Monday, April 27, 2020

The Erosion of Lonely Planet

Guidebook writing has been my occupation for three decades, though the digital revolution has put pressure on the print sector for at least two-thirds of that time. In the context of the coronavirus crisis, it drew renewed attention last week when Lonely Planet, my first publisher, announced the closure of its Australian flagship in Melbourne and its London editorial office. It is also shutting down its namesake magazine. This will leave it with a reduced presence in the Nashville suburb of Franklin, Tennessee (!) and Dublin, where it’s presumably cheaper to operate. The Tennessee office replaced its former US headquarters in my hometown of Oakland, California.
The skeletal 1989 edition of LP's Argentina prominently featured the author's name.
I’ve always had misgivings about digital travel content, especially crowd-sourced sites like TripAdvisor. They are vulnerable to anonymous and pseudonymous comments—especially by competitors—but not everything about them is necessarily untrustworthy. I would never even consider a restaurant on the basis of a TripAdvisor recommendation, for example, but if somebody reports claims to have eaten there three days ago, I’ll have reasonable confidence that the business in question still exists (except, perhaps, in times of coronavirus).

While the proliferation of digital content is certainly a factor in the decline of print guidebooks, LP’s corporate culture has also devolved from what it once was. In the beginning, the company gave its authors an autonomy to explore and make decisions on the content of their titles. Developing regional expertise over the years, those authors held copyright to their work, and received generous royalties—enough, in some cases to result in six-figure annual incomes.

Arguably, LP’s decline coincided with the devaluation of the on-the-ground regional expertise that first made them credible. In this context, Paula Hardy’s quasi-obituary in the Guardian (linked above) is a blend of naiveté and misinformation, not to mention gaping lacunae. About the time she came on board, in 1999LP was morphing from an author-friendly company to one that dispensed with experienced authors, eliminating their copyrights and royalty contracts.Some were told that (I’m paraphrasing here) “You’re getting a reputation as difficult to work with.”

After the company warned that it might start titles from scratch with new writers, longtime authors learned that continuing with LP would involve fixed-fee contracts for a third or less of their previous income, with no certainty of future employment. Several whom I know opted out—choosing to sell their copyrights to the company, which seemed to conclude that destinations and authors were fungible (in fairness, the copyright buyouts could be generous).
Nothing in Santiago de Chile remotely resembles the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, but an LP editor wanted it as a cover shot.
New editions and titles became the product of multiple writers, some with doubtful qualifications—if an author had collaborated on a guide to, say, Sweden, he or she could just as easily draw an assignment for Myanmar, academic preparation and language skills notwithstanding. Many incoming authors and editorial personnel were neophytes whose geographical ignorance was palpable—in one case that I know of, an editor chose a photograph of Spain’s Santiago de Compostela (population about 96,000) to represent the capital of Chile (population five million-plus).
My first LP guide (left) omitted our names from the cover, but the licensed Spanish-language version  acknowledged us.
In that context, it’s noteworthy that LP stopped putting authors’ names on the covers of their books in the late 1980s, as best I can figure. After signing my first LP contract in 1990, I never had my name on the cover with a single exception—when Barcelona’s Editorial Kairós licensed my Argentina, Uruguay & Paraguay title, it featured both my wife’s and mine (María Laura was also the translator).

I spent ten years with LP, producing titles on Argentina, Chile, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Baja California and The Rocky Mountain States, but was never so fortunate as to have a royalty contract. That said, the flat fees seemed reasonable at the time and, in one instance, LP provided me a supplement when Argentina dollarized its economy, which made it a very expensive destination for several years.

Meanwhile, Hardy’s assertion that LP is the only guidebook publisher to send authors into the field is laughable. I  can contradict that on the basis of my own experience, in part after returning, earlier than I had hoped, from fieldwork in Argentina and Chile to update my Patagonia title. Because of the public health crisis, I have no idea when (or even if) Imay be able to resume the work, but I still hope to do so. A friend, also an ex-LP author, recently informed me that a different publisher has commissioned him to update two of his titles, and I am confident that other publishers will do the same.

The Independent’s Simon Calder seems to share Hardy’s romanticism about the publisher’s struggles: “When this wretched crisis is over, we may begin a new era where travellers will be hungry for resources they can trust, in particular guides researched and written by professionals, which don’t require batteries or an internet connection, and which feed our sense of adventure.

I too would like to think so, but LP seems unlikely to carry that torch forward. After two ownership changes since my time, it is wearing down; the current contraction is part of a process that began decades ago when it jettisoned its most credible and dedicated authors. In both the physical and the publishing world, erosion is a slow but inexorable process.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Ice Cream, Empanadas, and the Pandemic

It’s been more than three weeks since I “escaped” from Argentina and Chile, but I never stop thinking about them. I have many relatives in Argentina, and friends in both countries, who’ve been in touch in the coronavirus “aftermath” (obviously, it’s not over yet), but we express concern about each other and the future (short- and medium-term especially). The public health crisis seems to have hit Chile harder than Argentina, although the latter’s statistics seem incomplete according to the regional live data update at NCOV2019 (disclaimer: this site often seems to be overwhelmed with traffic).
A recent screenshot of Coronavirus stats in South America
Last week, I did receive an email from my friend Gabriel Famá, owner of the landmark ice creamery Heladería Cadore in Buenos Aires, and he’s feeling the pinch of Argentina’s near total lockdown. Though food providers such as himself can remain open for delivery, he was in hard-hit Italy when the crisis began, returning at the end of January “with no restrictions or controls, and look what. A lot of people underestimated the situation.” He comes to work “by car, with one of my sons, to avoid contact on public transportation and we operate with as few employees as possible.”
In non-virus times, Cadore can get really crowded.
Another friend, Marcelo Ferrante of Periko’s Hostel in Bariloche (where I spent a night before crossing back into Chile on my odyssey home), found himself on an RV vacation in Spain, another country devastated by the virus—“With luck I was able to get back to Bariloche, it was difficult but I managed it.” On April 8th, he wrote me, “We had to close on March 20th when the last guests left” (I had departed on the 16th). Then, he added, “I don’t think we’ll be able to open before before June 1st,” which would coincide roughly with ski season, but even that sounds optimistic to me.

That said, Argentina appears to be relaxing its strict quarantine restrictions, though the details are not yet clear. It's not been so draconian under California's "shelter-in-place" measures but, on an early Saturday supermarket run, I stocked up on Three Twins ice cream which, sadly, has folded under sustained economic pressure exacerbated by the plague.

Empanada Time!
On the bright side, here in the East Bay we have multiple options for Argentine-style empanadas, which are my favorites. There are four places within 2.1 miles (3.4 km) from our home in Oakland’s Temescal district.
9 de Julio Empanadas at the annual Temescal Street Fair on Telegraph Avenue
Unfortunately the one within easiest walking distance, the 9 de Julio Empanada Kitchen, hasn’t yet opened its new physical location in Rockridge, though it appears to be doing catering. Taking its name from the date Argentina’s independence day, it’s the creation of Erica Sanders, an Afro-American woman who moved to Buenos Aires to learn the art of the empanada. In past years, I’ve tasted her product—which features empanada styles from throughout the Americas—at street fairs in Montclair and Temescal, but the public health crisis appears to have delayed the opening.
Windows at the Wooden Table Café have fileteado flourishes.
The next closest is Uptown Oakland’s Wooden Table Café, which I’ve only sampled erratically because I usually pass it after taxiing my wife to work (she’s now telecommuting). Parking is scarce, though, so stopping is a matter of opportunity on my way back home. It’s very specifically Argentine, to the point of offering yerba mate drinks (the current crisis makes me wonder whether Argentines—and Uruguayans—will give up the custom of passing around the mate gourd, with a shared bombilla, among friends and family). It also offers a variety of sickly sweet alfajoresdulce de leche concoctions which are not to my taste. I do like the decorative fileteado on the windows, though.
Javi's Cooking is the empanadería I've most often patronized.
Nearly as close is Javi’s Cooking, in the Hoover-Foster district, whose products I first saw in the frozen food section at Berkeley Bowl West, and later sampled in Javier Sandes’s food truck during an event at Lake Merritt. It’s a place that I’ll make an occasional escapadita to when food in the fridge is scarce, and it also offers facturas (pastries) including my personal favorite medialunas (croissants, of a sort).
With its sidewalk seating, Café Buenos Aires feel more like a spot in the Argentine capital.
The most distant of the bunch is South Berkeley’s Café Buenos Aires (2.1 miles or 3.4 km), which I stumbled upon while taxiing an Argentine political scientist to a downtown event there. It has a wider menu than the others, especially with regard to pastries, but it’s not quite so convenient as the others. It’s a bit more spacious as well but, under current conditions it—like all the rest—is for takeout or delivery only.
María Laura's homemade empanadas - chard in this case - are our default choice these days.
In any event, we’ve not bought empanadas recently. The local price of roughly $5 each would appall most Argentines but, fortunately, my Argentine wife is capable of making them much more cheaply with no sacrifice in quality. Still, I look forward to revisiting all these others, so nearby, in person when our shelter-in-place restrictions relax.

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