Over the weekend, news spread among the vast global network of Lonely Planet travel guide writers that one of their own had gone native.
His name is Thomas Kohnstamm. He worked for Lonely Planet for three straight years, contributing to guidebooks on South America and the Caribbean. Now, at 32, he has written a book of his own, to be published on April 22 by an imprint of Random House. It’s about his experiences as a delinquent travel guide writer who cut every corner because he was so short on time and money.
The main idea, Mr. Kohnstamm explained yesterday, is that “even on a good day, a fair amount of what ends up in a guidebook is arbitrary, and therefore people shouldn’t necessarily treat them as gospel.” The book is called Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? It’s Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, but with tourism.
News of Hell’s imminent release came to the Lonely Planet community directly from the company’s Australia-based CEO Judy Slatyer, who wrote a dramatic letter to the private Lonely Planet Yahoo! group.
“For those who don’t know,” Ms. Slatyer wrote, “Thomas Kohnstamm has written a book … about his somewhat self-indulgent experience working on the previous edition of our Brazil guide. The book’s press release highlights his sexual encounters with a waitress (allegedly resulting in a good review for the restaurant) and his need to deal drugs to supplement his author fee, as well as less titillating complaints against us on unrealistic deadlines, lack of money and lack of support when he was on the road.”
She went on: “Thomas also claims that due to lack of time and money, information in his titles is fictitious or plagiarized, and that he acted against our stated policies and accepted freebies, which compromised his recommendations. … We are now urgently reviewing all current books Thomas contributed to, using authors on the ground and others. If we find that the content has been compromised, we’ll take urgent steps to fix it.”
Ms. Slatyer made Mr. Kohnstamm’s book sound dangerous. Not only that, she implied that it’s an affront to the hard work that her writers around the world are doing.
“This is a shit,” she wrote at the end of her letter. “None of you deserve it, given the effort you put in.”
Mr. Kohnstamm, for his part, doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. “I don’t really consider it to be an exposé at all,” he said of his book. “I think that they need to read the book. I’m not sure what they’re so scared about.” It’s not an assault on guidebooks, he suggested, but more of a wake-up call to travelers imploring them to be a little more intrepid and open-minded.
Mr. Kohnstamm said he has received a dozen letters of support from other Lonely Planet writers who share his grievances.
The big wigs over at Lonely Planet, however, are not so willing to engage him. “We’re not confronting anyone,” said the Todd Sotkiewicz, the company’s U.S. president. “We know that Thomas is going to have to live with himself as a travel writer.”