Sunday, April 20, 2008


Journey to the Center of The Desk

There was a dust-up this week over Lonely Planet covering some lonely destinations indeed... as in, there's not even a writer there. Travel writer Thomas Kohnstamm claims he wrote about Colombia without actually going there, while Lonely Planet denies that he had anything to do with allegedly cooked-up sections.

But much more troubling for industry is this article in yesterday's Age of Melbourne, in which LP veteran writer Chris Taylor reveals that it's more than just one bad apple in the barrel:

Lonely Planet writer Jeanne Oliver challenged that response in a post on the company's internal authors' forum, which was leaked to the Sunday Herald Sun, describing Kohnstamm's coming book as "a car crash waiting to happen". Oliver has declined to make further comment, but as an industry insider, I agree with her.... With so many competing guidebook series, many titles do not generate sales revenue that justifies the legwork that results in genuine personal recommendations. Most publishers who make claims to the contrary are being disingenuous.

.... [The] company's internal authors' forum bristles with author posts about pay rates that have forced them to cut corners.... Lonely Planet author forum posts include one that complains: "For South Australia I was told outright that large chunks of the outback would be desk research, because LP (Lonely Planet) couldn't afford a 4WD budget."

....An interesting exchange on the forum concerns "desk updates", which one writer refers to as Lonely Planet's "dirty secret". The fact is, "desk updates" are not just Lonely Planet's "dirty secret" but the industry's dirty secret. It is little commented on, but the huge proliferation of guidebook titles that now line bookshop shelves coincided with the rise of the internet.... you can sit at home and Google the town you might otherwise be exploring on foot, and hopefully some random blogger has done the legwork for you.

It's hard to imagine that, having bought a 75% stake of Lonely Planet in October, the BBC is going pleased to learn that they paid millions of pounds for an internet connection.

For a genre that's been around since even before the 19th century heyday of the Baedeker guide, it would be alarmist to declare "The Death of the Guidebook"... which, in fact, is what the Age's headline writer did. But it's fair to question whether the demographics of guidebook publishing will eventually show it to be a slowly dying industry. If we can do our own "desk updates" on blogs or Tripadvisor for free, then exactly what is Lonely Planet for?

All that said, I'll always love them for having done a guide to backyard Micro-Nations....

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