Thomas Kohnstamm’s Lonely Planet: The Firestorm Around ‘Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?’

Travel Interviews: The author of a new book that purports to explore the underside of travel writing is taking a lot of hits. Frank Bures asks him about the controversy he's stirred up and his take on the guidebook industry.

04.14.08 | 6:16 PM ET

imageIn recent days, Thomas Kohnstamm has caused a big stir in travel writing and publishing circles, and also in mainstream news outlets like Reuters, CNN and the New York Times. Based on his forthcoming book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, which explores his experiences as a Lonely Planet guidebook writer, as well as publicity material and interviews he has given, the Seattle writer is suddenly at the center of a debate about guidebooks, pay rates and travel-writing ethics. He’s being linked to plagiarism and charged with unethical research practices. Gadling has declared him a fraud. Lonely Planet is up in arms. I recently caught up with Kohnstamm and asked him about the furor and the book.

World Hum: You’ve caused quite a controversy. Are you surprised?

Thomas Kohnstamm: 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, 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.

Let’s go through some of the main issues being raised about you and Lonely Planet.

Sure. I didn’t ask for this thing to start the way it did. There was a New York Observer article. It snowballed from there. The Colombia thing was a comment I made in a much longer interview. It didn’t have to do with my book and was a digression.

You mean this comment: “They didn’t pay me enough to go (to) Colombia. I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating—an intern in the Colombian Consulate.”?

Yeah.

That came off a bit flippant.

Yeah, it was an unfortunate choice of words, and it’s regrettable.

The real issue is that you’ve been attacked for not visiting Colombia. But what, exactly, were you asked to write for the Colombia book?

It was made clear from the beginning that it was a desk update. It’s been assumed by some in the press that Lonely Planet paid me money, and I just sat on it and wrote it from San Francisco without a care in the world. My advance on the work was less than the cost of a flight down to Colombia, so there was no question as to whether I’d be going to Colombia. I was asked to work on the history, culture, environment, food and drink sections.

imageSo you weren’t reviewing hotels or anything like that?

No. That whole controversy has been blown way out of proportion. Lonely Planet didn’t expect me to go to Colombia. They knew full well that I wasn’t going.

Let’s take one of the other sources of controversy. You mention that you’ve taken freebies while working on books. What kind?

I tried to avoid taking freebies. Lonely Planet notes in their books that they don’t exchange positive editorial coverage for freebies and comps. I never once made a direct exchange for a positive review. To make a trip financially feasible, at a certain point you might ask for a discount to stay in a hotel. That doesn’t mean you’re going to give it a great review. I’ve stayed at places that have given me discounts, and I didn’t include them in the book if I didn’t have a good experience. In contemporary guidebooks, there are almost no negative reviews. Generally you include places you like and exclude everything else.

Editors’ note: Another LP writer exploring these issues wrote of this ethical matter: “This is a huge deal in Lonely Planet-land, because there’s supposedly a no-freebies policy. But if you look at the wording in the front of an LP book, it says writers can’t take free stuff in exchange for positive coverage. You can see the giant loophole, right?”

And you’re being accused of plagiarism.

Yeah. Here’s what happened. In the book, I wrote “...even if I don’t get all of the mundane opening hours and hotel prices right. When it comes to those details, what I can’t plagiarize, I can always make up.” It was meant to be humorous. Somebody promoting the book wrote a press release and pulled that out. It’s on the back of the Australian edition of my book, too. Lonely Planet saw it and wrote this big missive to the whole company.

Have you ever plagiarized?

No, what I have done is, places I was unable to visit to update information on, I did updates over the internet and tried to corroborate information with local contacts, people in the know. I always got multiple sources together.

That was your approach for all the books you worked on?

Yeah.

It seems like guidebook writers have a pretty impossible task. You’re asked to cover 1,000 miles of coastline and write 300 restaurant and hotel reviews in nearly 100 pages. Oh, and to update a dozen maps. In four weeks. How can you possibly do that?

You can’t. Not without running roughshod over many details. However, every assignment is different. I never researched a book in North America or Europe, only books in more remote parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. I assume that it’d be easier to research, say, Cincinnati, where it is much more straightforward to gather information (and to follow up over the phone or internet).

Do you just have to know when to cut your losses?

It’s always hard to surrender. I went into each project with the best of intentions and each time went through the long process of attrition, guilt, freak-out and the eventual bruised acceptance that I would not be able to cover everything in the way that I had planned or hoped. Usually when you look at your backpack and want to cry over the prospect of repacking it once again, you know that you are getting close to your breaking point.

You were featured in a New York Times article a little while back on the un-glamorous nature of guidebook writing. You actually got pistol-whipped while on assignment?

Unfortunately, yes. A handgun can still inflict a lot of damage without ever being fired. And that was just the beginning. The six or so guys then set about stealing my watch, ChapStick, shoes, belt, money, condom and tried to steal my jeans, too. I learned that if you spread your feet far enough apart, it is pretty difficult for even six people to take your pants off. The experience was basically the equivalent of having your car put up on blocks and stripped down to the chassis.

Editors’ note: The New York Times story also quotes Kohnstamm talking about his research experience in Bogota, Colombia, which some have pointed out contradicts his statements that he never went to that country. Kohnstamm says the trip referenced in the Times’ piece took place a year after the assignment he wrote from San Francisco.

Is that article what led you to write your new book?

No, I was already a few chapters into my book at that point—although those chapters evolved considerably since then. The book takes place during my first guidebook assignment in Brazil and does not cover my later adventures in Venezuela or other things discussed in the article. I guess I will save all of that for my next book.

You write that travel books fall into three categories. What are those?

I wrote that “the majority of” travelogues and contemporary travel literature tends to be either:

a) sentimental and overly earnest (i.e. other parts of the world offer all of the spiritual-completeness that we lack)
b) curmudgeonly, cheap humor (i.e. other parts of the world are hilariously backward, allow me to mock them)
c) stories of personal heroism and bravado (i.e. I am the most adventurous man in the world, and here’s why)

That’s not to say that there isn’t good and inventive travel writing out there, but, in my opinion, those three tried-and-true publishing formulas dominate the genre.

Which one does yours fall into?

All three. I’d like to think that the difference is that I lampoon myself and the assertions that I make throughout the book. I do my best to show the conflicts in me and in travel writing. I fall into all of the same traps and more.

At one point, you translated an amorous moment with a waitress on a table to “the table service is friendly” in the guidebook. [Editor’s note: This obviously hasn’t gone over well with many readers.]  Do you know if other writers have inside jokes like that?

I assume so, but most writers are probably more prudent than I am and wouldn’t admit to including jokes. I’ve seen Russell Tyrone Jones listed in a readers’ letters section before. It’s possible that it was just a coincidence, but that’s also the given name of hip hop icon Ol’ Dirty Bastard (R.I.P.) of Wu Tang Clan fame.

What’s the worst thing about writing guidebooks?

For me, it’s the fact that as a writer you are set up to be a hack. Sure you can drive yourself insane over doing all of the research and writing and you can take on a few thousand dollars’ worth of personal debt to get close to researching everything, but there is only so much that someone can cover and cover honestly—especially over and over again if it’s your career.

And the best thing?

The research stage is never dull. That’s not to say that it’s all good times, exotic cocktails and memorable sunsets, but you do get accustomed to an extremely high level of stimulus in daily life. For me, at least, it became an addiction. I think that’s what really brings the writers back time and time again. However, like any addiction, it is painful when you are without it and, in this case, must spend the following months in solitude, typing up reviews in templates. After my first book, a fellow guidebook writer confided, “I always forget how painful it was to write the last book just in time to sign on for a new one.”

As an insider, do you read guidebooks differently?

Probably. I would argue that the guidebook is to be used as a tool to help with the basics, not as a step-by-step tour guide. I have seen how the somewhat arbitrary inclusion of certain establishments and exclusion of others can have a disproportionately large effect on a place, particularly in developing countries.

Are you still doing travel writing?

I’ve been doing some magazine stuff. At this point, I’m focusing on my second book, which is about the joys of illegitimate fatherhood. It’s a travel-oriented book, too. International illegitimate fatherhood.

Photo by Annie Musselman.


Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.


25 Comments for Thomas Kohnstamm’s Lonely Planet: The Firestorm Around ‘Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?’

Dan Eldridge 04.14.08 | 10:01 PM ET

Hi Frank. I’m also a Lonely Planet author, and I very much appreciate the fact that you took the time to get the other side of the story. I’ve been reading news reports about Memoirgate from the MSM all day, although unfortunately they all contain more or less the same information.

Anyone interested in my take on the Memoirgate scandal can read my latest blog post at <a href=“http://laborparty.wordpress.com”>www.JoinTheLaborParty.com<a>.

Dan Eldridge 04.14.08 | 10:03 PM ET

Oops! No HTML allowed, apparently. My blog’s URL is: JoinTheLaborParty.com

That is all.

Eva 04.14.08 | 11:34 PM ET

The bizarre thing about this is, none of us who were “up in arms” over the last couple days figured we were “accusing” Kohnstamm of anything. The wire articles all stated pretty clearly that he had admitted himself to a) plagiarism and fabrication of “large chunks” of his guidebook work, and b) not going to Colombia for an assignment, with the clear implication that he was contractually expected to go to Colombia.

I’m really curious, if everything he says here is true, at what point this story went so far off the rails…

Jim Benning 04.15.08 | 1:10 PM ET

I think the problem, Eva, is that many news organizations picked up this stuff without really looking into it or offering any context. Then the internet echo chamber kicked into high gear (to mix my metaphors).

It really did go off the rails fast.

Claire Walter 04.15.08 | 1:55 PM ET

If anything good comes out of this, it will be that the no-win situation for travel writers gains some additional exposure. When a writer is paid a modest advance, out of which s/he is expected to travel to a distant land at his/her expense and review scores, hundreds of lodging properties and restaurants, something has to give. At the same time, writers who any freebies are assumed of suspected of lack of objectivity. As every politician has shown, we all have our price. I’d like to think that mine is higher than a free airline ticket or night in a hotel. Additionally, a writer who is hired to update someone else’s guidebook work, for even less money than the original author earned, cannot be expected to do all first-person legwork in the time allotted by the publisher. IMHO, it’s a no-win situation for the writer and ultimately for the reader. Personally, I could do without the shock-value anecdotes that are reportedly in this book, which I think by extension hurts all of us who writeabout travel, but Kohnstamm will probably gain buyers for his book because of these titillating incidents.

Claire @ http://travel-babel.blogspot.com

Alina 04.15.08 | 2:10 PM ET

I agree. Travel writers get a raw deal and I’m glad someone brought the subject into the world spotlight.

Michael Yessis 04.15.08 | 2:57 PM ET

I agree with Jim. The initial Herald Sun story that seems to have touched things off as well as the Reuters follow up didn’t offer much context or detail, particularly regarding the charge of plagiarism. Both stories just said Kohnstamm claims he plagiarized. It didn’t say from where, how, to what extent, etc. It wasn’t until this interview that I found out some details of that charge.

Once that initial charge started getting around, though, there seemed to be no stopping it.

Kelsey 04.15.08 | 4:27 PM ET

Guidebook writer are the Sweat Labor of the publishing industry (along with indexers). I think most of us knew this, didn’t we?  That’s why they are, for the most part, young and untethered.

It sounds to me, from Frank’s interview, that this fella is a victim of Pop Media.  Here’s my question: Is it bad to be a victim in this case or does this controversy sell more books?

jv 04.15.08 | 5:02 PM ET

Well, whether this little mess was intentional or not, I can guarantee that it’s going to sell books.

Bravo. To Kohnstamm’s “three categories” of travelogues, we may have to add a fourth: Publicity-stunt books.

laradunston 04.15.08 | 5:24 PM ET

Great interview - much-needed! But you link above to an LP writer who says LP “supposedly” has a no discounts in return for positive coverage policy, but there’s no “supposedly” about it. LP has made this policy very very clear over many years, and in recent months re-iterated it. I wrote 25+ books for LP with my husband over 4 years and never accepted ‘media rates’ (corporate rates for writers; a widely accepted practice) while working for LP but I have for some other publishers (not all of course) and while undertaking my own self financed research trips. LP writers know to do the same - accept them on your own projects and for publishers who allow it - but not for LP, no question about it.

It’s also not correct that journos just picked up the story and ran with it. I, and scores of other LP writers, have been contacted by journos wanting to ask questions and investigate further, but most writers don’t want to comment, go on record, or are just too busy (myself included), so I’m guessing most journos can’t get the story they’d like to.

I also disagree that writers are in a no-win situation. Far from it. If you’re good at what you do, you’ll get work, plenty of it, and can make a very nice living indeed. Sure most guidebook publishers don’t pay brilliantly - and LP certainly does NOT pay the highest rates, as they like to claim (in my experience DK pays best), but magazines do pay well, and if writers are smart and treat it like a business, they can do very well out of travel writing. I make more money out of magazine stories I writethan I do on the road during guidebook research but it’s the guidebooks that get me there in the first place, so for me it’s all win-win.

I’d also disagree that “most” writers are young. There are a lot of travel writers out there in their 60s and 70s (speak up!) who’ve been doing it forever. I’m not *that* old, :) but there are a lot of people out there who treat this as a profession and are in it for the long-haul. It’s also worth noting that fees vary enormously and publishers will offer more experienced writers with greater destination expertise a higher fee than they’ll offer a newbie. Which is why there’s the perception out there that the pay is crap. It could just be that the person wasn’t offered a high fee because they didn’t have the expertise or experience. There’s also a huge difference between authoring a book, updating a book, and fact-checking a book - and the fees reflect those differences in workload.

Some travel writers and publishers might think Thomas’ pre-publicity campaign (because this is what it is, right?) has opened a can of worms, while others will be thinking to themselves “about time!”, but either way, Thomas is certainly going to sell lots of books!

Ling 04.15.08 | 9:43 PM ET

Well, he’s certainly going to sell books, and he may be right about the bum deal travel writers are saddled with, except for one small point - If he didn’t like it, he didn’t ‘have’ to do it. Blaming Lonely planet after the fact is a bit childish.

Peter N-H 04.16.08 | 6:17 PM ET

Good to see Kohnstamm in this interview making some very sensible points about guide book writing that can hardly be news to those involved in the business (and much more of sense from laradunston, above) although some of the language is histrionic. But Kohnstamm is largely confirming his unreliability, and it’s now impossible to give any credence to what he says without the fact-checking apparently so alien to his publishers. What he seems successfully to have done is to generate a lot of publicity for his book, obviously the aim of giving interviews in the first place, and in this context and in the context of quoted material, it’s impossible to take him seriously.

Not that there’s any novelty to any of this except in the self-outing for personal gain. There have been many accusations of plagiarism aimed at Lonely Planet and other titles in the past, and its only a few years since the last cycle of ‘Shock! Horror! Probe! Guidebooks not properly researched! Authors starving!’ stories. People have very short memories. And if they haven’t detected the borrowings from others that are tacitly admitted in some LP titles then they haven’t been paying attention. Where two or three backpackers gather together the topic is usually how inaccurate or incomplete they find information in their guides to be.

That the structure of the industry offers little incentive to the researcher not able to writewell enough and plan well enough to cut each trip two or three ways (or more) is, as Ling points out above, no excuse for being in breach of contract with the publisher, and in breach of trust with the reader.

But the rest of the revelations are less than revelatory. Guide books are for the most part far more hopeless than they at first appear. To those who know about the region covered (just try reading the one for your home town) the errors and laziness are flagrant, numerous, and obvious in many cases. Why would disbelief be suspended for other destinations. Lonely Planet (and many others) have no reputation to lose, and their shoddy recruitment policies, and insistence on sending sometime barely literate researchers to countries they’ve never visited before and where they don’t speak the language, and then failing adequately to check the accuracy of the material, is more of a problem than the very limited rewards put on the table.

Peter N-H
http://peternh.blogspot.com

Mikeachim 04.16.08 | 7:08 PM ET

Many thanks for this article.

I was certainly initially taken in by the narrow sensationalist story being bandied around by the media (the BBC, primarily) and it was good to get the facts straight.

Kohnstamm’s obviously playing up more than a little to his new bad-boy status (eg. his next book). And why not? But it’s nice to read that he still feels the enthusiasm and the buzz, despite a multitude of disillusionments. It’s nigh-on impossible to get anywhere in the creative writing business without that buzz. I hope that’s the lesson wannabe travel writers take away with them. (I certainly have).

And sure, travelling as a profession is bound to be demanding, stressful and challenging as hell. But there are worse jobs.

alec bings 04.16.08 | 11:28 PM ET

as a former, now de-listed LP author (and for far less than the allegations attributed to Thomas through misinterpretation by everyone who ran with this story, i can tell you!), i can back Thomas claims and perceptions about the day-to-day reality of travel writing 100%. he has it absolutely nailed on, and his honesty is as refreshing as it is disarming.

what hasn’t been said is that the resources being inappropriate for the work requested is only one part of the problem; companies who are cool brands are taste (and in the case of LP, market segment) leaders, thus tons of people want to work for them for the cultural cache/‘cool factor’ alone.

LP (and of course others) know it, milk it, knowing they have an endless supply of breathless wannabes with nary a clue beating down the door. They take commercial advantage of this by leveraging the financial compromises/sacrifices some aspirant authors are willing to make in their often ill-founded willingness - even desperation - to be associated with what is otherwise a good, solid brand.

i never travel with guidebooks anymore, more because after enough travel you notice enough patterns that you can get by nearly anywhere with a good map, proactive approach to the local dialect and culture and simple friendliness.

Brian Bruns 04.18.08 | 2:15 PM ET

Bravo Thomas for your expose of the travel guide business or, rather, personal experiences while in it. As a man in similar shoes (for the cruise industry), I have found that many people cannot handle the idea that nothing is perfect, even if those things make them happy. Many balk at personal experiences not designed to fit into their particular notions. Fortunately, a great many readers want to see all sides of an issue, especially the underside, and you have given them a whopper. Let’s keep em’ talking!

valerie 04.23.08 | 7:52 PM ET

By his own admission, this guy is a liar who makes stuff up and passes it off as truth.  How can anyone be certain he’s telling the truth about his work for LP?  The guy lacks credibility. And this interview doesn’t do anything to enhance my perception of him.  I don’t believe a word he says, and I certainly would never buy one of his books.

HS 04.27.08 | 6:09 PM ET

Having used LP guides for many years in northeast Asia, I have (nearly) always found them useful as a skeleton of information on a country, to which I myself added flesh and muscle on my own two feet.  I think all guidebooks should be viewed this way, since it’s impossible to recount everything about a place, and personal reactions to bars, hotels, discos, beaches, museums, etc., etc., are so subjective.  Kohnstamm’s self-contradictory revelations do not surprise me; indeed, their very nature pinpoints why guidebooks should be used in the way I suggest.

Brian Bruns 04.27.08 | 8:23 PM ET

Aha! HS (above) is finally saying what should have been said all along: someone should take responsibility for themselves and their own actions. Why must we always whine and blame others in this society? These are guide books, not god books. They can’t know everything and we should expect them to. What, the world is going to remain static until the book reaches the printer? Come on, people!

Claire Walter 04.28.08 | 5:27 PM ET

Brian - You are correct that people need to take some responsbiliy for their own actions, but one of the things that travelers should be able to rely on is at least accuracy from guidebook writers.

The system is far from ideal, but making up facts is inexcusable. People buy guidebooks with the expectation that they will be accurate—or will have been accurate when they were written.

The high-handed Kohnstamm now has put into question every word every other LP writer has written.

Claire

Kara Kahili 04.30.08 | 6:12 PM ET

Hi There,

This story cleared up a lot of mis reported information.  A lot of what I heard was blown out of proportion.  But this is also why many travelers are relying on online travel guides since they are up to date and accurate with user generated content and reviews to share with peers.  Anyway I have been using a cool new travel site I was invited to recently tripwolf.com

Catherine 05.09.08 | 8:28 PM ET

Thomas -
Good luck on book #2! Just think, if those hoodlums never stole your condom, this book may never have been conceived…..:)

John M. Edwards 05.23.08 | 2:21 AM ET

Hi:

My next book will be called “Dubya Dubya Deux” about a time traveler from the future who finds an old book about an event he’s never heard of and goes back in time to investigate. Of course, he arrives via “the doppelganger effect”—available to average consumers with clout only 500 years from now.

It’s kind of sad, but the time traveler, T, is so well liked that he is trailed by a dangerous 21st detective who thinks he has slept with his wife.

T is telepathic and can start thunder and lightning storms with his right hand—what’s so amazing about that. He can also direct lightning with his fingies.

I’ll need about a year of calm to writeit.

Nick Page 05.28.08 | 9:06 PM ET

Good to see the other side of the story. As with most things that hit the headlines the original controversy seems to have been blown up out of proportion exponentially at each turn. I suppose this is just the nature of life.

Chris Dowding 05.30.08 | 11:42 PM ET

I just finished Thomasí book. I found myself rushing home from work to read the next chapter. The way he lived his life and the method of research he used to writeLPís guide book for Brazil were great - for shock value.

Being a travel writer myself, I understand how difficult it is to get all the facts straight, especially when youíre only visiting a place for a day or a few hours. In my own book, ‘a few Drops short of a Pint’, I wrote about sharing a house with a guy called ‘Marcel’. ‘Marcel’ had moved from France to Dublin, to live with his Irish girlfriend. According to me, she dumped him after a short time and moved out. But when ‘Marcel’ read my book, he emailed me, saying: “Marcel left his Irish girlfriend at the time [not the other way around]!” I also attacked two consulting engineer companies: the ridiculous Dublin-based one that I worked for, and a major worldwide organisation that rejected me. I was very careful to change the names of these companies. It’s easy to upset someone when you’re writing about real people and places.

If Iíd been Thomas, I’d have changed LP’s name to something fictional. (ĎMarcelí certainly isnít my housemateís name, and weíre still friends.) I hope he didnít use the real name of the drug dealer who offered him a share in the business. Iíd also have used a pseudonym instead of my own name (so that neither LP nor the South American drug dealer could find me). Of course, having read Thomasí book, I think it’s his style to burn bridges and never go back. I admire his courage.

Itís unlikely that he’ll be employed by any guide book company again. I don’t believe this will worry him greatly, but I also donít think he intended to cause harm to LP. Although he often behaves like an idiot in his book, he appears to be driven by [his own] ethics.

Claire Walter 05.31.08 | 9:20 AM ET

As far as the readers of anyone’s guidebooks are concerned, it is of no significance whether Marcel’s girlfriend left him or vice versa. However, accurate information related to their own travels is important.

Shock-value travel writers who, just by their writing style and the associated notoriety (and presumably book sales), probably never have to go back and do all the drudge research that guidebooks require.

Claire @ http://travel-babel.blogspot.com

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