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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Death of the (guidebook) author?

If you've been following the Lonely Planet author fraud scandal or the Thomas Kohnstamm Affair as some of us like to call it, and you've read the comments following online articles and visited Lonely Planet's travellers' forum Thorn Tree, then you may well think this spells the end for guidebook authors. Or at the very least you've now formed a bad impression of travel writers, that they plagiarize, treat the job as a paid vacation, don't visit every place they should, and trade freebies for positive reviews. The Thorn Tree posts have been especially unkind, even ugly, and often untrue (but then that forum is a monster), with criticism leveled at many LP books and accusations such as "I know xx xx (insert authors name) didn't even go to xxxx!" When in fact xx xx lives there, xx xx has a portfolio overflowing with published work on the place, and xxxx is the author's home! The impression seems to be guidebook publishers pay a pittance (when in fact, not all do), fees don't cover expenses (and some don't), and all authors are inexperienced 20 year-old hacks doing the job to travel for free. That's where I disagree. While there are a lot of hacks and a lot of 20-somethings partying around South America 'updating' guides (Let's Go writers are young), there are writers who are a whole lot older (some even ancient), who've been doing this work forever, consider it their profession, are married, have mortgages, have babies, grown-up children, even grandchildren (and whatever else communicates that not all writers make out on restaurant tables with waitresses in exchange for reviews). Thorn Tree members seem to think the industry should start with a clean slate and that they're just the ones to replace us, that travellers can get sufficient reliable travel information from Thorn Tree or Trip Advisor. Well, go for it, I say, because if there's no Lonely Planet, then there'll be no Thorn Tree. While some travellers might be happy to take advice from someone who knows their home town intimately but has never left it, or travellers who go on holidays twice a year and think that qualifies them to review hotels, I'm going to stick to recommendations by professional writers with travel expertise, who travel for a living. And I bet there are a lot of travellers out there who'll do the same. This isn't the end of the guidebook author at all, just a timely re-appraisal and re-appreciation of the role.

The image? A 'holiday' snap taken in Syria last year during 'research' for the Lonely Planet Syria and Lebanon guide. Just in case anyone needs proof that we were even there. Do you want to see my passport stamps too?


peterPerfect said...

Thorn Tree is a nest of vipers, or to be kind, a schoolyard in a bad part of town at lunch, with the 'cool kids', the bullys, the nerds and the odd ones in long black overcoats who could be either just fans of The Cure or just waiting for that laser sight to arrive in the mail.

After not having been there for a year or two. I vaguely remember going there a few months ago to find out about current Syrian visa rules. The regulars were tearing apart someone who came there to ask whether US$100 a day was enough for midrange accommodation. Apparently that makes you too wealthy to participate on the forum. Envisage that stock movie scene where the new kid with the lunch tray looks around for a free table to eat at, approaches the 'cool' table and the kids go, 'you're kidding, right?'.

There is nothing too unusual about this behavior on forums, but perhaps the most surprising thing is how much people who frequent the forums there don't like Lonely Planet books, generally think the authors are sh*t (especially now) and think that 'contributing' to the forums give them a stake in the company. It's a very odd space, not a pleasant one for the most part and not particularly reliable if you have a question.

While Lonely Planet brag about how many hits they get there, instead of making it really useful -- with some real moderation, forum monitors who are living in the areas offering *factual* advice and a more nuanced approach to membership rules etc. it could be something of a community built on trust rather than what it is today –– a bad junior high soap opera.

Nomadic Matt said...

I totally agree. I was just gonna write about this tomorrow (I'm still gonna lol) but I think people will still buy guidebooks and will still read travel magazines because they are going to want expert opinion.

Kim Wildman said...

Lara we really do think a like! I've been planning on posting a piece on my blog which I'd tentatively titled "Death of a guidebook author" for a while now!! Over the last couple of months I have been collecting a huge amount of research looking at the rise of free online travel forums such as TripAdvisor versus traditional guidebooks ... I might still post it at some stage, since I hadn't planned on tying it into the TK affair.. If I do I'll link it back to your piece.

As a current guidebook author who also once worked for LP author, I'm with Lara. I'd much rather get information from a professional writer who specialises in a city or region. Besides, I know I know for a fact that many of those travel sites that proclaim that their information is written by locals living in the city/destination simply get the information themselves via the internet and rehash it, so there is no way of knowing how up-to-date or accurate it is.

laradunston said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone!

Hi Peter, I tend to agree with you. Very insightful comments. Sad really. Great idea for a story actually!

Hi Matt & Kim, let me know when your posts are up so I don't miss them (deadlines looming) and I'll be sure to comment; I have a lot more to say on this too.

Kim, I agree with you. I can't tell you how many times I've seen my own text regurgitated by travellers on those sites. I actually confronted a traveller once who had blatantly plagiarised two paragraphs and then criticized the book!

Like you, I've been forming opinions on these sites for a while too so I can't wait to read your post. We hear lots of stories on the road - not only about hoteliers getting their friends to write in comments, the most common one - but you wouldn't believe how many travellers actually go to hotel GMs and say "give me a discount or I'll give you a bad review on TripAdvisor." Appalling. Like the forums, it's created a lot of little would-be critics. Personally, I don't need to know what they served on the breakfast buffet every day at the all-inclusive at Agia Napa.

peterPerfect said...

Matt, I'd say it's not just about the expert opinion offered in the books and magazines (and I'd even question that when it comes to magazines such as Conde Nast traveller which really just flit in and out), it's also about projecting yourself into those photos and building up those expectations of the holiday -- but I'm sure Lara has probably written on this before.
I think for people with money to spend, things are definitely heading more 'bespoke' and the general guidebook will be a reference for those who don't really put too much into their holiday. When even Lonely Planet's budget-travelling troops are revolting, you now that there is a growing dissatisfaction with what the guide book has become -- people are questioning the relevance of 'research' done 18 months ago or not at all by underpaid, overworked, frazzled neophytes.