About a month ago, the publication of Thomas Kohnstamm’s Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, a purported exposé of the Lonely Planet guidebook empire and his own experience of it, ignited a firestorm of outrage among both publishers and readers. Even assuming he wrote truthfully of everything he did, though, Kohnstamm's self-indulgent analysis of the guidebook industry was flagrantly superficial. Moreover, almost everyone who responded with indignation to his hype got it mostly or nearly all wrong.
What is the scandal here, and whose is it? To summarize the story, Kohnstamm claims to have been so underpaid by LP that he had to resort to plagiarizing, soliciting freebies, and even selling drugs, to be able to update an LP guidebook (he has apparently never done one from scratch, but few if any current LP “authors” have; in reality, it would be more accurate to call them “updaters” of varying backgrounds and abilities).
Kohnstamm is correct that guidebook writers are often badly underpaid, but his account of his own LP experience lacks context. His first LP title, so far as I can determine, was the sixth edition of LP’s Brazil, which came out in 2005; the field research would have been done the year before. Working as a freelancer for a company founded in 1973, his knowledge of its origins and previous author policies is limited, to say the least. LP, meanwhile, has gone into damage control mode to counter Kohnstamm's assertions.
The Lonely Planet Story (Unofficial Version)
When Lonely Planet first appeared on the scene, it was an idealistic company that, in lieu of babying its readers through well-trod destinations in Europe, showed them how to get Across Asia on the Cheap for an ostensibly more authentic experience. As it expanded, it hired committed regional specialists who knew the destinations about which they wrote, and paid them well, with author copyright and royalty contracts that made them partners rather than mere freelance associates. I know several former LP authors who pulled in six-figure annual incomes from their royalties, all the while building the foundation for a remarkable publishing success story.
As an LP author, I was also a regional specialist, with advanced degrees in geography from Berkeley. I was never so fortunate as those other specialists, as by the time I began the first edition of Argentina, Uruguay & Paraguay (1992), the company was moving to a fee-based author compensation system (had I known more about this, I might still have been able to negotiate a royalty contract, but author copyright was never an option for me).
Nevertheless, I worked ten years with LP, producing multiple editions of titles that also included Chile & Easter Island, Buenos Aires (my original idea, and for several years LP’s best-selling city guide), Santiago de Chile (also my original idea), Baja California, South America on a Shoestring, and The Rocky Mountain States. The latter two were collaborations with other authors.
While I might have done better if I knew then what I know now, I have no complaints about my financial arrangements with LP. They usually provided a sufficient advance to pay expenses, paid the remainder of the fee promptly when the manuscript was finished, and even gave bonuses for good work delivered on time. In one case, they even provided an extra-contractual supplementary fee when prices rose suddenly and dramatically in Argentina, the destination I was then covering.
My Editor, Right or Wrong
I lived close to LP's Oakland office, where most of my books were edited, and genuinely enjoyed my visits with editors and other staffers. Toward the end of the 1990s, however, a rapid and perhaps reckless expansion brought major changes, with increasing bureaucratic interference (sometimes dictating content from Melbourne), exacerbated by rapid personnel turnover and the hiring of marginally capable editors.
One anecdote is particularly revealing. As I was visiting the Oakland office one day in the late 1990s, a senior editor whom I greatly respected told me that a visiting staffer from Melbourne was reviewing possible covers for the Santiago book, and that I might have a look at what he was doing. Four of the five cover mockups included a photograph of a stunning church which, however, I had never seen despite 20 years’ familiarity with Chile. Visiting the online archive where he found the shots, I learned it was Santiago de Compostela’s Catedral del Apóstol, begun in 1075 and finished in 1128 - more than 400 years before Spain, under Pedro de Valdivia, founded what is now Chile’s capital.
Such glitches were not unusual in my later years with LP. Not only did it not occur to the growing bureaucracy to consult with its in-the-field experts to avoid such blunders, but they also trained inexperienced editors to direct torturously minute and often pointless queries to authors (“Hotel X also cost US$20 in the last edition, didn’t the price change? ad infinitum). In one instance, where I had written that Argentine actor Federico Luppi “plays the lead in Mexican director’s Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos (1992), an offbeat science-fiction gangster film, and in US director John Sayles’s Men with Guns (1997), an allegorical exploration of political violence in Latin America,” a particularly clueless editor queried me whether I meant Luppi had appeared in both films.
That reminds me of the humorist Dr Science who, when asked if he used a fact checker, replied "I used to, but when she asked for a raise, I had to let her go. It's hard to find an intern who will work an eighty hour week for minimum wage. The ones who will aren't exactly the sharpest pencils in the case." Yet good editing is essential, and I had plenty of editors who didn’t go around fixin’ what wasn’t broke, but focused on serious matters such as plagiarism and suggested changes that brought out the author's meaning; even then, they sometimes missed things that authors, sooner or later, would discover. In one instance, several years after I completely rewrote (rather than simply updated) the second edition of LP’s Chile, I discovered that the original author had plagiarized Jan Morris in describing a southern Chilean city, and I immediately changed the text to give her attribution in a book that had appeared under my name. Having inadvertently plagiarized Jan, I was fortunate enough to meet her soon after and apologize for the mistake, which she graciously accepted.
In fact, Kohnstamm backtracked on the plagiarism issue, and on this I think he’s credible - most if not all guidebook writers use a variety of sources to confirm their information. If, for instance, a telephone call to Hotel X goes unanswered, it’s perfectly acceptable to check the number in another guidebook (if, of course, you can then confirm it independently). In-house editors have access to the same books - at one time, LP and Moon reciprocally exchanged new titles for their respective libraries, and appropriately used them to double-check authors’ research.
Purging the Authors
Yet the cumulative result of LP’s pedantic editorial meddling was to alienate the experienced authors who gave LP its credibility (my own frustration led me to challenge the “Luppi” editor with “What part of and don’t you understand?"). What had been a congenial and collaborative environment soon became confrontational.
But this may have been part of a strategy to rid the roster of authors whose royalties were too substantial; in fact, they soon demanded that authors who were copyright holders would sell those copyrights to the publisher. Reluctantly, the authors did so, and those who continued to work for LP took de facto pay cuts that I would estimate at 70 percent. Eventually, nearly all of them left for other opportunities.
In my own case, LP had no need to buy out copyright, which I never had, but most of my contracts contained a clause that granted me first refusal rights to update my titles. Thus when LP declared their intention to cut me loose because I was “difficult to work with” - a phrase many other authors became acquainted with - I had to take legal action to force their compliance. My attorney says I can say we won, but a confidentiality agreement prohibits my disclosing anything more.
Meanwhile, author bios of editors and other staff at Melbourne, Oakland and elsewhere soon began to appear on the introductory pages of LP guidebooks. What was most notable was how few of these parachutists had any regional expertise - for LP, which prided itself on knowledgeable authors, destinations appear to have become interchangeable. This year your assignment might be Morocco, next year Moscow, the year after Mongolia - whether or not your background qualified you for any of them.
This, then, was the backstory that Kohnstamm is seemingly unaware of and the publisher has no need to mention. In fact, I expect that most LP updaters do their best with their limited financial resources, knowledge, and skills. Still, many destinations are beyond their capabilities, and turnover is high; the publisher, meanwhile, can dismiss Kohnstamm as a “rogue author.”
Freebies, Ethics & Pragmatism
When authors had six-figure incomes, of course, they had no need to seek out freebies even if they were so inclined (having spent nearly 20 years in the guidebook business, I can assure you that it’s not so common as you might think, for what it’s worth). Yet LP has a particularly hypocritical policy on the issue: on the inside front cover of every book, a disclaimer states that “Lonely Planet writers do not accept discounts or payments in exchange for positive coverage of any sort.”
In fact, I think this is largely self-enforcing: one former LP author I know, who still writes for another series, is so adamant about not taking freebies that he goes to extremes to remain anonymous - in fact, he will deny his identity if someone asks him about it.
Yet LP’s disclaimer leaves a black hole big enough to absorb an entire independent guidebook publisher, so much so that the company’s publisher Piers Pickard found it necessary to declare that the company policy is "no freebies -- period." If that’s the indeed the case, they should at least change the disclaimer to reflect that policy, but even the most vigilant Melbourne bureaucracy will find it hard to monitor.
LP is far from the only hypocrite in the travel writing field (of which guidebook writing is a subfield). In April, New York Times Travel Editor Stuart Emmrich proclaimed an equally rigid posture toward freelance writers, essentially excluding anyone who had ever taken any sort of freebie from writing for his section. Yet much of the travel content on the Times’s website comes from the Frommer’s series, whose freebies policy is “Allowed if no quid pro quo” - which sounds like a variant of LP’s ambiguous guidelines.
I’m going to acknowledge that I have taken freebies. In 1991, as I was researching the first edition of LP’s Argentina, Uruguay & Paraguay title, my wife, a friend and I had an outstanding dinner in the Patagonian town of Los Antiguos, and I resolved to include the restaurant in the book (especially as it was pretty much the only place in town). The following morning, as we returned for breakfast, we met the owner, complimented him on the food, and stated our intention to include the restaurant. Flattered, he said the breakfast was on him and, though in reality we had no intention of soliciting a freebie, it would have been rude to refuse.
Generally, in fact, I prefer anonymity but, a couple years ago, I wanted to visit Hostería Helsingfors in Argentina’s Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Helsingfors, though, lies at the end of a 73-km dirt road and, needless to say, does not expect (or accept) drop-ins at what is an exclusive eight-room lodge. Thus I phoned its Buenos Aires office to ask if I might pay a brief visit to look around as I was leaving the town of El Calafate to head north on Ruta Nacional 40 (Argentina’s loneliest highway), and they agreed. Otherwise, I could not have seen Helsingfors, which deserved inclusion in my book.
As it happened, the on-site manager invited me to stay the night so I could take a hike in a nearby sector of the national park that I had never visited before, but the sagging single bed, in a no-frills bunkhouse room that I shared with one of Helsingfors’s guides, was no elite option. My pragmatic decision to spend the night did mean that I could speak candidly with several paying guests before continuing on my way the next morning, and I think the book is better for it.
The Bottom Line
Oftentimes, when new acquaintances learn what I do for a living, they ask me how to go about choosing a guidebook. It may be self-serving, but I tell them to look for a book that has continuity, from an identifiable author who has returned time and again to the destination. An outdated book by such an individual is likely to be more useful than an update by four rookies or, worse yet, unidentified contributors. The real scandal is that so few of us are left.