Saturday, 3 May 2008

Thomas Kohnstamm and Lonely Planet

Recent revelations that Thomas Kohnstamm, a Lonely Planet author (who also worked as a desk editor at Rough Guides' New York office for a while) took freebies while researching their guide to Brazil, have positively rocked our little travel-publishing world. It's not so much that Kohnstamm did it, but that he, or rather his new publishers, have made such a meal of it, in publicizing his book of revelations, Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? His book is an enjoyable, fast-moving shagadrugathon, full of self-doubt and bare flesh, in which cheating on Lonely Planet's rule – "we don't take freebies in exchange for positive coverage"– is the last thing that's going to register in most readers' minds after they've taken in the sheer disorganised, fumbling, narcotic mess of Thomas Kohnstamm's efforts to put together his corner of the Brazil guide (112 pages, we learn). So it's amazing that the folks at Lonely Planet have been getting their underwear so contorted trying to convince their readers that LP authors taking freebies is unheard of. Not everyone at LP seems so sure of that, and according to Peter Munro, writing in The Age (Australia), some of those who've left the publisher, now owned by the BBC's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, say it happens a fair bit.

In fact it happens with all travel publishers, because the economics of researching and publishing travel guides are so tough. What makes the good guides good – and all publishers have good and bad ones – is the authors behind them. Although it's now only the policy of one or two publishers, including Rough Guides, to pay royalties rather than a flat fee, royalty payments are the way to ensure that authors care about the success and reputation of the book, not trying to impose unenforceable rules about how authors conduct themselves while gathering information as the money leaks away. A good author will slam or ignore a place, or simply give it a jaundiced write-up if it's not up to scratch, even if they have eaten or stayed there for free. And a good publisher cares about the finished product and the response of readers, not what a renegade contributor spouts in order to sell his own book.

Now, who's going to be the first Rough rebel? Too late, LP's rebel got there first.

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