You'll never look at a travel book the same again

Posted: April 27, 2008

A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics

and Professional Hedonism

By Thomas Kohnstamm

Three Rivers Press. 272 pp. $13.95

Thomas Kohnstamm is nobody's model travel journalist, except maybe Hunter Thompson's (if the latter is watching from beyond the grave - or the cannon Johnny Depp used to distribute his gonzo ashes).

"I've spent weeks on yachts for free," writes the 32-year-old sudden enfant terrible of his field, "been comped hotel rooms, meals, astronomical bar tabs, ski passes, paragliding classes, and scuba diving trips."

When Kohnstamm sits down to write, he's not exactly devoted to straightforward, no-funny-business reporting.

"In order to distill the chaos of life down to a clear narrative," he writes in his opening author's note, "it was necessary to omit certain events, rearrange and compress chronology, and combine a few of the characters. I have changed most of the names and identifying details of the characters in this book to protect their privacy. Much of the dialogue and many e-mails have been re-created, but all are based on real conversations and correspondence."

Why, then, is everyone in travel journalism posting and e-mailing about Kohnstamm's Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, a memoir officially published in the U.S. this Tuesday?

Why did the Times of London call it "the talk of the London Book Fair" last week?

Partly because Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? is the best-written, funniest book of travel literature since Phaic Tan (say that quickly).

But primarily because Kohnstamm has pulled back the curtain on the world of travel guides.

In his late 20s, Kohnstamm tells us, stuck in a soul-crushing job on Wall Street (helping lawyers find loopholes for white-collar criminals) and a crumbling relationship with his girlfriend, he accepted an offer from Lonely Planet, the hip Australian travel-guide company, to update its Brazil guide. He has also contributed to a dozen of its Latin and South American titles. (Kohnstamm holds an M.A. in Latin American studies from Stanford University.)

None of those books, however, ever took off like this one.

Kohnstamm quickly discovered that publishers like Lonely Planet don't pay their writers enough, leading them - and him - to cut corners.

In his own case, he's said, he never bothered going to Colombia, writing his part of LP's guide to it in San Francisco, thanks to help from a Colombian girlfriend.

In Brazil, after a cafe waitress invited the roguish, skirt-chasing author to come back after closing time, he had sex with her on a back table. He then wrote that the cafe is "a pleasant surprise" and "the table service is friendly." Kohnstamm admits to selling ecstasy along the way to bolster his low fee and swapping freebies for favorable copy, a type of exchange that Lonely Planet explicitly bars. He claims "desk updates" - tweaks done by office research without visiting places - is common in the industry.

The response in newspaper articles and on Lonely Planet author sites has been a mix of outrage and corroboration, with headlines such as "Writer's flights of fancy embarrass Lonely Planet."

The controversy is getting especially lively because Lonely Planet, based in Melbourne and founded in 1972 by Tony and Maureen Wheeler, has long been considered both a commercial hit (some 6 million guides sold yearly) and a succes d'estime, with what even Kohnstamm admits was an "alternative and gutsy persona."

But the Wheelers sold 75 percent of it last year to BBC Worldwide, the British broadcaster's commercial arm, undercutting its countercultural image. And despite its prominent parent, Lonely Planet (unlike rival Rough Guides) does not pay royalties to its authors.

Several Lonely Planet writers have backed Kohnstamm's claim that inadequate pay produces unacknowledged shortcuts.

Chris Taylor, a fellow LP writer who updated its China guide in the 1990s, contended in the Melbourne Age that "[u]nderneath the self-promoting veneer of the guidebook industry, all kinds of things go wrong." He added that "desk updates" are a "dirty secret" of the business, one that has seen the Internet explosion produce a flood of travel series that harm profitability and the ability to pay well. (One typical fee Taylor mentioned was $11,000 in 2002 to update the guide to a small country.)

Another LP writer, Jeanne Oliver, who worked on European guides, called Kohnstamm's revelations, in a post on the company's authors' forum, "a car crash waiting to happen."

Yet a third travel journalist, Jolyon Attwooll, writing in the Daily Telegraph, criticized Kohnstamm's ethical lapses, declaring that the "vast majority of travel writers" feel great responsibility because they know someone "might just be relying on what I wrote."

Lonely Planet itself weighed in, denouncing Kohnstamm as an anomaly. Its publisher noted to the Telegraph that Kohnstamm wrote only an intro to LP's Colombia book, which doesn't require a field trip. Its chief executive promised to vet every book Kohnstamm worked on.

So is Kohnstamm the travel industry's James Frey?

Not quite - after all, he outed himself. For readers, the key thing is that Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? will leave you laughing most of the time, except when the author's sexual swagger grows tiresome.

He's proud that "up to now, no one has given voice to the everyday life of the gritty miners of travel information, those who dig up the material that is then polished and sold to consumers as Travel Gospel."

He muses, "Maybe if people see what arbitrary bull- goes into the making of a guidebook, they will realize that it's just a loose tool to give basic information."

Mr. Kohnstamm, in this case, you've done your job.


Contact book critic Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or cromano@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/carlinromano.

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