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Monday, August 18, 2008

Don't judge a guidebook by its cover: judge it by its author (or, How to choose a guidebook)

Last week we wrote the posts Brilliant minds think alike, or, Why so many guidebooks share the same listings: part 1 and part 2, in which Terry and I tried to explain why guidebook reviews don't always resemble the places they're written about, and why reviews of a certain place across a number of books might be similar. As if they're written from the same press release or website, perhaps? We think so. Eric Daams from Travel Blogs asked: "If buying a guidebook is such a lottery, how can the average consumer, who has never been somewhere before, pick up a book that is actually based in reality, not press release fantasy?" Well, here's our advice:
1) Never and we mean NEVER judge a guidebook by the cover: just because the photo is fantastic doesn't mean the contents are. Think about it. The authors, who have everything to do with the content, have nothing to do with cover. The quality of the cover is no reflection of what's inside. No matter how cute that baby gorilla looks.

2) DO judge a book by its author: do as much research as you can online about the author before going to the bookstore. Seriously. You're about to put this person in charge of showing you a good time. You need to make sure they're qualified, but also make sure you share the same tastes, opinions, likes and dislikes. Read the author's bio on the publisher's website or the author's own website/blog and consider a few things:

* the author's qualifications: does the author have a degree in journalism, communications, writing, media studies, international studies, history, politics and economics, archaeology, social sciences, tourism and hospitality, food and wine, or any other field that has allowed them to develop a) research, writing and analytical skills, and b) relevant knowledge to what they're writing about?
* the author's local knowledge and connection to the destination: does the author live in the destination, has s/he travelled there frequently, or do they have some special connection to the place? Why? Because the more intimately the author knows the destination - and the destination knows the author! - the less likely they are to be 'inspired' by press releases or website blurbs. If they live in the destination they're going to possess an immense knowledge of the place. But their book is also going be judged by their family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, local travel, tourism and hospitality industry, and the local media, in addition to their publishers and readers, so there's a high chance their book about their hometown is going to be their best.

* the author's body of work: has the author written on this destination before for the same publisher or others? Look for this info in the author's bios or google the person. Look not only other books on that destination by the author, but also magazine and newspaper articles. If the author has written a book on Paris, a book on France, and a handful of stories on the place, chances are she/he knows it well. Their book bio might not list work they've written for other publishers, so cast your net wide. The more an author has published on a particular place, the less likely they are to resort to press releases and other propaganda:
their credibility (and further work opportunities) depend on this destination expertise: getting it right is everything.
* the author's lack of local knowledge: was the author's guidebook research trip the first trip they ever did to the place? Most authors would never admit this but very occasionally they do. NEVER buy a book written by an author who had never been to the place before researching the book. Think about it. Would you invite your blogger pal from (Insert country) to (insert your hometown), a place they'd never been, and ask them to show you around and give you hotel, shopping, restaurant, and bar recommendations?
3) DO judge the book by its content: spend 10 minutes reading the book. Start with the introduction, skim a bit of the politics and culture sections, consider the book/music/film lists, read a few hotel and restaurant reviews. So, what are you looking for? Is the writing intelligent, honest, critical, and opinionated? Does the author express a high level of competence in their understanding and knowledge of the place? Are there small insights, details, and observations that could only have been written by someone who'd been to that destination and experienced those places? Or is the writing bland, boring, overly-objective, and banal? OR, is it superficial, silly, gushy, and always super-positive? If it's the latter two then you have every reason to be suspicious. Lastly,
4) If you have been to the destination before, look for a review of a hotel or restaurant you know. Is it in there? Good. Does the review make it sound remotely like the place you know? Even better. If it doesn’t list it or it describes it in a way you don't recognize, leave the book on the shelf and take a look at another.

What do you think? Have I left anything out? How do you go about choosing your travel guidebooks?


Tamara said...

Hi Lara
Great post. You are absolutely right. The same also goes for hotels. I have lost count of the number of times I have turned up to a hotel and been so disappointed having set my expectations high based on a glossy brochure. One in particular (that shall remain nameless) had spent an awful lot of money on a good photographer but when we turned up in the drive we were confronted with signs saying 'coaches this way' - and that was just the start of the parts of the hotel that ere definitely not photographed!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips Lara! I especially think the idea of researching the author before you buy. So often, people buy guide books based on the publisher, not the author. Taking that extra care to select a book whose author actually has deep, intimate knowledge of a location is definitely worth the extra effort.

Anonymous said...

If you want to decide on a travel guide book, go down to the local library and select a few on your own city/country or a place that you are super-familiar with. Decide which matches your views/tastes/ideas/values and you are a good chance of choosing a brand which most suits your travelling style. As Lara points out, guide books do vary a little in quality by author, but in general they write in a similar style and are typically targatted to a specific audience (backpackers, well-heeled, adventurous, inexperienced, etc). I have my couple favourite brands like most people that most suit my approach to travel.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Tamara - thanks! But which guidebook (or other source) do you use to choose your hotels? Or do you use a range of sources, like us? I imagine you'll be pursuing hotels based on press releases sent to you, tips from like-minded travellers, but are you looking at any books as well?

When I was younger and less-travelled I was addicted to the Hip Hotels books (I think they're still beautiful although I've now been to most of their hotels) and StyleCity (who we're actually working with on developing a guide now). They were always my favorites. But there were never any other books that led the way as far as hotels were concerned for me. What about you?

I just noticed that Cool Hunting have released a hotel book... but you see I'd never buy it because I don't trust the website... too me, it's little more than recycled press releases, and so many reviews of places I've been to just haven't rung true - as if the writer has never stayed there. To me, it's essential that the writer has experienced the property and done so 'undercover', like a real traveller. Otherwise, what's the point?

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Eric - thanks! And that's another great point that's worth exploring in a post... I completely overlooked it! Stay tuned...

Hi Mark - that's a fantastic idea! I'm going to include that in my next post and acknowledge you - thank you!

Anonymous said...

Mark h, Travel guides vary greatly within one brand or one range of books depending on the author, just from our experience of knowing many of the other writers. Some had been assigned books to places where they had never been before and had no intention of ever going again and already had a negative opinion of. Others lived in a city but still put in the same touristy eateries (including chains!) and boring expat bars. Others would go to a country and change as little as possible in the books and spend as little time there as possible to make as much money as they could, all the while being seen as efficient writers who 'got the job done' and thereby getting gigs for places they've never been!
The style might be one thing, but it's the quality of the research that's harder to pinpoint.


Prêt à Voyager said...

I must admit I'm guilty of judging a book by it's cover. The design of a book means a lot to me (biased as a designer myself)as sometimes poor design can blur quality content. One of the major selling points of a guide book for me these days is the maps included. I like having an overall map, plus detail maps. Ideally all the info is on the map itself and I don't have to refer to the key...

I always start at the library and pick up any books they have and then usually end up purchasing one. I'm actually surprised that I feel like many book stores have very limited options (or perhaps there are just too many places and options for them to stock).


P.S. Glad you're enjoying the Melbourne piece...Sorry I've been so silent. Stopping by to check in, but I do love the conversations you start :)

Jessie V said...

brava, lara! i think that now, we look for guidebooks written by people that have kids, as well as guidebooks just like you stated. BRILLIANT list. thank you, thank you!

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Anne

Thanks! And good to hear from you. Well, I was silent myself while on the road in Italy and just now catching up on your design adventures.

I'm with you on maps - I love a map where you don't have to refer to the key or text, but they're increasingly rare and under-valued these days.

But as much as I love a beautifully designed book cover they simply don't come into the equation as far as a guidebook's concerned.

There were some brilliant bookstores in Milan actually, that had every conceivable guidebook brand and destination, and then some I hadn't heard of - although they were mostly in Italian!

Tamara said...

Hi Lara
Sorry to take so long to respond to your question – I started writing but it was turning into an essay - so in response, I've put up a post on the Smith blog explaining exactly what methods we use to find our hotels, and linked back to your post. Check it out here: How Smith finds Boutique Hotels