‘The Worst Guidebook Writer Ever’?

Travel Books: Lonely Planet author Robert Reid reviews Thomas Kohnstamm's "Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?" and weighs in on the controversy surrounding it

04.18.08 | 11:21 AM ET

do travel writers go to hell? coverDuring my five years on staff at Lonely Planet as an editor and publishing manager, I edited books, approved authors’ writing samples, commissioned multiauthor titles, managed the “shoestring” series and won a foosball tournament in the London office. But only after I was let go as part of a reorganization and became a freelance author for the company —updating titles like Trans-Siberian Railway and Central America—did I really begin to understand how guidebooks are made.

When I heard about the so-called LP exposé of Thomas Kohnstamm’s Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? I had to pause. Mass hysteria had hit the blogs. CNN, BBC and LP message boards were buzzing with news that the LP writer had confessed to writing about Colombia without ever visiting it. Kohnstamm’s initial claim that he updated the Colombia book by talking with a “chick” at the consulate turned out to be disingenuous; as he told World Hum, he was only asked to do a desk update of non-destination sections like history, which don’t require visiting the country. (Usually a Lonely Planet author covering destination chapters, such as one on Bogotá, write these front sections, but occasionally LP offers them to particularly skilled writers on the premise that they can be researched out of country.)

The frenzy this week reminds me of that surrounding Chuck Thompson’s hilarious and widely misunderstood book Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, which is my favorite book on travel writing. When it was published last year, it was met with cries of “Judas” from fellow travel writers who never got past the back-cover blurb. Kohnstamm’s book, which hits booksellers next week, may be sensationalized and reckless, but I wondered if it weren’t finally time that someone went a little Pompidou on the profession—and, for better or worse, exposed some of the inner tubes and shafts and cables of how guidebooks get made.

Well, I just finished reading it, and unfortunately, this is not that book. The 288-page, somewhat entertaining sex/drug/booze-fueled romp across Brazil is far less of a window into the broad world of guidebook-making than one into the desires and demons of Thomas Kohnstamm. It’s a personal travelogue in which LP’s “shiny blue business cards” (and a packet of 50 ecstasy pills) serve as currency. Some of the day-to-day realities that frustrate him, however, are familiar to me from my LP travel days (morning ennui, evening exhaustion, all-day confusion, frustrations over futile tasks like getting the opening hours of a grocery store that no one will need).

But outside these few moments, it’s tempting to compare the book to the backpacker novel The Beach by Alex Garland. Though Kohnstamm tries to distance himself from Garland’s narrator and that easy trap of “spending your time with a roving band of people like yourself,” he never does. His roving band is made up of drug dealers, prostitutes, druggy tourists, scheming hotel owners, Danish heavy-metal enthusiasts.

Kohnstamm at one point calls himself the “worst guidebook writer ever,” and seems fond of finding scapegoats for his own destructions. 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.”

A few LP writers have taken free rooms with a wink, but most don’t go down that road. I don’t. I’ve written 15 books and counting for the company—I leave for Vladivostok in June to update the Russia book—and have never taken a free room, meal or guide service. About the only thing I’ve accepted is a coffee or two during an interview. Even when I broke away from my freelance authoring role with LP last year and created a free online guide to Vietnam, I paid for it all on my own (a proud swashbuckling tale in money-losing). Lonely Planet has a policy of accepting no “freebies” on the road, which I support, but the key question Kohnstamm’s book asks is whether taking freebies is really that bad.

In the U.K., travel writing is unapologetically based on free press trips, and many guidebook publishers encourage authors to hunt out free hotels and flights to justify the low pay. As Kohnstamm points out, LP’s policy is sloppily stated. It reads: “Lonely Planet writers ... do not accept discounts or payments in exchange for positive coverage of any sort” (my italics). He interprets this as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and promises us that he would “never write something untrue about a place, simply because they gave me a free room or a pasta.”

I met Kohnstamm at an LP author workshop a couple years ago—a paid trip to discuss issues such as those mentioned here—and found him an interesting, bright guy. Considering his travel and writing experience, and knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese, if I were still commissioning LP books, I would have had no hesitation assigning him work on an LP guide. And having read his memoir, I’m not completely certain his revelations about his work on the Brazil guidebook compromised all his coverage. (In fact, Lonely Planet officials have said in recent days they haven’t found any errors in the three books Kohnstamm contributed “on-the-ground research” to that are still in print, adding, “We’re confident that the vast majority of our information is sound and accurate.”)

Lonely Planet’s pay for writers has been at the center of the debate this week. Kohnstamm complains bitterly about low pay in the book. My experience is that pay varies book to book, something he fails to note (but probably should know as he worked on five more LP books after this one). On an expensive-to-research Russia book a few years ago, I barely broke even after four months’ work. (I mentioned it to my editor, and LP paid me a supplemental fee of a few thousand dollars.) On others, including backwater updates for multicountry guides, I’ve earned much more for much less work.

Many readers won’t be on Kohnstamm’s side by the time he wraps up his trip, puffing on a joint on a beach with foreigners and getting a policeman’s pistol jammed into his mouth. The morning after, he’s suddenly longing for a cleaner life (“with a full refrigerator, a clean shower, a nice girlfriend, a dog”), but you don’t quite believe him. And shouldn’t. Back in New York, he snorts coke on an eight-day blitzkrieg to finish the book’s write-up (on time, no less). As his friend says, “You’ve found a way to justify the fact that you’re an irresponsible douche bag.”

Many guidebook authors are furious about the book. Some worry it smears us all as dope-trading schemers looking for free rooms. But it doesn’t bother me much. I’d admire his honesty, if not his approach, if he didn’t let himself off the hook so easily (a sober notion, I guess). With such lofty pokes at LP, it feels like Barry Bonds blaming the game of baseball for his taking steroids (allegedly). Without these swipes, we’d have something more like a Duchamp urinal for the guidebook world’s wall—not something to look at so much, but a conversation-starter for serious issues like freebies, the effect of guidebooks on the places they cover, and whether or not to peddle ecstasy for a motorbike.

For me, guidebook writing, which I believe to be the most important of all travel-writing genres, is something like that Woody Allen joke, “The food here’s awful, and in such small portions!” Travel writing is poorly paid, under-appreciated and I love it unconditionally. In my version of life on the road, I’d probably mention these things, and note a few compromises I’ve had to make (only one day in Odorheiu Secuiesc). But mostly I’d hand the stage over to the unreal, hilarious, heart-breaking cast of characters met along the way and the bulk of the experiences that never make it into guidebooks: drunken telephone workers in Mexico boasting over beers that “the USA isn’t free—you can’t drink and drive”; the ousted prime minister of Bulgaria talking with me about bad pop music at Sofia’s Dunkin’ Donuts; Yakut Marxists force-feeding me warm horse milk and cold horse meat on an outer Russian plain; a goofball Romanian pharmacist instantly making me care about ancient aphrodisiac “mummy dust” by proclaiming “for you this is amazing, for me ... itisnormal!!!”; walking through a Bulgarian Roma (gypsy) neighborhood everyone warned me against visiting and being invited into house after house with apologies (“I’d make coffee, but we have no water”); and a teary-eyed Burmese man in his 60s telling me after a conversation over tea that “I will remember you for eternity.”

Some day this job’s going to end. When it does, I won’t complain about the journey.

Robert Reid, the U.S. Travel Editor for Lonely Planet, lives in Brooklyn. He was the subject of a World Hum interview.

25 Comments for ‘The Worst Guidebook Writer Ever’?

Dan Eldridge 04.18.08 | 5:20 PM ET

Wow. Incredibly well-written and well-argued, Robert. My hat’s off to you. Safe travels in Russia.—Dan Eldridge

esteban gutierrez 04.18.08 | 9:53 PM ET

Khonstamm is surely self-aggrandizing, but you seem to be on par. While he plays the bad boy, you play the saint. By the way, thanks for plugging your website/business in a book review. I checked out your site and saw that you live in Brooklyn like me. You broke even on 4 months of work for Lonely Planet? And then you got a few thousand extra dollars? Do you live in the same Brooklyn as the rest of us? Do you have a large inheritance? Something doesn’t add up in your tale either.

Chris Taylor 04.19.08 | 12:12 AM ET

As a former Lonely Planet writer, I have commented on this issue in a think piece for the Melbourne Age.


Bill Spack 04.19.08 | 12:27 AM ET

I agree.  This author is “playing the saint” by writing an article in which he has hidden his large inheritance…I also live in Brooklyn and I also think that Reid is lying…he probably has a big bowl of money that he pulls out and pays his rent from it. Why doesnt he share this famed bowl with me and Ms. Spack.  I think that Reid is a real talent, but his dishonesty in monetary matters really makes me wonder what he;s up to. Something, as EG says, does NOT add up.  I sure hope EG is able to pay his bills…

esteban gutierrez 04.19.08 | 2:52 AM ET

World Hum, quick question: why in God’s name would you have a Lonely Planet writer (and one who is obviously drinking the korporate kool aid) review this book? Como se dice CONFLICT OF INTEREST?

Oh, I see, it is actually just self-promotion for Robert Reid and his groundbreaking use of “the internet” to make money. Cool. Maybe I can do that too.

farley 04.19.08 | 4:06 PM ET

I work as a writer and editor focused mostly on travel and I live in an even more expensive part of New York City than Robert, the West Village. How do I survive on the low wages of a travel writer? The same way I’m sure Robert does: by doing relatively well paying editing work (such as copy editing) and penning articles for better-paying trade and non-commercial publications. So, yes, something does add up: travel writers busting our butts to get other writing and editing gigs when we’re not on the road.

Your attacks on Robert smack of a more personal nature. Are you Kohnstamm’s attack dogs, perhaps?

esteban 04.19.08 | 4:29 PM ET

Farley, I think Kohnstamm looks like a cavalier jerk (even if Reid says that he is bright and interesting). I am not a personal supporter of him although I will admit to being interested in reading his book. I just think that Reid’s self-righteous self-promotion should be in an article about him, not in a book review. You should know that too as a writer and editor.

John M. Edwards 04.20.08 | 1:18 AM ET


I damn Kohnstamm’s soul to perdition. In jumping the bandwagon of finking on the travel industry for sport, amusement, and big bucks, I think he deserves a good drubbing from some less-than-enthused, tired, and thirsty football hooligans looking for a good “English Breakfast” while traveling abroad.

To reparaprase Milton, “It’s better to serve in Heaven thsan to rule in Hell.” The book better be worth the admission price, otherwise it will be fired up by Montag and his boys.

John M. Edwards

Julie 04.20.08 | 8:07 PM ET

Thanks for this review.

Matt 04.21.08 | 10:09 AM ET

As someone who’s known Robert for more than a decade, I have to leap to his defense here: He has one of the most pure visions of guidebook and travel writing of anyone I’ve ever met. When I first met him back in Vietnam in 1996, all he wanted to do was work for Lonely Planet—seriously, that was his only goal. And not because he dreamed of riches or drug-fueled tabletop affairs with waitresses (that was *my* dream), but because he simply liked roaming the world and believed in the LP philosophy.

Whether you’re a fan of LP or not (and there are plenty of valid reasons not to be), all guidebook companies could use more people like Robert Reid—people who take the job seriously and who truly care about the service they provide. These people realize that the job is not about them, it’s about the place, and that’s good advice for all travel writers.

As for finances, I do know this about Robert—like Farley and myself, he’s married, which makes the travel writer’s unofficial vow of poverty that much easier to bear. Why, another wife or three, and even I could move to Manhattan! Farley, got any vacancies in your building?

Jim Benning 04.21.08 | 7:09 PM ET

I, too, am baffled by the criticism of Robert here. I think he did a great job with the piece.

As for your question about our assigning the piece, Esteban, we asked Robert to write the review precisely because he has worked for Lonely Planet. We thought he, better than anyone, could give us an insider’s perspective on how the business works. We didn’t want a reviewer who would be guessing about Lonely Planet’s business practices or unsure whether Kohnstamm’s assertions were fair or accurate. Rather than raise more questions, we wanted this piece to further clarify the facts. And we think it did just that.

Robert Reid 04.22.08 | 9:16 AM ET

Thanks for all the comments.

Because I’m not running for office, I’ll keep my tax records to myself, but if either of the Brooklyn folks here who question my intentions want to talk a little travel writing or NBA playoffs, I’d be happy to meet you at Tom’s in Brooklyn for pancakes. Let me know.

farley 04.22.08 | 10:20 AM ET

Go Lakers!

Zora 04.23.08 | 12:25 AM ET

Well said, Robert. Thanks very much.

I second Matt’s defense. Robert’s a great model for guidebook authors—I feel lucky to have met him through LP.

Tim Kingston 04.23.08 | 4:00 PM ET

I third Matt’s defense. And Robert’s reasoned response to the hysterical hecklers. Robert is both a fine travel writer and a rather fine individual. I highly recommend his Hanoi travel site. I found it invaluable whilst there!

Alison 04.23.08 | 4:52 PM ET

Has election season given everyone a raging case of cynicism or what? Before ascribing hidden motives to a travel writer as you would a political candidate, just glance through a guidebook Robert has written. Clearly this is a dedicated travel writer—and if you’re still skeptical about his expertise, go ahead and road-test a Robert Reid title. Seriously: When you’re waiting for your Trans-Siberian express in winter, this is the guy you want researching your train timetables.

And isn’t that what matters most? The best guidebook writers aren’t angels or devils, but the ones that rescue rear-ends from the Purgatory of Soviet waiting room benches. So when Robert talks of professional travel writing standards, he’s not just blowing hot air, blowing smoke, or blowing controlled substances. Unlike another writer we might mention ...

Steven 04.24.08 | 1:36 PM ET

There are some seriously po-faced people on board here. Did you have to alertyour travel writing buddies to back you up here Rob?

Which of these two guys would you actually want to share a beer with, or trust to writea half-entertaining travel guide?!

Saint Rob or Bad Boy TK?

The altruistic goodie-goodie who’s a travel writer but never takes a free meal or a drink? God, what a dullard.

Give me a freeloader any day.

Zora 04.24.08 | 3:55 PM ET

Re: Beers with Robert, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!

farley 04.24.08 | 4:00 PM ET

Actually, Steven (Esteban?), I have shared a beer with Robert and it’s quite fun. You should try it sometime.

Besides, I much prefer conversing with a trustworthy, fair travel writer to someone who is just going to be rubber-necking around the room the entire time for a waitress he could screw on the table later.

Wendy 04.27.08 | 11:07 PM ET

Robert: Nice review. I’m just a few pages done with the book (and reading about the silent editor with great interest - though I’m not sure what said editor might have told him, exactly).

The way I see it, TK has some impulse-control issues, doesn’t manage his money particularly well, and took a little while to ramp up to certain aspects about on the road work that I feel like he would have been told or might have figured out, such as:
- if you’re going to go to high-end hotels and restaurants and want to look presentable: go to those in the morning, preferably when you’re not hungover and haven’t been beaten up
- ask for help? tourism offices can be surprisingly helpful about new developments
- read the documentation provided before you arrive, not a week into your itinerary

Anyhow, beyond that, I feel for the guy in some ways and one or five of his observations are relevant critiques.

John 04.28.08 | 6:46 PM ET

The only issue I have with Mr. Reids review is that he had and has ties to LP. A clear conflict of interest.

Ireq 05.16.08 | 5:36 PM ET

Looks like having just “...the most pure visions of guidebook and travel writing…”  may not be enough. But I will only find out when I get the guide into my hands.

Dan 06.05.08 | 1:16 PM ET

My advice to aspiring travelers out there is dump your LP in the trash. My Argentinean girlfriend and I lost ours in Cuba. It was the best thing that could have happened to us. The adventure only started then. We didn’t have to follow the advice of some twerp who obviously couldn’t even speak Spanish when he went to Cuba. This article just proves that LP writers are clueless, slobs and clowns. get another guide book if you have to have one.

Camels & Chocolate 08.04.08 | 2:05 AM ET

I finally read this book, and as a guidebook writer myself, I found much of it startling accurate and similar to my very first guidebook experience. Thomas does portray himself as a jerk much of the time, but by the end of the book, I didn’t hate him, as I could totally relate to much of his frustration and dilemmas (minus the drugs, booze and constant hooking up!). That said, I think Robert makes valid points, and I’ve never written for LP so I can’t comment at all on their policies and pay. I’ve worked for many publishers that encourage freebies simply because my salary doesn’t account for expenses, as well. That said, if I don’t like the place, I don’t include it. It’s as simple as that. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that a travel writer can still be unbiased even if they’re getting something for free here and there.

ticnet 10.30.08 | 7:41 AM ET

I’m not saying who’s right or wrong. But i totaly agree with Reid in that way that no one can writewith posses, feeling and ethusiasm without being in the country you writing about.

Knowing Russia’s culture even in regions i see the omits of the author’s book.

I think, if you see your audience only as a small group of people who is not aware of Russia, for instance - then, this is ok!
Good luck

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