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Being an Asshole, Liar Does Pay; at Least at Lonely Planet.

As you can tell by the title, my impatience with publishers is rising. Their loose association with integrity becomes more evident every day. Last week, it was discovered that Lonely Planet, a travel guide publisher, was putting out books by an author who a) plagiarized and b) didn’t even travel to the places he wrote about and c) took money and freebies from businesses included in the guides.

Lonely Planet apparently has no intention of pulling the guides off the market because it “stands by the accuracy of its travel guides” and has “thus far found no inaccuracies.” Well, how about the copying? Or the fact that the entire Columbia section isn’t based on his own travel experience but what some intern he was banging told him in during coitus? The author says his initial admissions of wrongdoing were taken out of context and not true.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Kalen Hughes
    Apr 15, 2008 @ 09:45:53

    They have a woman on the staff who is a pathological liar as well . . . so that makes two problematic writers of their guides. I do like their books, but I can't buy them when I KNOW they have staff who make things up.

  2. Rosario
    Apr 15, 2008 @ 10:38:56

    This is insane. It’s actually DANGEROUS… I mean, often in the developing world areas go from safe to unsafe very quickly, so a supposedly up-to-date guide which tells you that area X is safe when it’s copied from something written years before could put you in physical danger.

  3. Rebecca
    Apr 15, 2008 @ 11:08:26

    We can only hope that they fact check these books as academic publishers do.

  4. Tasha
    Apr 15, 2008 @ 11:52:07

    If the publisher is telling the truth that he wrote the background info (i.e., the history, demographics, and such) of Colombia and NOT the actual travel guide (places to stay, eat, etc.), then I think it’s fine that he didn’t actually go there, especially if he was not asked or paid to do so.

    The plagiarism allegation is obviously troubling, but I’m giving Lonely Planet the benefit of the doubt on the issue of the guy writing about a place he didn’t visit.

  5. Jackie L.
    Apr 15, 2008 @ 14:32:26

    Tasha, I don’t think you should write a travel guide without, I dunno, traveling to the place you’re writing about. It’s not a “I done talked to peeps about this place and this is what they told me”–kind of book. The connotation and even the denotation implies a traveler’s tale, which involves traveling.

  6. Tasha
    Apr 15, 2008 @ 16:52:12

    #5: I disagree. If the publisher’s statement is true, that he was contracted only to write those intros and was not expected to travel to Colombia, I don’t think the author or the publisher did anything wrong. If the sections on accommodations, restaurants, site-seeing, etc. were written by people who visited the destinations, I don’t see any misrepresentation at all if a different person wrote a concise history of the nation as an introduction. In fact, I would be very surprised if this doesn’t happen a lot.

  7. Rebecca
    Apr 15, 2008 @ 20:54:13

    Well, I’ve read the Telegraph story and the International Herald Tribune story and re-read everyone’s comments here and I side with Tasha.

    I think we need to step back a bit.

    To quote the great obfuscator: “We do not know what we do not know.”

    Here are some of my questions:

    How do travel guides get written?
    What is the process?
    Waht are the Internal Procedures?
    Do they pay by the word?
    Is everything contracted out? (Costs less, no W-2 to pay)
    What kind a budget are editors given and how is this travel expensed?
    What kind of a margin do these imprints have to work with?

    We are supposed to get a grunt writer’s view in this man’s book.

    I agree with Tasha.

    …[publisher Piers] Pickard called that claim “disingenuous” because he [Kohnstamm] was hired to write about the country’s history, not to travel there to review accommodation and restaurants. That work was done by two other authors.

    So, according to the publisher (who ought to know), Kohnstamm was contracted to write the county’s history.

    If the writers of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the CIA World Factbook, The Economist, and many other notable and trusted publications have their writers write country histories without going there, I don’t see a reason to be pissed that this Kohnstamm guy wrote a history of Colombia as an intro for the book. So what.

    From the IHT article, it seems that Lonely Planet has two kinds of writers: in country (travelers) and contracted writers who write intros, histories, etc. The filler.

    So, I think that Kohnstamm (Masters be damned) is a dumb guy who was pissed that he wasn’t being paid enough and decided to be a whistle blower.

    Now, this plagiarism claim/charge is interesting because nothing, in either of the news articles, actually backs the claim/charge up. Now I’ll have to read the book to see where the reporter found the claim.

    Kohnstomm is an arsehole, but not because he writes histories and intros for a travel book company. He’s an arsehole because he’s written a roman a clef about a section of an industry that isn’t that dirty.

    I think he figured out a way to make a name for himself that had nothing to do with quality work (like the very interesting Sebastian Junger and many other writers) and everything to do with notoriety.

    I get so tired of people wanting to be famous for being famous. It’s so boring.

  8. Peter N-H
    Apr 16, 2008 @ 02:02:42

    Answers to some of the questions above:

  9. Allie
    Apr 16, 2008 @ 04:03:57

    This makes me sad, because whenever I go anywhere I usually pick up a Lonely Planet Guide ahead of time. I like their approach and the types of places they include (i.e. the cheap ones). I can see their reluctance to pull the South America Guidebook off the shelves (which probably has over a dozen contributors), but they really should get rid of the Columbia one and start anew.

  10. Shay Fodor
    Apr 17, 2008 @ 02:37:45

    The question is if we need travel guides in 2008, when we have fellow travelers on-line that are more up to date than a book who was edited 2 years ago. In the case of backpacker places, not once I have found myself following the recommendation of “Lonely Planet” just to find out that the place has lost its reputation longtime ago. With TripAdvisor, WAYN and , one can find very easily up to date recommendations, travel mates and all the travel info one’s need to get oriented while traveling .

    Travel guides need to adjust to the new era, minimize their books size and be more up to date if they want to survive the travel 2.0 era.

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