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Monday, April 14, 2008

Media reels: Lonely Planet author fraud

Am I outraged? Am I reeling? Am I surprised? No, no and no. But as a travel writer, and a former Lonely Planet guidebook author, it’s impossible for me to keep blogging away about luxury travel on a budget (my next post) and ignore the dozens of headlines in the global media over the last days following pre-publicity for Thomas Kohnstamm's book 'Do Travel Writer's Go To Hell? (Random House, due for release 22/4/08)'. Have you seen these? Confessions of a Travel Writer Rattle Execs at Lonely Planet (The New York Observer, 9/4/08); Journalism on a Shoestring (Outside magazine, April 08); Shocker: Lonely Planet Writers Accept Schwag (Guest of a Guest blog, 10/4/08); and this weekend: Lonely Planet writer says he made up part of books (Reuters); Lonely Planet reeling after author's fraud (; Travel writer tells newspaper he plagiarized, dealt drugs (on; Lonely Planet rocked by claims of free trips, plagiarism (Courier Mail, Australia); Lonely Planet rocked by author fraud (National Nine News/NineMSN); Lonely Planet's Bad Trip (The Daily Telegraph/Sunday Telegraph, Australia); Lonely Planet Rocked By Fraud Scandal (Sydney Morning Herald/The Age); A travel writer on a not so lonely planet (Telegraph, UK); and 5 Reasons to be outraged by the Lonely Planet fraud (Gadling travel blog). There was also a fascinating (for different reasons) discussion on Lonely Planet's online travel community forum Thorn Tree: Lonely Planet Author's Fraud and comments on the Colombia guide. As I haven't read the much-discussed book yet, I can't comment on the content. But like many writers I was initially thrilled to see a fellow author publish what some would consider to be a real book. After all, every travel writer dreams of writing travel lit. (Terry and I are also writing a book about our two years of continuous travel on commissions). But then there was the barrage of headlines and simplistic opinions. Such as the suggestion that one writer's wild behavior and "questionable ethics" imply all travel writers 'research' books this way. And the even more ludicrous claim that this will impact the credibility of travel writing and the integrity of travel writers. Let's face it: every industry has its equivalent of the gonzo journalist. And every industry has its workers who occasionally behave unethically on the job, just as there are organizations that make it easy for workers to abuse the 'system' and managers and staff who prefer to look the other way. Plagiarism? Accepting freebies? None of this is new. While Lonely Planet's policy doesn't allow authors to accept comps or discounts in exchange for positive coverage when on assignment for LP, travel writers from some of the world's most reputable newspapers and magazines frequently travel courtesy of airlines and hotels, and get food, drinks, tours, spas and other activities for free. It doesn't appear to compromise their work. (Or does it? There's a topic for another post.) Some writers are also lazy, writing about places they've never been, and cutting and pasting freely from other stories without acknowledgment; see my previous posts. But the actions of a small percentage shouldn't impact the whole travel writing profession, not publisher nor travel writer.

Okay, I admit it, there was one thing that was surprising - apart from the fact that Lonely Planet didn't find any errors in the Colombia guide (or any of Thomas K's other books), so we better make that two - why on earth would Thomas have accepted the Colombia contract and not gone there? The main reason we all work these long hours (12 hour days, 7 days a week, 362 days a year - and I'm not kidding!), for very little pay (that part is true too), is for the love of travel. To get an opportunity to travel and not do so is even more ludicrous than some of claims being made. If you didn't see this article A Job With Travel But No Vacation in 2006, take a read now; note that the story opens with a tale from Thomas' travels.

The image? Note-taking over a lunch break while researching in Ithaki, Greece, two summers ago. Terry is off taking photos of fishermen mending their nets. Now do you see why we do what we do?


Anonymous said...

Lara and Terry, I totally agree with everything y'all have been writing about this guy. I mean, have you checked out his website? He has links to that NY Times article, his facebook page and his myspace page. This guy is getting everything he ever imagined in his wettest wet dream.
Have you ever seen the wiki travel guide They are based in South America and have lots of really good info. Plus, they are new, but I have never read anyone complain about having to deal drugs to survive while working for them.

cf said...

It is funny that I found this blog on fake travel writers as I googled your name to complain about you. Based on your recommendation in the Loney Planet Guide, we stayed at the Beit Al Mamlouka hotel in Damascus. Like you, we fell for the 'charming' descriptions of the room etc. The rooms were charming but all directly face the main office so guests get 24 hour access to all the noise and action of the main office. We heard, despite ear plugs as soon as possible, every phone call, arrival, departure, complaint and so on. The courtyard you mention has chairs that literally back up to each rooms windows so guests also get every conversation there as well. The poor design and room placement was literally the first thing we noticed when we arrived. How did the obvious noise problem miss being mentioned in your account?