Interview with Thomas Kohnstamm

A few months ago, a book came out came out that swept the travel writing world. Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? caused a lot of controversy with its depiction of guidebook writing. Lonely Planet had to issue special statements to reassure users that its books were accurate. Now, with the issue having died down, writer Thomas Kohnstamm reflects on the controversy, guidebooks, and writing.

Nomadic Matt: Your book created a lot of controversy when it came out this year. Did you anticipate such a media firestorm? Did you think there would be such negative reaction to the novel?
Thomas Kohnstamm: I knew that there would be some controversy, but I assumed (perhaps naively) that the conversation would be based on what was actually said in my book. Much of the blow-up was based on speculation, rumors and misquotes. 99% of the people criticizing me and my book had not even seen a copy of the book or read a single page of it.

The controversy dealt with you saying that for the Columbia book, you never went to Columbia. However, you were asked to write the history section of the article, which can really be done from any library. Do you think the media just blew this out of proportion?
Thomas KohnstammThat came from a conversation that I had with an Australian journalist about the issue of “desk updates” in travel writing. I wrote the History, Environment, Food & Drink, and Culture sections of that book – basically the intro of the guidebook. Would my research have benefited from me visiting the country: yes. But the reality is that on many low-budget travel writing projects (i.e countries like Colombia), publishers can only afford to send a couple of the writers into the field. Lonely Planet DID NOT contract me to go to Colombia as there was not enough money in the budget for the book. I did the research based off of memory, notes, interviews with Colombians and research at the Colombian Consulate in San Francisco.

The journalist twisted my words to make them sound as if I had been paid by LP to go to Colombia and I personally determined that the money was insufficient and therefore lazily sat at home and made shit up. The whole newspaper article was written with the intent of being as sensational and scandalous as possible. The article was picked up by some news wires and traveled the globe and blog echo chamber without any deeper thought or evaluation. And all of it was based on a single, faulty story in an Australian tabloid.

Last month, I interviewed a travel writer who said that your book was an inaccurate description of the profession. According to him, a little self discipline, the ability to negotiate a fair contract, and some professionalism will get the job done. What’s your thoughts on this?
Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? is about my experience as a young, wide-eyed travel writer working on my first project. It is not a book about my whole career as a travel writer. Obviously, I learned how to function in the industry much better as I had more projects under my belt.

Many people get into serious financial trouble on their first project or two. If they don’t figure a way to make it work under the tight time and financial constraints, they are simply replaced by another wide-eyed travel writer who will work for little more than a byline and a chance to travel. The potential labor pool is practically limitless.

Also, I received only the highest marks from Lonely Planet on my writing. I may have had some bumps in the road, but I always submitted quality work in the end. I ended up doing a lot more adventurous, cutting-edge research and insightful writing than many of those play-by-the-book earnest writers who spent all of there time visiting the same old hotels down the tourist trail.

Thomas KohnstammI read you once got pistol whipped while on assignment. From that story and your book, it seems guidebook writing is one interesting calamity after another.
I was only pistol whipped once – fortunately. I had a lot of crazy experiences as a travel writer, but I really like to get involved in what is going on in a given place and not just float through as a detached observer. Sometimes I get in over my head.

How did your family and friends react to the book? It’s pretty raw. I bet there were not interested in reading about your drug and sex exploits.
My mom didn’t care for the drinking. My girlfriend didn’t care for the sex. My dad thought it was all great. I purposefully wrote it without feedback from friends and family as I wanted to be able to write about my experiences in an unvarnished, honest way.

It seems like your days as a guidebook writer are over. What are you doing now?
I haven’t written a guidebook in a few years. I am just working on books and screen writing at this point. I hope to continue to do some travel writing, but I prefer the book-length format.

Most writers start out wanting to be a writer- this sort of feel in your lap when Lonely Planet sent you to Brazil. What made you stay a writer and not go back into the business world you left?
I started out wanting to be a writer too – although I was originally most interested in writing about politics. My first guidebook project arrived a little more abruptly than I had anticipated, but in Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? I discuss how I had already written a phrasebook for Lonely Planet years before and had been offered some guidebook writing back in 2000. I had a nascent writing career in my early twenties, but was distracted by a few years spent in academia. When I dropped out of a D Phil program, I accidentally washed up in the business world.

Travel writing has taken you to a lot of places. What’s your favorite country?
That’s hard to say. I love Brazil and will spend Christmas and the New Year there this year. India was one of the most fascinating places that I’ve traveled. I love skiing in France and Chile. I’d like to visit Mozambique and Madasgascar.

After seeing the guidebook world from the inside, do you still recommend people use them?
I still recommend guidebooks and tend to prefer Lonely Planet to the other brands. That said, I would argue that guidebooks are subjective (and somewhat arbitrary) and are not the singular or correct way to approach a destination. People should use guidebooks as a basic tool, but not follow them slavishly. Otherwise guidebooks basically insure that thousands of people all have exactly the same unique travel experience.

Thomas Kohnstamm currently resides in the Pacific Northwest and continues to make waves with his book. If you are interested in reading more, you can purchase the book, Do Travel Writers go to Hell?, at Amazon.

  1. if you stay in hostels you should just ask the other backpackers or locals about nearby places and hostels instead of just “living the lonely planet” :)
    i wouldn’t trust this guidebooks to much, some of the better accommodations from the lonely planet turned out to be some run-down dirtholes with creepy staff (“sunray motel”, bundaberg, australia and some others as well) …

  2. I was initially very happy for Thomas (as a fellow author) when I heard he’d had the book published but then when the story came out I was appalled, like most of my co-authors were. However, while I can appreciate that the scandal may have been started by one tabloid newspaper misquoting Thomas, I am very cynical about the way the media were allowed to take off with the story.

    It would have been very easy for Thomas and his editor/publicist to immediately come out and set the story straight with the truth and quash it. Thomas hadn’t been published by a small independent publishing house without any experience at handling the media but by a publisher with a well-oiled publicity machine. I worked in PR and publicity when I was young, and I (along with any fresh-out-of-uni PR student) could have easily worked my way through a 10-point damage control plan in 24 hours that would have seen the story killed.

    The publishers – and Thomas – knew what to do, however, they didn’t do it because they knew the controversy would help them sell the books. In the process a lot of damage was done to the profession, more than I initially thought from the first day of reading the press. But when the story was still running two weeks later, and Thorntree was still hot with it, we could see how much damage had been done. It’s a real shame. There are a lot of unethical writers in the biz, along with a publisher or two, but on the whole most are honest, hardworking, care about their readers, and are ethical about how they go about their work, but unfortunately everyone was tarnished with the same brush.

  3. Matt- Glad you interviewed Khonstamm and offered him the opportunity to speak for himself. That being said, I don’t feel that he’s really offered us anything in this interview that makes me feel more empathic towards him. While Lonely Planet bears responsibility to its readers regarding improving transparency about the writing process (i.e.: are guidebook authors permitted to write from home as opposed to on the road? What “qualifies” one to become a guidebook writer about a place they know little or nothing about?), I’m not reassured by Khonstamm’s vague comments, such as “I received nothing but the highest marks from LP.” What does that mean??

  4. Thomas Kohnstamm

    Unfortunately, Lara’s comments about being able to stop an erroneous story in contemporary media are naive. Maybe a story could have been quashed by, say, an important politician in the good old days of limited media, but with the modern blog echo chamber and the scooping race among cable news and wire services… it was simply impossible.

    Churchill’s quote has never been more true that “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets a chance to put its pants on.”

    I did dozens of interviews to try to correct the story immediately after its release (BBC, Washington Post, The AP, Huffington Post, Fox News and many, many more), but it didn’t help. And for the record, no writer in their right mind would intentionally associate or cultivate the tag of fabricator and plagiarist with their name – regardless of potential book sales.

    Moreover, it’s not as if a big book publisher like Random House cares enough about one small book or first-time author to create a disaster response team to try to grind a global media story to a halt… let’s get serious. Also, anyone who assumes that a major book publisher is a “well-oiled” anything, doesn’t know much about book publishing.

    Whomever at LP leaked all of the internal correspondence to the Aussie journalist and got him all hyped on “desk updates” and internal company scandal set the stage for that article (my book did not make a single mention of desk updates etc). My words were twisted to become the vehicle to prove the points that the journalist set out to show.

    And Julie: “highest marks” means positive editorial reviews on all of my submitted writing to LP. It means that my final product was considered to be good by the company.

  5. It was good that this guy got to speak for himself, but I can’t help but think that he didn’t have much to say, speaking in very vague terms. In my view, it hasn’t done Lonely Planet any harm at all (just some extra publicity) and I doubt it has changed the view of guidebooks in most people’s eyes – those that like them will still use them.

    Well done to get such an interview.

  6. Thomas, you obviously don’t appreciate how sophisticated web monitoring, marcomm and PR has become. Multimillion dollar organizations, such as publishers like Random House, employ web-/blog-monitoring companies (and thousands of them exist) to first of all crawl cyberspace (blogs included) to see what’s being said ‘out there’ about their brand or on a particular topic/issue, and then pay the companies to fight or challenge the chatter. They people to respond to comments to protect their brand and products. It’s done each and every day across the sphere, as bloggers like Matt would know, because we get contacted frequently by individuals making comments who are hired by companies to protect their brand/products.

    Your Churchhill quote belongs back in those days of “limited media”. As does the method you used (interviews) to quash the chatter.

    Random House would have known that. It’s by no means impossible to fight a story such as that which occurred. Indeed it’s very easy if you’re willing to put the resources toward it. Next time there’s a similar controversy that you’re not a part of, sit back and see how it plays out in both the traditional and new media spheres. To say it’s impossible to challenge the chatter is what is naive.

    Judging by your comments here, my guess is that perhaps Random House’s PR machine was, sadly, taking advantage of you to let the story play out and increase sales. Or maybe not. Maybe they’re not as well-oiled, as you’re suggesting (or were you referring to Lonely Planet?). But you shouldn’t lump all publishing houses together, that’s a bit harsh. I’ve been working with publishers for over 20 years and they’re not all as unsophisticated as you like to make out.
    Or perhaps I should see that statement as an expression of the same naivety you accuse me of.

    All publishers – including Random House – care about all of their books, and the press they get (and therefore how they sell). Even the small books. Because, as you’d know, it’s the small books, i.e. the small investments, that lend themselves to reaping the biggest returns if they could be so lucky as to attract the kind of controversy and column inches your book did.

    The timing was lucky, or unlucky, depending on how you look at it – occurring at a time when, from what I’ve heard, disgruntled Lonely Planet staff and writers were venting frustrations and leaking to the press. I’m guessing you’re quoting author Jeanne Oliver’s leaked email about you that appeared in the press.

    Still, regardless of how you want to defend yourself, it’s still sad for professional travel writers to see their profession tainted in the way it has been by one miscreant.

  7. NomadicMatt

    This is an interesting discussion going on. It seems we all have strong opinions about this. I think there are many ways you can look at this scandal but I don’t think this will have an long term impact on guidebook sales or the industry. This will all be forgotten eventually….

    But, I’m enjoying the comments. Hopefully the gloves won’t come off too much!

  8. thomas kohnstamm

    Claiming that I tainted the whole profession of travel writing is about as hyperbolic as saying that publishers are trolling blogs and actively fighting untruths on them.

    If you believe my book could have such a massive impact or if you know how to get a publisher to dedicate so much time and so many resources to my books, I would very much like you to be my new agent. Screw it, I’d like you to be my editor, publisher and publicist too.

    Together we’ll make millions and return truth to the media.

    ps lone miscreant? you’ve never had any ethical issues with a major guidebook publisher?

  9. Thomas,

    I will be your new publicist for the next 20 seconds. Don’t bother getting into fights in blog comments. As much as you want to defend yourself, it doesn’t help.

    The interview covered it, people are going to trash you or love you, and at the end of the day, you have a new book coming out and in a few years someone will write a book about how Travel Agents, not Guidebooks are evil, and everyone will jump to the Next Big Thing. Wasn’t there a couple of other travel writer memoirs that came out this year? Did they wreck the industry too?

    Speaking as your publicist (for 5 more seconds) stay out the fray. The internet echo chamber is bad, but authors who overly defend themselves are worse. Is it guilt? Control? Insecurity? The need for guidance from a wise publicist (me)?

    Of course, it’s amusing to read, and we love to get someone who will take the bait, but don’t do it! That is all. Your invoice is in the mail.

  10. Thomas, I have to agree with Christine that it’s not very becoming. And to clarify, I don’t think you tainted the whole profession, but you certainly did some damage that I personally believe was unwarranted.

    And, sorry, but I’m a tad too busy to look after your affairs, but obviously your publisher/publicist hasn’t done the right thing by you with this book, so my advice would be that you get a good agent for the next one – especially if it’s going to be anywhere near as controversial as the last one. You might want to consider Christine’s offer.

    And you’d better look up miscreant. No relation to ethics.

    But obviously you’re referring to me. And, yes, I do have ethical issues with the way Lonely Planet operates. Which I’ve raised directly with them over the years (which I started raising well before your scandal) and which I’ve also openly blogged about. The best thing for LP would have been to see the lovely Wheelers downsize and take over the running of the company again. The best thing for me was to stop writing for LP and work for other publishers, which I’m doing. No ethical issues so far. And I haven’t come across any miscreants yet either.

    Yes, great interview, Matt! Gosh, I’m sorry mine was so lame by comparison :)

  11. NomadicMatt

    This turned into a big debate. I’ll just say that I think Thomas didn’t cause any lasting hurt to the industry or profession as it really recounts his story. In the end people will buy guidebooks and will forget this whole thing and that will be that.

    Let’s keep this discussion friendly and avoid name calling.

    It’s been very interesting so far.

  12. Read his interview over on Kristin’s blog, Tackling the Globe, and had to come read this from the comments! I’m so stoked that Thomas did or did not take his 20 second publicist’s advice, but either way did not continue the banter in the comments here. Makes me want to read his book all the more!

  13. Duncan

    I read Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? and it was highly entertaining and for me any collateral damage done to LP and ‘the travel writing industry’ is par for the course. I’m pretty confident 99% of LP buyers will have never heard of TK and I’m sure the travel industry is no worse for his book… hopefully it’s better as he actually exposed some of the realities of guide book writing (whilst, by all accounts, still turning out a decent guide). LP have raised their game a lot in the last 10 years but travelling around East Europe/Russia with one in 2002 might have been comical, in terms of the book’s inaccuracy, if it didn’t continually cost us time and money in traipsing after hostels and bars that didn’t exist, and at one point even an international train route that had long ceased running. To skip back to my initial point I’d much rather read a rip-roaring adventure involving Austrian air hostesses, failed attempts at drug dealing etc then the standard ‘what i had for breakfast in Bali style’ blog post, whilst guide books of course are read purely for practical purposes… not entertainment (and anyhow are becoming increasingly redundant). Overall I don’t think you can say someone who’s written such a great travel novel has made a negative contribution to travel writing just because he ruffled some feathers, that probably needed ruffling anyway.

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