Lonely Planet Author Unmasked

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?Amazon.com lists nine Lonely Planet guides to Latin America and the Caribbean associated with one Thomas Kohnstamm. On April 22, 2008, Three Rivers Press will release a new book by Kohnstamm titled Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism. I haven't yet seen this ironic tome but media reports say that Kohnstamm confesses to soliciting freebies, plagiarizing other books, trading in drugs, and making things up while under contract to Lonely Planet.

Most Lonely Planet guidebooks carry a disclaimer which says their authors “don't take freebies in exchange for positive coverage.” Notice the wording: Lonely Planet doesn't say they don't take freebies, just that they don't take freebies in exchange for positive coverage. I can state categorically here that while out researching my South Pacific guides I don't take freebies of any kind in exchange for any kind of coverage.

Kohnstamm writes that the meager fees paid to him by Lonely Planet weren't sufficient to allow him to visit the areas he was supposed to be researching. The fees might have been enough if Kohnstamm wasn't such a promiscuous stud, but it's true that Lonely Planet pays its updaters miserably. I stopped writing for them in 2002 when I realized there was no profit or future in it.

Lonely Planet boasts that their authors “don't research using the internet or phone”. Well, in Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? Kohnstamm brags that he did his research for the 2006 edition of Lonely Planet Colombia while in San Francisco and that a Colombian girlfriend was his primary source. That sort of thing won't surprise Lonely Planet insiders. The old hands-on Lonely Planet died a decade ago and the only concern of the present stable of authors and editors is doing the minimum to justify their scanty fees and salaries. Since the publisher owns everything, there's no incentive for the minions to take a personal interest in their work.

To save money and maintain full control, Lonely Planet often assigns inexperienced office clerks and interns to update their guides. Little wonder that some of these underpaid novices resort to plagiarism. My books have been copied by Lonely Planet writers time and again. Two decades ago Tony Wheeler himself sent me a personal letter apologizing for wholesale plagiarism by one Jim Dufresne, who still writes for Lonely Planet. I could have sued Lonely Planet at the time, but Tony was clever enough to offer me a contract to do the first edition of Eastern Europe on a Shoestring and I made a lot of money on that book. In those days Lonely Planet still paid its authors a 10 percent royalty and allowed them to own their copyrights. Today Lonely Planet updaters get no royalties and must sign away all rights, even moral rights. Thus it's no surprise that the quality of Lonely Planet guides is so uneven.

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