if it really wants to claim the moral high ground, Lonely Planet might want to look within. It axed writers’ royalties a few years back and the editorial credits on most of the guides these days resemble a football team line-up.

Even so, the fact is that most guidebook writers are conscientious and take pride in their work. They do what they do for the love of it – because they certainly won’t make much money. But no one can cover everything, or go everywhere, and even with the best will in the world, things don’t always go to plan.

I speak with some authority here. Back in the early 1990s, I updated a guide to the recently disbanded Soviet Union with my friend Anna. En route home, having run out of both time and money, we had the nagging feeling that we’d forgotten something. Belarus, as it turned out. Apologies Minsk, we never did make it there.

And although one post-Soviet city is very much like another, in those pre-internet days information on the highlights of Minsk nightlife was rather harder to come by than it is now. We ended up wringing information out of someone in the British embassy, and when it came to writing about the state circus, I endowed it with a set of pink performing poodles and one Isabel Hentonova, a Slavicised version of a friend’s name back home.

Not a smoking gun, exactly, but every guidebook writer has their pink performing poodles; Google searches might allow you to cover your tracks rather better these days, but guidebooks are essentially about the aggregation of information rather than the subjectivity of the artist and, so, as Thomas might say, over a post-coital spliff, like, so what, baby?

In the age before digital mapping, guidebook publishers would include deliberate errors in their maps so that they could figure out who was ripping them off, and sue them. In general, though, it’s all up for grabs.

The funny thing is that I’d trust Kohnstamm’s books far more now than I would have before. Because now I know he’s a self-publicising would-be Hunter S Thompson chancer with an eye for the ladies, my hunch would be that he probably knows what he’s talking about when it comes to lap-dancing bars. But if it’s a matter of the relative merits of boutique hotels, I’d rather take it from a sweaty stranger I met on a bus.

Of course, all guidebook writers, even Lonely Planet ones, are just sweaty strangers. Think on that next time you follow one down a darkened alleyway to what may, or very well may not, be the coolest bar in town.

Other Comment From Around The Web

  • A review of Kohnstamm’s book from World Hum:

He rails against a silent editor at LP, but—apparently—only emails her once; and he makes four or five unfortunate sweeping statements that he thinks justify some of his ill-fated decisions. By the time he begins milking the gig for free rooms, booze and meals, he puts the blame on The System, never mind that he apparently didn’t read the conditions of his contract (a 100-plus page brief that outlines the scope of the job) until he arrived in Brazil. “I guess the subsequent loss of complete objectivity is the price Lonely Planet pays for not giving writers enough money to do comprehensive research,” he proclaims, and then offers that “a successful guidebook writer must … play the game correctly behind the scenes. There is not enough time and not enough cash to do otherwise.”

Lonely Planet’s error, I contend, is to assert that its researchers check “every listing in person, every time, every edition”. That is an colossal claim, which its arch-rival, Rough Guides, does not seek to emulate.

“If you asked any Rough Guide writer if they went absolutely everywhere that they wrote about – no, they wouldn’t go absolutely everywhere,” says Martin Dunford, editorial director for Rough Guides. “But they are certainly dedicated.”

…Perhaps I can help. Besides being a writer of flawed guidebooks, I am also an avid consumer of other people’s. I find them helpful, quirky and, at times, wrong. But travellers are by nature open-minded.

Page 216 of the Colombia guide covers the complicated tripartite town of Leticia-Tabatinga-Santa Rosa, where Colombia, Brazil and Peru all meet in a muddy Amazonian splodge. When I was there earlier this year, I was glad to have a book containing a decent map and a pretty good approximation to the truth. The Lonely Planet guide warns travellers that they need to register at both the Colombian and Brazilian immigration offices, which they don’t; and there was no sign of the twice-weekly seaplane service upriver to Iquitos in Peru.

So what? In this unpredictable part of the world, truth can change quicker than the murky meanderings of the Amazon. Probably both assertions were once true, and anyway no fair-minded traveller will contend that life should emulate guidebooks.

I don’t think there’s much cause for concern, with either Kohnstamm’s claims, or the quality of guidebooks. For starters, let’s not forget that Kohnstamm readily admits to embellishing his work for Lonely Planet, so it’s pretty easy to believe he’s lent that same imagination to his recent work. And even if what he says is true – is it so bad? The problem is that travellers treat the word of their guidebooks as gospel. How many times have you heard a traveller get told by a local that such-and-such a restaurant doesn’t exist, only for them to reply: “But my guidebook says it does.” Guidebooks are supposed to be just that: a guide. (Although “Rough” Guides further downplay their significance.) It’s the travellers themselves who decide to cling to them like some sort of papery life preserver. If you do everything your guidebook tells you to do – like, say, only eat pho in the one restaurant it recommends to you in Hanoi – then you deserve what you get.

Lonely Planet with Ripped Pages

I’m almost with Eva Holland on this one — there are so many excellent travel writers out there, good writers who write about travel and place, that I don’t see much point in wasting my time on a book whose attraction is yet another tale of some guy’s swaggering bravado in the world. On the other hand, it’s a little unfair to judge a book as full of pointless male dick-waving when I haven’t actually read it. Maybe it’s got depth, eh? Kohnstamm might be right that the travel publishing world is full of rubbish (and no different from the rest of publishing), but there’s no reason we need to encourage it.


  • The facts in the mainstream newspaper and wire service publications that first reported the story were sensationalized and exaggerated to the point of serious distortion. Why this was the case remains unclear, although all parties involved had an interest in making the biggest media splash possible.

    Having just finished a guidebook assignment myself, I can unequivocally state that Kohnstamm is exactly right. The sharp decline in quality across the guidebook industry in the last decade is hardly news.

    These days, the professional guidebook writer is a dying breed, and assignments go to eager, inexperienced writers willing to work for flat fees of a few thousand dollars per assignment, with no benefits or royalties.

    Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, Rough Guide and all the other guidebook publishing houses aren’t going to disappear anytime soon, but the time gap between (often shoddy) research and actual publication, not to mention the years between updated editions, means that print guides will struggle to compete with interactive online travel guides that offer real-time information.

    Here’s a dirty little secret: the guy writing a travel blog about his trip to Colombia is probably no less qualified to give travel advice than the guy who got paid to write a guidebook chapter on Colombia.

    Like a tour leader, a successful guidebook has to create the illusion of being all-knowing, the highest authority on its chosen topic. That makes nervous rookie travellers feel a bit safer about diving into the big wide world.

    Most of the time, however, it’s all bluff and bluster. Tour leaders and travel writers alike are not paid enough to see every destination properly, and sometimes have to call on their creative skills on particularly obscure points.

    • Nick Cohen, in The Observer, points to earlier occaisions when the Lonely Planet’s research has been suspect

    For years, campaigners against the Burmese military junta have also been campaigning against Lonely Planet. If you can get hold of a copy of the first and most debased edition of its guide to Burma, you will see why.

    The travel publishers pretend the dictatorship is ‘sensitive to criticism’. They tell tourists not to worry about the conscripted workers who built their hotels because forced labour is ‘on the wane’. The true nature of the regime creeps out in embarrassed sentences hidden in the small print. ‘Be conscious that the Burmese are not free to discuss politics with foreigners and may be punished or imprisoned if they are caught,’ reads one. ‘Don’t compromise local people by raising political questions in inappropriate situations,’ chides another.

    Burmese democrats assumed that Lonely Planet was a cynical operator which knew the truth about their country but euphemised for the sake of sales. Thomas Kohnstamm, co-author of Lonely Planet guides to various South American countries, raises the plausible possibility that Lonely Planet employees were so stretched they barely grasped the nature of Burmese autocracy before moving on to the next country.

    • Gadling sought out some Amazon.com reviews of Lonely Planet’s Colombia guide

    “I have been a lonely planet guide book fan for many years. Unfortunately, this one is a big disappointment. I doubt the writer spent much time in the country. The info on Medellin is practically non existent. If they even bothered to read wikipedia, they could have provided 100x more info.” — San Diego Guy

    “I started in Ipiales, worked my way up to Cartegena and back down to Bogota. There were the usually small errors, but by the time I reached Mompos, I wondered if the authors had visited Colombia recently.” — David Mellinger — Short answer: no!

    “This guide does little more than repeat SOME of what the previous guide did. Most likely the writer just checked out phone numbers, maybe eliminated those that did not respond.” — Col

    “Go to wikipedia online and you will find out a lot more than reading this book!” — Jack


    Subscribe to our RSS feed!

    Advertisements

    One response to “A Round-up of Reaction to Lonely Planet’s Rogue Author Thomas Kohnstamm

    1. Hello,
      I came across your website and found it very enjoyable. I just had a couple of questions so if you could e-mail me back that would be great!

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

    Google+ photo

    You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

    Connecting to %s