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Monday, April 14, 2008

Strange Planet (part 1): an unusual tale of a travel writer who didn't have the itch

I don’t want to waste too much time on the new book Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm as I haven’t read it and have no interest reading it (the reasons will become obvious in the post), but there’s a couple of things that are apparent. Lonely Planet can still dodge a bullet here (they’re lucky that a travel writer didn’t really set out to destroy their credibility) and Thomas Kohnstamm, perhaps egged on by his publisher is clearly trying to be travel writing’s Anthony Bourdain. But failing.

Having completed over a couple of dozen contracts for LP, it’s no secret to me that Lonely Planet’s fees won’t make you a millionaire. I’m living proof. LP relies heavily on the moral compass of its writers to not cede to the temptations of accepting freebies and cutting corners while on the road. One of the ways that they attempt to keep the compasses pointing to ‘good’ not ‘evil’ is by keeping its team of writers close to its bosom by making them feel involved in the company. I never felt close to LP (never thought I fitted in with their writing ‘style’ either), with their stifling political correctness, holier than thou attitude, and disingenuous ‘LP family’ shtick, but regardless, when you sign a contract, you should honour it.

By claiming that he never even went to one of the countries he was contracted to write about (Colombia) because it didn’t pay enough, Thomas Kohnstamm sets himself apart from every travel writer I know. If LP makes you an offer that isn’t enough, ask for more (explaining how you worked out your budget and daily expenses) or reject it. If it’s a break even job, a newbie writer looking for their first gig will end up gladly accepting the offer, after all, travel writing is the ‘best job in the world’™. Besides, a good writer can make as much money as the contract (Lara and I have generally made much more) by selling feature stories and photographs to magazines off the back of the trip. I don’t know why this is news to Kohnstamm, but the time for figuring out whether you’re going to make any money from a gig is during contract negotiations. And hell, it was COLOMBIA he didn’t go to and given that Kohnstamm admits to dealing drugs, surely an enterprising travel writer such as himself could see the synergy there.

The thing that offends me most about this whole affair is that travel writers do what they do because they love travel – first and foremost. I’m not talking about newspaper journalists who are writing obituaries one day then get rewarded with a three-day freebie at the Burj Al Arab, and return to write the obligatory glowing ‘review’. I’m talking about the writers who get the travel itch when a jet flies overhead. The ones who have a carry-on bag ready to go sitting in the hallway of their apartment or house. The ones who never really unpack. The ones with story ideas that fill notepads or sticky notes on their well-travelled laptops. The ones who have AC adapters for every wall socket known to mankind – and can tell you which country they fit. By feel. In the dark. The ones who never get tired of getting up on the first day in a new city and hitting the streets.

To these writers the thought of accepting a contract and not going to the country is absurd – the journey is the reward, not the barely adequate funds that get you there.

And actually telling people that you didn’t go is even sillier than not going in the first place. And blaming LP for turning you into a drug dealer to make ends meet is simply pathetic. A well-traveled writer would at least know how to paint themselves silver, stand on a milk crate and mime, or do that eternal dreadlock traveller special, juggling fire sticks. Really Thomas, LP was not your baby-sitter. LP didn’t owe you a living.

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


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this with gusto and for accurately and passionately describing what a travel writer is. It is first and foremost about traveling-always without question.

Secondly, I like that you described what the “travel itch” is. I wrote a post about the travel itch. For me it’s the incredible and overwhelming feeling that absorbs me when I am anywhere near an airport, or hear a plane taking off or landing.

Most amateur travel writers, or travel writers in general are so passionate about traveling and exploring that yes we would do it regardless of how little the amount was. Not that we don’t want to get paid, but one has to start somewhere.

Sorry Thomas, LP does not owe you anything-Get a grip! There will always be someone like myself lurking. Bags already packed and waiting in the hallway closet- Anticipating the next adventure.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Shanel, I'll have to check out your post on the travel itch.

When you're starting out as a writer, you do accept a couple of low-paying gigs because you so desperately want them and you want them to appear on your portfolio but don't accept more than that. Companies like LP knows new writers will do that and I think they take that into account when they're budgeting, knowing they'll get some cheap books made with new writers so they can save the big $ for the more experienced writers and more financially-demanding books. They'll keep on exploiting the writers while they allow themselves to be, though, so the thing is to demand more money the more experienced you become.