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How to Write for Lonely Planet and Go to Hell

Posted by on November 9th, 2011


A FEW years ago, Lonely Planet was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. There were allegations that underpaid writers were plagiarizing other books, making facts up, and even writing about countries they had never visited. Most of this controversy revolved around Thomas Kohnstamm’s book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?

In the book, which chronicles his booze and drug fueled foray into writing for Lonely Planet, Kohnstamm paints himself as an idealistic — albeit substance dependent —  young writer sent to Brazil, who learns the only way to get by in the business is to cheat. He reasons that everyone else is doing it, so he might as well do it too.

“The sad truth is, travel writers are disposable and can easily be replaced by new writers for cheap if they don’t learn how to play the game, or ask for too much cash. This is a ‘dream job,’ after all, and there’s always someone else in line.”

There are two things Kohnstamm knows how to write about well, nausea and the stress of looming deadlines. Neither are topics I’m eager to read about, but he has no problem devoting the majority of his 270 pages to them. Locations in the book blur into one long hangover with passing references to dirty hostels, sweltering bars, and sun-baked beaches.

Moments of clarity rarely appear until page 214 and are reserved only for anguishing over mountains of unattended work and a deadline growing closer, despite his best efforts to drink it away. He deals with this stress either by writing furiously for an hour, going out to a bar, or trying to find creative ways to make money — once even dealing drugs.

Allow me to be blunt, I did not care for this book. I’ve never been the kind of traveler who counts getting wasted as a goal and I don’t factor in the procurement of exotic substances on my itineraries. Still, Kohnstamm managed to get what many consider a dream job and devotes at least a chapter to explaining how he arrived there. For that reason, it’s worth taking a look at his career path

How to Write for Lonely Planet

Kohnstamm was born a traveler. His parents were educators and toted him on long summer vacations all over the world. He started traveling independently in his late teens and kept traveling through college.

Beginning in his junior year as a Government and Legal Studies major, he got a job working as a guide for high school students visiting Costa Rica over the summer. It was here that he honed his Spanish fluency, which would lead to his first book.

While visiting his brother in India, Kohnstamm noticed that Lonely Planet had only one phrase book for all of Latin America. On a whim, he fired off an email to the customer service department and asked if they would like a book on Costa Rican phrases. They said yes and in a few weeks, he knocked out the book from an internet café in Tamil Nadu.

This was 1999, Kohnstamm was 23, and the world economy was booming. “I believe that if I were to send a similar email to the customer service department these days, I probably wouldn’t even receive a response, let alone a book deal,” he said.

The book was successful and he was offered a chance to write for Lonely Planet’s guide books, but turned it down and got an MA in Latin American Studies from Stanford. Because he opted to study Portuguese, most of his schooling was paid for by the United States Government.

Flash forward a couple of years. Kohnstamm is turning 27 and working at a glorified data entry job. Fed up with his work, he makes another shot in the dark, emails Lonely Planet, and asks if they would still like to give him a job. Eventually they say yes, he writes a few sample chapters on New York, and gets an assignment to cover a large swath of Brazil’s coast.

Kohnstamm’s story began more than a decade ago and would likely be hard to replicate now, but there are a few things worth mentioning. First, language as a key to travel. If you want to be a global professional, being bilingual or multilingual is almost a requirement. It is one of the biggest holes in my own resume and the reason I’m taking six months off work to go to school in Latin America.

Americans who have spurned learning another language should know that in our modern world, they are competing for jobs against people who have learned to speak several different languages from childhood. There are few skills that so clearly help on an international job application.

The second thing worth noting is the value of long shots and getting your foot in the door. It is unlikely that Kohnstamm would have been picked for the Brazil assignment had he not proved himself with the phrasebook. It is even less likely that he would have been hired to write a phrasebook had he not sent that first email. Lonely Planet might not be responding anymore but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other outlets.

Lastly, his degree in Latin American Studies, how much did that help? A lot, according to Lonely Planet publisher Piers Pickard who said in the Sydney Morning Herald, “The guy’s got a masters in Latin American studies, he actually studied Colombian history and culture as part of that specifically. We thought he was an expert.”

I think the most important thing to take away is that good old-fashioned networking, cold calling, language skills, and education still have value in an industry increasingly focused on hustling your way to the top.

Is It That Bad?

Kohnstamm paints a bleak picture of the travel guide industry. He tells of a Yahoo Group called LPA (Lonely Planet Authors) where current and past writers get together and gripe about massive assignments with little pay.

He recounts advice from the author who covered Brazil before him. “Remember that if you are in your room at night writing, you aren’t doing enough bar research,” he says.

When Kohnstamm tries to trade a camera to cover a hotel bill the owner is shocked. “This is your first time working for Lonely Planet, huh?” The owner explains that all guide-book authors take freebies and that Kohnstamm won’t have to pay for anything.

Those who read this book might decide that all travel writers are a bunch of hacks sacrificing their readers in exchange for freebies. It would be easy to write off the industry as corrupt and full of bottom feeders. But should we really trust the author?

In my mind, Kohnstamm has a major credibility problem. He spends an entire book talking about what a clever liar he is and then asks his readers to believe his allegations.

Kohnstamm writing an exposé of Lonely Planet is like Janet Cooke writing an exposé of the Washington Post. During my reading of the book, I kept a running tab on how much he spent on drugs, alcohol, and women. While it was impossible to give an exact number, it must have been a significant part of his budget. This makes his claim that he didn’t have enough money to do the job suspect at best.

Of course, Lonely Planet is far from blameless in this affair. The most damning evidence comes on the book’s last page. It is a review of Kohnstamm’s work by his supervisor.

“Thomas is an excellent writer and researcher with a deep knowledge of Brazil. This was his first project for LP, and he did a fantastic job. Thomas is a hard worker who’s willing to go the extra mile to make sure his text is right. He added a lot of great new material to the chapters and substantially revised everything that he did decide to retain. He fits well with the LP tone and style, and is a delight to collaborate with…”

To Hell?

I didn’t like the book and I didn’t grow to respect Kohnstamm while reading it. It seemed one part expose, one part confession, with the author walking away far more scathed than Lonely Planet. Though the impact on the guide-book publisher cannot be understated.

While reading Do Travel Writers Go to Hell, I couldn’t help but flip open my copy of Lonely Planet South America On A Shoestring. There, six pages from the cover, was Kohnstamm’s photo along with a little paragraph that said something about his dedication to travel. I closed the book and considered throwing it away.

One thing I will say about Kohnstamm and his book is that it does make a lot of good points about people who treat guide books as a Bible. Thought I don’t trust all the stories in the book, it might be good reading for anyone you know who is overly optimistic about the travel writing industry. Who knows, maybe it will keep more like Kohnstamm from getting into this business.

Further Reading

Lonely Planet’s Official Response

WorldHum Interview with Kohnstamm

Matador Explaining Why This Book Makes People Angry

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