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Guidebooks: An Author Comes Clean ...

Posted by CatBa on 22/4/2008 at 13:35

Posted from within Vietnam.

Guidebooks are not born equal and definitely are not bibles: they are books with tips and anecdotes, not gospel, about various destinations. Often Travellers can be seen slavishly following guides whether for sight-seeing, food or accommodation! Wiser, or more experienced, Travellers use them as a source for ideas or inspiration.

Guidebooks are big business, for some publishers, generating annual income measured in millions. Generally a decent guidebook can't be, nor can be, completely updated annually - if a guidebook is issued annually the chances are that it is neither the best or the most complete, as one outfit proves every year!

Guidebook authors, even teams of authors, simply can't cover a destination country thoroughly on a single year and now one, Thomas Kohnstamm, a Lonely Planet writer, has revealed what goes on - breaking some of the basic rules of indepent advice. LP has slashed employees in recent years and pay their writers a pittance which is, no doubt, a contributing factor in the quest for 'benefits'.

Naturally, Lonely Planet denies all about such writers getting getting free meals, etc.

For years there have been allegations floating around the LP forum about how the LP Thailand guide was allegedly pinched from the original author and re-written by another person whose name appeared on the cover page.

No guidebook is complete, nor accurate, but some are better than the LP and they didn't get free meals or accommodation when recommending hotels. Besides, the LP recommended hotels and eateries are usually overfilled or their prices have increased.

LP, issue 8, lists a laughable 46 hotels for Ha Noi whereas the actual count of Old Quarter hotels is measured in the hundreds and hilariously the LP HCMC list count is 54 - although admitting there are 'hundreds' whereas the real count is nearer 1,000 hotels and guest houses.

You can make up your own minds by checking out: www.thomaskohnstamm.com/index.html, Buzzfeed, www.news.com.au, booklistonline. The BuzzFeed has very interesting links.

So, when deciding on your VietNam, or other destination, guidebook, don't just go out and buy whatever you can find, instead go to your local lending library and check out as many guides as you can find and see which style best suits your intended travels. Then pop on over to a decent bookstore and see if they different books - one might be better.

Often two guides are far better than one that almost suits. The savings in the cost of travel usually far exceeds the costs of two guidebooks.

Better you get upto date information from a forum such as Travelfish, etc, whose income isn't from regurgitating erroneous information annually.

#1 CatBa has been a member since 5/3/2007. Posts: 349

Posted by exacto on 22/4/2008 at 21:45

Many years ago, when Thailand was still a relatively sleeply little travel destination, the Lonely Planet was a solid guide. Even then, however, it seems like Joe C.'s advise was somewhat off about 50 percent of the time once the book finally made it to print.

I think as CatBa says, most travellers do best by using any guidebook as a source of inspiration and ideas rather than a bible. We've taken to doing most of our trip preparation via online internet research, including sites like Travelfish, and carrying an older version of whichever guidebook as a source for maps, opening and closing times of museums, telephone numbers, as well as historical and cultural info. That seems to work.

No guidebook can be all things to all people, and due to the time it takes from the research cycle until publication, they can't always be completely accurate either. Still, if they help create the desire and courage to visit places that we might no otherwise dare to go, then that's a good thing. Cheers.

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Posted by KPTham1 on 23/4/2008 at 00:45

Things changes over time. Years ago, there was only LP and internet was then in its infancy. Now, with internet, no one can has a monopoly over information.

#3 KPTham1 has been a member since 26/9/2006. Posts: 52

Posted by daawgon on 23/4/2008 at 01:21

I would have to agree about guidebooks, but the firstimer does need guidance of some sort. I especially like the online guidebook: http://www.reidontravel.com/home/

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Posted by daawgon on 23/4/2008 at 01:23

I also found this resource recently as I'm looking at Thailand and Burma - click on Indochina for Vietnam:
http://travelindependent.info/asia-southeast.htm#Thailand

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Posted by somtam2000 on 23/4/2008 at 08:49 admin

catBa, I think you'll find the allegations re the content being pinched relate to the Burma title, not the Thailand title, and, in the end, I believe they came to naught.

Personally I wasn't surprised by much of what Kohnstamm had to say -- more just surprised something like this took so long to come out. I do think though, that as long as Lonely Planet persist in saying "When we update our guidebooks, we check every listing, in person, every time." they're setting themselves up for falls like this.

Re Robert's Vietnam website, given he recently described it as a 'a proud swashbuckling tale in money-losing', I'm not sure how likely an update is looking -- still it's a good resource (after Travelfish of course! :-)

#6 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 7,706
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Posted by CatBa on 23/4/2008 at 09:30

Posted from within Vietnam.

SomTam:
I have just rechecked a database that archives some travel chat rooms in real time and can verify that the comments I remarked on above were definitely directed at (and named) Thailand.

The LP moderator jumps on them fairly quickly but they actually permitted quite an extensive chat to persist in their guidebook section about 4 years ago.

It is no longer on-line at LP - I haven't checked Google (which has this item).

#7 CatBa has been a member since 5/3/2007. Posts: 349

Posted by SBE on 23/4/2008 at 13:18

"I do think though, that as long as Lonely Planet persist in saying "When we update our guidebooks, we check every listing, in person, every time." they're setting themselves up for falls like this."

No kidding. I bought the latest Burma before going to Myanmar a few years ago... straight off the press it was. COMPLETELY out of date, a copy of a copy of some parrot that died before 1999. (to quote dear old bmta).

I can't think of a single accommodation write up in that book that was accurate. They slagged off the best place I stayed in on the whole trip (Remember Inn on Inlay Lake) and warmly recommended the worst place I stayed in (The Golden Lily in Kalaw.) In Hispaw they said I'd find it difficult to sleep because there was a clock tower right next to the GH where I stayed ...yeah there is a clock tower there, but it's been out of order and silent for over 10 years.

etc etc.

A guidebook is only as useful as it's accurate. LP needs to spend a LOT more money on research ...and as they still have rather a monopoly on the market they can damned well afford to do it I'd have thought.

They are a bit like some of the guest houses in their own guide books ... they don't bother to keep up standards because they know they will get punters anyway. Hopefully this wee scandal will give them a long needed kick in the pants to get their act together.

#8 SBE has been a member since 14/4/2008. Location: Global Village. Posts: 2,037
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Posted by Tilapia on 24/4/2008 at 05:54

Just to take the "delay between research and publication theme" a step further, when considering the pace of change in a place like Thailand, being current is a near impossibility. Who has gone to Thailand, returned, and not noticed change of some kind? I doubt anyone. How is it possible to keep up on the number of guest houses that opened in the KSR area without living there and scouring every street and soi in the area religiously?

Having said that, I have recently been to places where the info in the LP Thailand 3rd. edition is still fairly relevant, and correspondingly unchanged in the 2nd. last edition, with some exceptions (food and room prices have gone up, obviously). So you know I'm not making this up, I'm talking about Chiang Khan. This leaves me wondering if they actually visited again and found nothing different and just left the info untouched in the book, or if they just took a chance and left it, hoping that someone would either correct them or nobody would notice or care.

The early LP folks certainly did do their homework. Cummings has been everywhere in that country. People in the old guest houses where I used to stay talked pleasantly about him and were very impressed with his Thai. I once met Tony Wheeler as he checked in at every single bike rental place in Thamel in Kathmandu. No kidding ... all of them! The next edition of the Nepal book came out about 3 months later.

Accuracy will always be an issue. I found that my early editions of Nepal, Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya, Thailand, SE Asia on a Shoestring, and Indonesia were all pretty spot-on. I even found my edition of Burma to be very good in places like Hpa-an, Kyaitiyo, Kinpun, Mawlamyaing, and Thaton, but not as accurate (as SBE notes) in places like Inle, Mandalay, Kalaw, and Bagan ... basically, the most popular and fastest growing tourist destinations in the country.

Guides these days are as various as the people who contribute to them. They are far from objective. For the most part they are just personal accounts written with personal biases filled in with encyclopedic info that can be cut and pasted from anywhere. This is not just obvious in what is found in the guides, but also by what is NOT found in the guides. For example Mama, from the Apple and Apple II and short-lived III Guest Houses, was one of the first 10 or 15 guest house operators in the Banglamphoo area in the late 70's. Her places featured in the earlier versions of the LP books, but she's been shut-out in later ones because of a run-in with an LP author. So, personal issues ensured that a great guest house was not listed (and I'm glad for that ... besides, she doesn't need the advertising).

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Posted by CatBa on 24/4/2008 at 07:09

Posted from within Vietnam.

"Her places featured in the earlier versions of the LP books, but she's been shut-out in later ones because of a run-in with an LP author. So, personal issues ensured that a great guest house was not listed (and I'm glad for that ... besides, she doesn't need the advertising)."

This is a sign of a BAD guide. Personal inter-personal feelings should NOT interfere with an evaluation of services offered.

Another reason LP of weakness - no/poor quality control.

One VietNam project I was involved with used team leaders with students to locate targets which were followed up by experienced evaluators and finally, random spot checking - my function.

I found some real jerks (in personality) but who provided first rate services, which is what matters.

The important thing is that there are far better sources of information to some (many?) areas than LP and people new to a destination should realise this.

#10 CatBa has been a member since 5/3/2007. Posts: 349

Posted by SBE on 24/4/2008 at 16:13

Yes letting personal feelings and prejudices influence you is a definite no no but even if you manage to eliminate that, there are still problems.

No review by a paid travel guide researcher is going to be that accurate anyway, because of the time constraints. Mostly reviewers don't even stay one night in the places they write about, yet people base their travel decisions on what they say. Crazy logic.

So, why bother with guidebook researchers at all when it comes to accommodation recommendations? Why not just rely on guest feedback? The problem is that even if you are trying to be as objective as you can, your viewpoint is still going to be heavily influenced by two things....what you already know and the fact you only see what it's like when you were there.

People have different standards based on how experienced a traveller they are. Someone who's only stayed in Western-style hotels before may be horrified that their beach hut consists of just a bed and a mosquito net with a squat toilet and cold-water shower and think it's a total dump. They don't realize that their friendly bungalow outfit actually deserves a top rating because it has exceptionally good quality mattresses compared to other places and the cleanest bathrooms on the whole island. Conversely someone who's used to roughing it on the islands may be over- impressed by a mediocre GH in a town where comfort levels are generally higher. Same thing with prices... you can't really judge whether somewhere is good value for money or extortionately expensive unless you know the going rate for a particular standard of accommodation in a particular locality.

Your opinions can also be influenced by things that have nothing to do with the GH itself... if it poured with rain the whole time you were there then your accommodation review will probably be a bit more negative than it would have been if the weather had been fine.

Professional researchers have knowledge that ordinary tourists don't and vice versa. At the moment professional researchers still have far more clout in travel guides but that may change with the internet.

In my opinion, classic guides are useful for "static" stuff like maps, general geography, culture, food and weather patterns. They are not OK for things that are constantly changing like accommodation options and transport...these things are out of date within months and need very frequent updates. I rely more on good old word of mouth for that kind of stuff nowadays.

On a final note, I really wish that sites like this one would think even more out of the box than they already do and provide basic yet essential travel information that is currently very hard to find online. Eg Providing up to date shipping schedules and domestic airline info would revolutionize the logistics of traveling in countries like Indonesia!

#11 SBE has been a member since 14/4/2008. Location: Global Village. Posts: 2,037
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Posted by fondo on 24/4/2008 at 16:59

Little Tommy is really getting a good start to his 'Kitchen Confidential' style anti-travel guide genre celebrity author life.

The industry is well due for this sort of treatment.

LP has totally lost the plot though, mainly through a complete lack of quality control.

Interestingly, I was doing some research in India a few years ago and identified some copying in LP from an Indian guide to Mysore and Ooty. The consensus on the LP then was that the Indian guidebook must have plagiarised from LP.

What a fantastic audience!

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Posted by somtam2000 on 25/4/2008 at 05:02 admin

This is probably the best piece I've read on the whole affair.

(Found via Carl Parkes)

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Posted by SBE on 25/4/2008 at 17:08

Yes, I loved this bit...

"Be that as it may, the mini-biographies of the contributors often go out of their way to stress the writer's complete lack of relevant experience."

Oh dear. It seems I was completely wrong to assume that guidebooks are written by people who know something about the places they are writing about.

Gets better and better. LOL

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Posted by fondo on 27/4/2008 at 15:27

Yeah, nice coverage.

Why LP insist on calling their compilers/writers/checkers 'authors' has always been beyond me. It's perfectly obvious that plenty of each edition hasn't been written by the currently annointed.

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Posted by somtam2000 on 28/4/2008 at 07:34 admin

Fondo, I think it depends on the book in question.

I know a few LP writers/authors/researchers and in some cases the authors work their backside off and the books are substantially rewritten -- in other cases, they're lazy buggers and text slides past unchanged from one edition to another.

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Posted by Jon_Mak_Mak on 1/5/2008 at 06:46

Got a few LP books (and others) and I have used them alot while travelling but I would sit in a bar on Ko san reading one!

When we went down to Hat Yai (South Thailand) We didnt have a clue were to go from the bus station and I never let a taxi take me anywhere they want so out with the LP. Picked one of the hotels it said was clean and good and got a tuk tuk there.

Asked at the desk how much and the price was about right so we just checked in (we quite often check in a cheap hotel for one night and go check out a few hotels to get a good room for the best price, then we change). The hotel was the oppisite what LP said. It was dark, worn, and not that clean at all. There were cockroaches in the bathroom and the hotel seemed empty!

We checked out the hotel right next door. It was great! Big clean room, light, airy! Im sure LP revewed the wrong one or just didn't visit it in person. Theres no way it changed that much so somthing wasnt right.

Anyway, I still use LP books for (and others) for finding out about places of intrest but I would NOT rely on them (only them) and i wouldn't be out walking with my nose in one.

#17 Jon_Mak_Mak has been a member since 21/2/2007. Location: United Kingdom. Posts: 464
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Posted by Jon_Mak_Mak on 1/5/2008 at 06:48

Wouldn't***** sit in a bar on Ko San reading one!

Shit, lol

Why cant we edit posts?? I should of checked it really.

:)


edit at will.

#18 Jon_Mak_Mak has been a member since 21/2/2007. Location: United Kingdom. Posts: 464
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Posted by SBE on 1/5/2008 at 16:17

Ha! The same thing happened to me in Hat Yai the first time I went there. I've long since thrown away my LP guidebook for Thailand so I can't check the name of the hotel in question... I think it was the Singapore Hotel maybe? A right dump anyway, nothing like the description in the book!

#19 SBE has been a member since 14/4/2008. Location: Global Village. Posts: 2,037
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Posted by tezza on 16/7/2009 at 08:48

Jeez, PLAGIARISM!
As pointed out, nothing new. There is even a pasted and copied version of my little site with another author's name on it.

Joke's on him - like ex-Lonely Planet writer Thomas Kohnstamm, I'm a total goof-off - I get all my travel info eavesdropping in backpacker bars on my 10 hour lay-overs in Sin City during my regular Bleak-Blighty to Jewel-of-the-Pacific flights.

But let's face it, LPs and similar with all their faults are a help to first time travellers - after that we know their shortcomings and use sites like this to get much better more up-to-date stuff

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Posted by smash on 16/7/2009 at 09:01

I'm still going to get the new LP for Vietnam (a) because I don't mind spending the money, (b) I need a new book to flick through and (c) if nothing else, it will be good to continue learning about where I'm going. I find it is good to have/read two sources as they general complement each other quite well.

#21 smash has been a member since 21/6/2009. Posts: 162

Posted by MADMAC on 16/7/2009 at 13:26

That's the great thing about a site like this. You can actually ask people who might have just been there (wherever there is) recently and get up to date information.

I checked travelfishes info on Mukdahan, where I live, and found it to be pretty accurrate (I added some info to it though), as well as other places like Savakhet, NKP, That Phanom and so forth.

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Posted by wanderingcat on 16/7/2009 at 15:49

now that you mention it...there's one tiny thing (bus station location) about the Travelfish map of That Phanom that needs to be updated - somtam2000, where in this site should such updates be posted? if in the forum, it will be buried under tonnes of more recent posts & people referring to the map won't notice it?

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Posted by somtam2000 on 16/7/2009 at 15:49 admin

I sat in on a conversation a couple of weeks ago with a researcher working for a major publisher who been given a month to cover Sumatra, Java, Bali and Lombok in Indonesia - they were spending roughly a week in each -- complete madness.

Should be interesting to see the quality of the finished product.

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Posted by BruceMoon on 18/7/2009 at 15:19

Somtam

I've indicated here that the printed book version of Lonely Planet is better than the rest because it has maps, and a reasonably good directory/compendium of good sightseeing.

I was in Hue some while back, and I was looking at the Vietnam Gov't travel compendium for Vietnam (it was on display for tourists in the foyer). I was surprised how close the contributions - not only the places, but also the language - was to LP. I'm not sure who plagiarised who.

On the subject of Lonely Planet errors, I've often thought there should be a Travelfish Forum post on Travelfish errors. Maybe a sub-link to each page. I know it sounds weird, but such an offering would help readers and LP (they're a lazy bunch of sods, they'd prefer travellers do their work). In the end, it's not about them and us (though it can be) its about helping all to enjoy life better.

Cheers

#25 BruceMoon has been a member since 27/12/2008. Location: Australia. Posts: 1,941

Posted by BruceMoon on 18/7/2009 at 15:26

I wanted to post the above differently to this.

I bought some AirAsia cheapies to London in October, so got LP for Britain. I noted that the pricing of the accommodation was oh, so expensive compared to what I was finding on the net.

I then compared to a previous edition, and started looking at other recent LP publications. Comments above say LP doesn't revisit the entire book. On my SE Asia experiences, I'd agree. yet the accommodation in the latest Britain book is often now quite different to an earlier version. It appears to me that since it has been taken over by BBC, there must have been a directive to lift the recommendations for accommodation and food from the backpacker to (at a minimum) flashpacker.

I'd love some feedback from others on this, as its something I noted.

Cheers

#26 BruceMoon has been a member since 27/12/2008. Location: Australia. Posts: 1,941


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