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.

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