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.