Can You Trust Your Travel Guidebook?
New Tell-All Has Readers Wondering

By Michael Shapiro
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 27, 2008

It's become the shot heard 'round the travel world. Former Lonely Planet guidebook contributor Thomas Kohnstamm's "Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?" -- a tell-all memoir about his 2004 assignment in Brazil and other antics -- has cast shadows on the industry and has readers wondering how much they can trust the books.

In "Hell," published this week by Three Rivers Press, Kohnstamm, 32, weaves a hedonistic tale of his days indulging in sex and drugs rather than visiting every one of the places he wrote about. He admits relying on secondhand sources rather than his own observations in some cases. Travel blogs are humming with denunciations.

The author, who says he was given 60 days to cover a 1,000-mile section of northern Brazil for the 2005 Lonely Planet guide for that country, says he's being criticized because he revealed guidebooks' dirty little secret: Authors can't get to every place they're expected to review because publishers don't give them enough time or money to do the job properly. So, he says, he was forced to do a "mosaic job," relying in some cases on information from local contacts, fellow travelers and the Internet.

Kohnstamm, a Stanford University graduate who bolted from what he termed a dead-end New York job to hit Brazil's back roads for Lonely Planet, has garnered the greatest attention for his extracurricular activities while on assignment.

"The waitress suggests that I come back after she closes down the restaurant, around midnight. We end up having sex . . . on one of the tables," he writes of his visit to a sushi restaurant. Reviewing the place in Lonely Planet's 2005 Brazil guide, he describes it as being a "pleasant surprise" and says the "table service is friendly."

Kohnstamm, reached at his Seattle home last week, said that when his "pitiable" payment from Lonely Planet ran out, he had no choice but to accept freebies from the places he was covering.

"I was idealistic and went in with the best of intentions," he said. "I didn't want to reveal myself as a Lonely Planet writer or make compromises, but I ran out of money."

Kohnstamm wouldn't say what he was paid but says he spent almost half his fee on last-minute flights from New York to Fortaleza in northern Brazil. He also used a chunk of his advance entertaining a flight attendant in Rio.

He maintains that his work stands up: "While I may not have been the most effective researcher, I know that I always did a good job of trying to understand and capture destinations as a whole. I would put my writing up against any other guidebook out there," he said in a follow-up e-mail. "LP was always very happy with my work; there were no complaints about my materials and they have since found no inaccuracies in them."

Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler, asked to comment, said he isn't surprised Kohnstamm ran out of time and money. "He spent so much time partying . . . I'm amazed he had any time to research anything," he said in an e-mail. The company said it is reviewing all the books to which Kohnstamm contributed. If "any of the content has been compromised," publisher Piers Pickard said in an e-mail, "we will take all the necessary steps to correct it."

As for authors' soliciting or accepting free food and lodging, Lonely Planet's published policy is that its writers "don't take freebies in exchange for positive coverage," phrasing that might suggest a potential loophole. But Pickard says that the company has a "strict no-freebies policy" and that Kohnstamm violated it.

Kohnstamm says that he's not the only writer to take occasional freebies and that it's the only way to stretch the fee. "Hotels were laughing at me for not taking freebies." He said he never exchanged free lodging for favorable coverage.

Pickard's response: "Kohnstamm's assertion that his poor research practices are acceptable and common is false."

Responding to a Washington Post blog item on the topic, a reader called "DP" wrote: "I am shocked! I always thought all those reviewers were anonymous. That's the best way to write a review of something. Show up when they don't know and don't have their best foot forward. Find out how they treat the 'regular' people. You can't do an honest, reliable job with them knowing you are coming."

For its part, the staff of The Post's Travel section travels incognito whenever possible and accepts no freebies. Freelance contributors are required to sign contracts stating that they traveled anonymously and accepted no favors, and must disclose any possibility of the appearance of a conflict of interest with their editor.

'More Shoe Leather Than Genius'

Kohnstamm's revelations have prompted other guidebook writers to speak out.

Jeanne Oliver, a former Lonely Planet writer based in Nice, France, recently ripped the company for shifting from a royalty model, in which the writer's income is based on book sales, to a work-for-hire deal, with the writers getting a one-time fee covering both expenses and payment.

In a posting to an in-house message board for Lonely Planet writers, Oliver, who says she worked for the company as a freelance writer from 1996 to 2006, calls Kohnstamm's conduct a "disgrace" that "smears the many hardworking writers who have poured their professional lives into turning out the 'bibles' that travellers use."

But, she says, his revelations were "a car crash that was waiting to happen" because of Lonely Planet's "wrongheaded" policies on compensation and royalties.

"For most authors, most of the time, you are not paying enough to properly write and research a book. And you haven't for a number of years now," she says in her post to her former bosses. "You are begging authors to cut corners somehow, somewhere or, on the other hand, to help finance the book out of their own pocket. It takes very, very few authors running around cutting deals for themselves to ruin this company's reputation. As we now see."

Pickard said that compensation varies by assignment and that the company doesn't disclose payment figures. Writers are paid a lump sum, he said, and each has to pay for travel expenses out of that sum.

"How they choose to manage that money is up to them," Pickard said, "but we work very hard to make sure this offer includes enough money for them to visit every location mentioned in the book and come home with a fair fee in their pockets."

Pickard said Lonely Planet recently conducted a survey that found the company's writers are paid as well as or better than writers for key competitors. But several writers interviewed for this story said that when their fees are divided by the number of hours worked, they come to less than minimum wage. Notable exceptions were Avalon's Moon guides and Rick Steves's guides.

Steves, who remains the primary researcher for his line of guides, said it's "a trust to write and research a guidebook." Reached in Lisbon, where he is updating his Portugal guide, he said in an e-mail, "The formula is more shoe leather than genius."

Steves dismisses Kohnstamm as an anomaly. He says that he, like many other travelers, finds Lonely Planet's books useful. And he feels the dust-up over freebies is silly.

"My job is to sort through all the come-ons, deceptive advertising and bogus sights and distill things down for my American readership," he said. "Ironically, a place that gives me a free room is more likely to be downgraded or dropped from my book because by actually sleeping there I'll learn about a noise problem in the wee hours, thin walls, or a horrible breakfast that I might not discover with a quick visit."

But longtime Lonely Planet writer David Stanley disagrees. Although he says the company didn't require him to travel incognito, he says he remained anonymous and took no freebies, while other guidebook writers identified themselves and were "treated like royalty." Several writers interviewed for this story said they identified themselves when interviewing travel providers on the record, but only after having done their research.

As the work has become less rewarding, some seasoned veterans say, wide-eyed novices are taking their places, a loss for guidebook companies and their readers.

Over the course of 35 years, Tom Brosnahan wrote guides for Lonely Planet and Frommer's, among others, and now maintains the Web site "In the 1990s I made a very comfortable income from guidebook authorship," he says, "but I don't think that it's possible today."

Reid Bramblett, author of several Frommer's guides, concurs: "Over the past decade, just about every professional travel writer I know who once did guidebooks, either full time or as just one cog in the wheel of their freelance career, has gotten out of the game."

Bramblett said a publisher recently offered him $3,100 for a job that he estimated would cost him $9,500 in expenses. "I would [have been] spending $6,400 of my own money for the privilege of writing their guidebook."

Though many travelers today get the bulk of their travel information from the Internet, most major guidebook companies are thriving. Lonely Planet has reported double-digit growth for several years, including a 13 percent increase in book sales last year, publisher Pickard said. Rick Steves's titles are up 12 percent per year during the past several years, and Moon is up 6 percent per year, said Bill Newlin of Avalon Travel, which publishes both titles.

Legitimate Journalism

Bramblett says that while some writers cut corners, the real pros still care. "I think what keeps the good travel writers honest is constantly reminding yourself that somewhere out there will be a tourist or a family banking the success of their entire trip, a trip for which they saved up vacation time for years and on which they're probably spending thousands of hard-earned dollars, on your advice and the accuracy of your data," he says.

"You can't, as Kohnstamm claims to have done, slack off just because you're angry at the bum deal you accepted from the publisher."

So how's Kohnstamm doing? Though his book has been out less than a week, "Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?" is selling well. Kohnstamm's publicist wouldn't disclose sales figures but says the book has already been reprinted.

The writer, who lives with his Brazilian girlfriend and his dog, says his next book will be about illegitimate fatherhood.

"I thought I had a Patagonian love child," he says. "It gave me another perspective on life and the implication of one's actions."

Michael Shapiro is the author of "A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration" (Travelers' Tales). He last wrote for Travel about online guidebooks.

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