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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

More on travel-writing (this is a long one)

This morning my sister pointed me to a very interesting feature article on a confessional memoir by a Lonely Planet researcher called Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? People are asking questions about how thoroughly (and ethically) the guidebooks they use are actually researched, and rightly so. Apparently this writer accepted lots of freebies and engaged in plenty of drugs and sex along the way, and while it’s safe to say most guidebook writers are far more responsible than this guy was, there is a great deal of truth in some of the things he’s saying. This, for example (from the WaPo article, not the memoir itself), is 100% true:

[Kohnstamm] says he’s being criticized because he revealed guidebooks’ dirty little secret: Authors can’t get to every place they’re expected to review because publishers don’t give them enough time or money to do the job properly. So, he says, he was forced to do a “mosaic job,” relying in some cases on information from local contacts, fellow travelers and the Internet.

Even the most responsible guidebook writer has to resort to these tactics. I worked really hard on Moon Ireland, but I still had to rely on secondhand information far more often than I was comfortable with. I’ll elaborate.

First of all, here’s the number 1 rule of guidebook-writing: don’t expect to make any money. You will subsist and that is all. Number 2: taking freebies is unacceptable. I had to accept comps everywhere I went while I was researching Hanging Out in Ireland back in college, because they gave us all of $3500 to research half the country (originally the fee was going to be $2500, but my co-writer held out for more money. Thank goodness for Tom, who was older than I was and far more sensible). My editors encouraged us to accept freebies because otherwise we’d run out of money after two weeks and we were there for five to seven (only five, in my case–can you imagine covering half of Ireland in five weeks? They told me I’d have to do some fudging. Yes, my own editors told me to cut corners.) This was a shoestring guide on a shoestring budget.

Even putting that question of ethics aside, accepting a free meal, room, or tour will not give you an accurate idea of the level of service a typical tourist will receive. You don’t want to say “yeah, this place is great!”, when the owner is actually not a nice person at all, but was only kissing your butt because you’re a guidebook writer.

How do I know this? I’ve admitted I accepted freebies from hostels and restaurants every place I went for Hanging Out, but that’s not how I know. In May 2006 I visited–or attempted to visit–a very upscale B&B (with its own gardens open to the public) off the Ring of Kerry, and was shooed away by the owner, who is hands down the meanest person I have ever encountered in Ireland (though incidentally, she is not Irish). There had been a storm the night before, and the garden was closed because of damages. There was a huge sign saying so, but the gate to the house was open. I drove through the gate and was met on the road by this nasty woman, who demanded I get off her property even when I tried to explain that I was writing for a guidebook and was interested in the B&B. I don’t think she even heard what I was saying, she just kept snarling that the B&B was fully booked and to get out immediately. Let me impress upon you (as if I haven’t already): this woman’s behavior was HORRIBLE and I would discourage anyone from staying at that B&B no matter how luxurious it might be. So imagine my disgust when I opened Lucinda O’Sullivan’s guide to Irish B&Bs and noticed she’d written about just how lovely and kind the proprietor is. Someday I’m going to write Lucinda O’Sullivan and tell her how disappointed I am in her book. (If anyone is interested in knowing which B&B I am talking about, please feel free to email me. I just don’t want to mention it by name and get a pile of angry emails over it.)

Out of necessity, I was doing much of my research during low season, when many B&Bs and restaurants were closed, only open weekends, or whatever. Say I stopped on a weekday night in February at a certain B&B, and the proprietor heartily recommended a restaurant in town. I got to the restaurant and found it was only open on weekends until after Easter. So instead, I had pub grub for dinner–adequate, nothing to write home about–and both the pub (‘steaks, seafood, and paninis, gets the job done’) and the restaurant (‘run by an Irishman and his French wife, Continental cuisine, much loved by locals’) would get write-ups. Other times I could only budget one night in a certain town, but I might need to write up five accommodations. How could I possibly do this without spending five nights in this town? I couldn’t, of course. I might just stop by and have a chat with the proprietor (which would usually turn into a two-hour gab because the lady would be very eager to impress me, so I didn’t do this too often because it would eat into my sightseeing time too much–see, I couldn’t stop by and ask to take a look around without telling them I was writing a guidebook); or, more often, I might hear of a good B&B from other travelers, or other guidebooks, or Trip Advisor, and do as much internet research as I could to be reasonably certain the accommodation was worth recommending. Then I pledged to visit the place and stay there myself for the second edition. That was the absolute best I could do under the time and financial constraints. I’m not happy about it, but at least I know that, since I’m the sole author of Moon Ireland, I can make sure all the info in the new edition is gathered firsthand. I’m going to go through the whole book before the revision process starts and highlight every pub, restaurant, and B&B I need to visit, and then I’m going to do it. This is a big part of why I think the Moon guides are so great–they’re written by only one person, or a team of two, and I believe that higher level of personal responsibility ultimately leads to a more reliable guidebook. Lonely Planet is generally my go-to guide for other locations, but it does bug me sometimes that they don’t delete/update write-ups of accommodations and restaurants that have closed (or moved to another location) years ago.

According to this WaPo article, Moon researchers get above-average advances, and I believe it. Even though I lost money doing this guidebook (for Ireland is the second-most expensive country in Europe), I couldn’t have reasonably expected any more than they gave me–after all, guidebooks have an awfully short shelf life. Mine has been out one year, and already I’ve found several restaurants that have closed in Galway City alone. It’s not an old guidebook, but it’s already out of date (come to think of it, these books are out of date even before they’re published). When I’m in the travel section at Borders looking to plan my next vacation, I always look at the pub dates on the guidebooks I have to choose from. If I were a tourist looking for an Ireland guidebook, I might pick up a 2008 edition of some other guidebook instead of Moon Ireland. (Even so, the 2008 guidebooks are the product of research done in 2006 or early 2007.) What I’m trying to say is, I don’t even think I’m going to earn out on the advance Avalon gave me. The pay is tight because the operation doesn’t float if they pay you a liveable wage.

Tourists should keep all this in mind. But know this: we travel writers may not be perfect, but we’re travelers just like you, so we understand how important a reliable guidebook is in making your vacation a happy one.

1 Comment to More on travel-writing (this is a long one)

  1. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    May 6, 2008 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    Glad I could help! I think like any memoir, this guy sensationalized his life. Note to self: if and when I go to Brazil, do not get the LP guidebook hehe.

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.