Tag Archives: thomas kohnstamm

Lonely Planet: We don’t accept freebies – except when we do

Lonely PlanetThe Age today digs a little deeper into Lonely Planet’s editorial policies following the Thomas Kohnstamm affair and the both the Melbourne daily newspaper and the travel icon emerge from the encounter looking more than a little worse for wear. The Age contrasts the strict editorial policies of Lonely Planet regarding its policies on freebies and desk-updates with comments from authors. Much more damaging, if true, are the admissions Lonely Planet rep Piers Pickard makes, particularly the pattern in which clear rules (no freebies, no “desk updates”) collapse under the weight of reality after closer questioning.

On freebies Pickard says

Lonely Planet lets its authors accept free entry to state-run institutions such as museums or national parks. Prodded further, he says the company also allows freebies when obtained through a tourist office. He says the wording of its policy will be tightened further in future books to close any perceived loophole.

And, about desk updates

“We don’t do desk updates. We’re really proud of the fact that we invest a lot of time and money sending our authors as far as we possibly can around the world,” he says.

Were there any exceptions? Mr Pickard pauses. He says there are cases where writers cannot travel to dangerous areas, such as parts of war-torn Afghanistan. “But I want to make it really, really clear, we go so much further than our competitors,” he says.

Asked about [allegations of desk updates regarding the South Australian outback], Mr Pickard admits that the time and cost taken to travel to particular areas is sometimes too high — particularly in the face of tight publication deadlines. He says the chunks of outback untouched by Lonely Planet will be updated in a subsequent edition, by which time the relevant portions of its guidebook will be six years out of date.

“We can’t cover the whole of the Australian outback. That’s like imagining our authors sleep in every single hotel,” he says.

The Washington Post recently compared Lonely Planet’s freebies policy with five other major guidebook publishers and it demonstrates just what a high bar LP sets for itself compared to the competition. It’s sad seeing Lonely Planet hoist with its own petard – its paying a high price for idealistic but impractical editorial policies which are inevitably flouted in Lonely Planetpractice. What’s becoming crystal clear is the public relations price of maintaining these impossible to uphold policies, so expect idealism to give way to pragmatism (even at the guidebook born on the hippy trail). However, if the experiences of Lonely Planet contributor “interviewed” for The Age article, Zora O’Neil, are to believed then the Lonely Planet still probably has a thing or two to teach The Age about editorial standards. O’Neil in her blog ‘Roving Gastronome’ labels the article ‘tacky, lazy journalism’

I had a sinking feeling after my phone interview with Peter Munro. It was a good twenty minutes of him fishing for me to say Lonely Planet was hypocritical…

I spent a lot of time in my phone interview saying, in fact, that I thought LP generally has great intentions, and maybe it had written its freebie policy without a loophole in mind. And executives have been very responsive to my comments on the freebies issue, which is more than I can say for any other employer I’ve ever had.

But because I was uncooperative and my rational response doesn’t make a great story, Munro just resorted to quoting my statements on this blog–without even attributing them, so Age readers can’t come here and read my full comments. Worse, it’s in a larger context that makes it sound like I have taken freebies while on the job with LP, which is completely untrue.

The latest chapter in this unfortunate affair which is doing nothing for the reputation of Lonely Planet, guide books, travel writers or telling travellers anything they couldn’t already guess. But like a traffic accident, you can’t bring yourself to avert your gaze.

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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.


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

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    Lonely Planet Responds to Kohnstamm Embarrassment

    Via Tales of Asia: Lonely Planet’s response to the Kohnstamm imbroglio.

    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.

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    Guidebooks: neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so

    Imagine having one month to track down information as broad as the prices at Laundromats in Seattle, the details of the Tijuana border crossing, where to find a decent sandwich in Bakersfield, an overview of LA’s nightlife, hiking trails in Yosemite, museum hours in Portland, bus schedules in San Francisco, and the location of a decent tourist office in Boise. Now imagine trying to do that in a place with no reliable transportation schedules, dial-up Internet connections (when there are Internet connections, or even phones), thousands of miles of unpaved roads, and heavily accented Northeast Brazilian Portuguese as the language of choice (Thomas Kohnstamm – Former Lonely Planet contributor)

    In light of the Lonely Planet shemozzle I thought I would get round to writing a post I’d had in mind for a while. Guidebooks – the good, the bad and the unnecessary.

    RomeThere are a multiplicity of guidebook series – Transitionsabroad.com has a decent run-down of the characteristics of some of the major players, in it particular highlights the drawbacks of each, which correspond almost exactly with my thoughts.

    Personally I am drawn to Frommer’s when I am planning a trip by the ‘Best of’ lists and the uncluttered layout. I dislike the (admittedly handsome) DK Guides with a passion – at least for anything practical – and avoid the Let’s Go guides because of some glaring errors I have come across. I have found Moon Guides excellent for on-the-road reference where available, but have generally relied on LP’s as the most reliable (!). I haven’t had a chance to check them out but I have a grudging fondness for Rick Steve’s guides which contain no extraneous material – a country guide may concentrate on only a handful of cities or areas – opininated reviews and charming hand-drawn maps of questionable utility inviting you get lost. This almost directed approach creates a Rick Steves’ trail not unlike the more infamous LP trail.

    If you are in the market for a guidebook remember they vary drastically in quality within series – try to find experiences of people who have actually used the book, then spend time in the bookstore browsing those you are interested in (or even better check for it in your local library). What’s more, keep in mind that ALL guidebooks are out of date:

    Sure, there’s a disclaimer that says the information was accurate as of some date, but truthfully, the guidebook is only accurate during the time that the harried researcher/writer is standing on site at the open attraction/airline gateway/hotel/etc. Guidebooks are out of date before they’ve gone to print (Why Your Guidebook Is Wrong).

    Wikitravel and World66 are noble attempts to create free, up-to-date, travel guides which are coming into their own which I urge you contribute to (although relying soley on them may still be unwise). This article in The Atlantic point to the fIbn Battutahuture relying on a diversity of internet sites – no travel guide can match google maps, the sheer number of reviews on chowhound and traveladvisor, not to mention the various travel blogging sites give you an incredible diversity of perspectives.

    Guidebooks are still incredibly useful for planning and for giving you the lowdown on a particuar place. Ultimately, however, perhaps the best travel guide to take with you isn’t a travel guide at all. Why not ditch the LP or Rough Guide and try to recreate the footsteps of a great traveller, say Ibn Battutah, or if you’re heading to Europe try a specialist archelogical guide like the Oxford Archaeological Guides. Or travel light and just leave them all at home.

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    Scandal at Lonely Planet – Colombia guide written in San Francisco!

    Lonely Planet ColombiaScandal is engulfing Lonely Planet after the revelations by an employee, Thomas Kohnstamm, that slabs of the South America guidebooks contributed to were anything but well researched. In a new book entitled Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? Kohnstamm admits to having plagerised and invented information. He claims he didn’t even visit Colombia to write the LP guide ‘because they didn’t pay me enough’; instead, ‘I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating – an intern in the Colombian consulate’.

    Khonstamm accepted free travel and his recommendations seem to have been anything but fearlessly independent. Here is one of Kohnstamm’s anecdotes from a restaurant in Brazil he recommended:

    “The waitress suggests that I come back after she closes down the restaurant, around midnight,” he writes. “We end up having sex in a chair and then on one of the tables in the back corner.

    ” That performance earned a guidebook entry describing the restaurant as “a pleasant surprise” where “the table service is friendly”.

    According to reports another LP author, Jeanne Oliver, wrote to management regarding this scandal ‘Why did you (management) not understand that when you hire a constant stream of new, unvetted people, pay them poorly and set them loose, that someone, somehow was going to screw you?’.

    Apparently Mr Kohnstamm’s books are being ‘urgently reviewed’.

    The Telegraph & News.com.au (The Sunday Telegraph)


    KohnstammAn interesting article from the New Zealand Herald published a week ago with some more quotes from Kohnstamm:

    “They [Lonely Planet] know the book is coming out,” he says. “I’ve been contacted by a number of other Lonely Planet writers and everyone who has bothered to be in contact said, ‘Good on you, it’s a story that needed to be told.’

    “But the book is fundamentally about my personal experience and not intended as an expose on Lonely Planet. Nor do I attempt to shoot it down. Obviously, when the book was written, it was given a full legal review.”

    Kohnstamm notes in the interview that ‘Lonely Planet pays on average less than the minimum hourly wage, often does not support its writers in the field and makes demands almost impossible to meet’.