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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Decoding Lonely Planet’s explanation

Lonely Planet placed a statement on their website in response to Kohnstamm's claims. This is how I read it:
LP: “Thomas claims that during his time as a travel author, he skipped visiting certain destinations, plagiarised from other sources and traded good reviews for in-kind favours.”

Skipping destinations? Plagiarism? This is the first time this has ever happened! I do love ‘in-kind favours’, though, it’s a nice way of phrasing some of Thomas’ deeds. Lonely Planet states in its books that writers ‘don’t take freebies in exchange for positive coverage’, printing the message on authors’ business cards. I’m no lawyer and I don’t play one on TV, but the text is a loophole so big you could drive a Carnival Mardi Gras float through (well, unless Thomas has sold the driver of the float some drugs). The thing is, an LP title is not a phone book and in some ways a review is positive coverage, even if you say ‘the toilets could be cleaner’ or ‘the owner is a grumpy old sod’. It’s in the book and therefore a recommendation and for businesses can mean the difference between LP-carrying kids turning up at your doorstep or bankruptcy. LP has reiterated to writers that there’s a no-comps/discount policy but it hasn’t changed the print on the cards or books, so the loophole still exists. They could have tightened it but haven’t. Why not?

LP: “There are three titles in print to which Thomas has contributed on-the-ground research. The affected titles are Chile & Easter Island (7th edition), South America on a shoestring (10th edition) and Caribbean Islands (4th edition). We have sent out author teams to fact-check all his material in these books.”
I hope they wear rubber gloves and protective clothing. A hint for the intrepid ‘author teams’ (by the way, how many writers does it take to check a guidebook?), it’s probably not a good idea to eat at any of Thomas’ recommended restaurants, but if you do, wipe the tables down first. When one of the ‘author team’ accidentally drops their business card on the floor, it would be a little embarrassing to see one of the staff break down and confess, “I did not have sexual relations with that travel writer!”

LP: “Thomas talks most about his work on Brazil (6th edition). This book is now out of print and has been replaced by the current edition. This has been fully updated, and Thomas has not contributed to it at all.”

Thank God for that. We can all sleep at night now. Well, except the thousands of people still using the last edition wondering why the ‘table service’ isn’t as good as it was when Thomas wrote about the place. Or why someone keeps knocking at the door of the hotel room asking if they want ‘the Thomas special’. ‘Out of print’ doesn’t mean ‘out of circulation’. I’ve lost count of the bookstores I’ve seen across the world selling ancient editions of titles and travelers using guides a couple of editions old. ‘Fully updated’ also does not necessarily mean every review which Thomas the Sex Engine wrote has been replaced. How about a Brazil 6 amnesty program? Send in your old copy and LP will give you a new edition, untainted by the debauched, drugged-up writing of the only LP author ever to do bad things.

LP: “Thomas has claimed that he was not paid enough to travel to Colombia when he was employed as an author on our Colombia guide. The fact is that Thomas was not employed as an on-the-ground author on that guidebook. This means that he did not write any reviews - of places or establishments - in this book. His contribution was to the introductory chapter covering history, culture, food and drink and environment. Two on-the-ground authors wrote the reviews for the Colombia guide.”

While this is actually true, Lonely Planet had known this book was coming out weeks ago and could have avoided a lot of criticism by saying, ‘we never required Thomas to go to Colombia, we never budgeted for him to go to Colombia. He was contributing background material to a book that didn’t require him to travel and was paid adequately for this work. It’s a rather odd accusation and calls into question the rest of his of claims about his experiences working for Lonely Planet.’ Why didn’t they do this the moment the story appeared? The best defense is offense.

LP: “We are also reviewing Venezuela (5th edition). Thomas did not contribute destination information to this guidebook, but did act in a coordinating role during its production.”

What did that coordinating role entail exactly? Did he seduce one of the writers or get them hooked on drugs? I can see how that mentoring aspect of the role could lead to something more sinister.

LP: “Thomas claims he was not paid enough by Lonely Planet to do the job without shortcuts. While we ask a lot of our authors, we lead the industry in the fees we pay, and are committed to a yearly review of author fees.”

The statement that LP leads the industry in fees is not true. Either LP doesn’t know that or they know it and don’t think anyone will call them on it. I am. We’ve worked for many of the big publishers and while Lonely Planet pays experienced writers reasonably well, they are in no way an ‘industry leader’. Especially considering LP keeps copyright, doesn’t pay royalties, and re-purposes content as they see fit. And while “we ask a lot of our authors” is a little ambiguous, if you’re doing an LP gig in the time-frame they recommend (and pay you for) that translates to 18-hour days, seven days a week if you’re doing your job thoroughly. It’s little wonder that authors like Thomas admit they wilt under the pressure.

Wouldn’t it be better if Lonely Planet asked a lot of their authors, but rewarded them well for their hard work and emotional investment in a book by giving them a sniff of a royalty? While I know there are a couple of writers making a good living from writing for LP, we were never willing to use the methods they did to get ahead. Which is one reason we stopped writing for LP and started writing for other publishers.

Perhaps the best way to make money from working for LP is to be rushed off to South America to fact-check a rogue authors’ claims. I hear that’s paying quite handsomely…

* Terry is my husband and co-author of and contributor to around 25 books for Lonely Planet.


Anonymous said...

I guess you won't be looking for any future work with LP - perhaps devoting yourself instead to writing 'Lonely Planet expose, the sequel' to be dubbed in the press as the Lara Dunston affair?

Lara Dunston said...

Ha ha! No, we stopped working for LP early in the year - for reasons that can be guessed at from reading our posts, I'm sure - and we have a lot better things to write about in our travel memoirs than LP - like travel itself! I'm already thinking we've spent far too much time on this, but then the whole 'affair' is so frustrating and depressing.

TravelMuse said...

I love the idea of hundreds of people sending in their old guides for replacements. Brilliant suggestion! Now that would teach LP a lesson.