Do Travel Writers go to Hell? The book that changed my opinions on guide books and blogging

Do Travel Writers go to Hell? by THOMAS KOHNSTAMM

Have you ever thought that being a travel writer is quite possibly the most glamorous and exciting job you could possibly do? A life filled with adventure, excitement and discovery and the chance to travel the world and write about it for some of the best publications would be a dream come true, right?

Well, that’s what I thought too until I read this book. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed it, but it made me realise that being a travel writer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

 

Thomas is a travel writer working on updating the Lonely Planet guide to South America. He begins with good intentions and intends to research every place thoroughly and give honest, unbiased opinions. But a lack of money, time and resources get the better of him. The book provides a hilarious but worrying perspective on writing travel guide books and he thoroughly de-glamorizes the sought after career.

I think that this is probably the best phrase from the book that sums it up perfectly:

“I imagine that the difference between travelling and professional travel writing is like the difference between having sex and working in pornography. While both are still probably fun, being a professional brings many levels of complication to your original interest and will eventually consume your personal life.”

Tom’s gloomy perspective didn’t put me off  writing about my travels and it actually made me realise that there is such a huge need for good quality travel blogs and less and less need for outdated guide books. In the book he ends up taking free accommodation in return for good reviews. He lets people take him out for fancy dinners and he writes guides based on word-of-mouth recommendations over first hand accounts. Of course, this makes a hilarious read as he drunkenly stumbles around South America, but I’m not sure I’d ever trust a guide book in the same way again.

Guide books are great for maps and timetables but for up-to-date opinions and reviews, you can’t beat a travel blog. Travel bloggers don’t have the same deadlines or pressures. We don’t feel the need to review places that we’re not interested in or write gushing reviews about mediocre accommodation. I may be a little biased but, these days, I’d always check out my favourite blogs for destination reviews before I’d buy a Lonely Planet.

If you’re interested in reading about the life of a travel writer you should definitely check out this book or, better still, check out some of my favourite travel bloggers this year!

 Has anyone else read this book or read something that made them realise that travel writing isn’t always the dream career we’d like to think it is?

TheTravelHack

Monica is the founder and editor of The Travel Hack. She began the blog in 2009 when she left the UK to travel around Asia and Australia for two years. She's now a full time blogger and has travelled around the world in search of affordable luxury travel experiences.Monica lives in Wales with her growing family and now also blogs about travelling with young children!

SHOWHIDE Comments (27)
  1. Sounds like a great book to read. It brings back memories of a well known guide book that I read, which mainly concentrated on my adopted home town. The hotel that it recommended was nicknamed Faulty towers by the locals due to their years of listening to holiday makers complaining about it.

    I am with you, travel blogs and independent reviews are the way to go. I always insist with any deals for reviews of products, that the supplier agrees that if I don’t rate it, I pay for their services and they get no post.

    1. That’s a great way to work Natalie and something more bloggers should do. It can be tough to review something when you’re getting it for free but I guess that’s what separates the good bloggers from the ones who just want a freebie!

  2. I couldn’t agree more – when it comes to learning more about a place I’d much rather read an honest blog then a guide book – and the more honest you are the better your blog 🙂 x

  3. Interesting take Monica! I certainly would like to see more great-quality travel blogs out there too! And I certainly agree that they make great trip-planning resources — I use them all the time.

    But I think you have at least one aspect of the blog/guidebook argument backwards, basing it on the experience of one, loud, disgruntled guidebook author. For example, I never took one freebie while updating two dozen LP guidebooks — well occasionally a coffee at a visitor’s center, but NO meals or hotels or tours. And I’m the norm in how, at least Lonely Planet’s, are updated.

    Meanwhile, I find it’s quite the opposite for many many travel bloggers, with many devoting all their coverage to ‘curated’ itineraries set out by PR reps building press trips. The resort, restaurant, chocolate factory picked for them winds up into their stories, and as a check mark for that month’s marketing goals for the destinations.

    Hey, that isn’t always a bad thing. With full disclosure, even this sort of ‘research’ plan for writing can have a use. But I’d argue that way too few bloggers taking such trips use these ‘freebies’ as a springboard for their own independent story of a place. Not all, of course, but some. Too many. This could be that they’re not experienced writers or travelers. I don’t know.

    In the end, you don’t have to use guidebooks anymore. I don’t always use them. But I don’t think you can find any travel writer in the world considers more options of a place than a guidebook author. And I’d say most of them are doing a pretty good job.

    1. Hi Robert, thanks for your comment. I definitely agree that guidebooks are often a great, if not the best, source of information about a destination. It’s also really good to hear that the guy who wrote this book is in the minority and most reviews are genuine.

      Have you read the book? It does paint a pretty poor picture but I guess that’s how it ended up on the shelves. Do you know of any books or blogs that follow a guidebook author who is actually doing it properly because I’d love to read it.

      It’s true that press trips are often very generic and overly structured. There are some great travel bloggers out there who can put an interesting angle on these trips but as they get more common, it is worrying to think that a lot of bloggers will be churning out the same posts week after week. A lot of bloggers have completely different niches and write for different audiences so it isn’t always a problem but it does mean that finding original options are tough.

      It’s exciting to see how the industry is changing and developing and I think that bloggers, guidebook writers and travel writers all have a different part to play.

  4. Monica,
    You hit the nail on the head, good stuff. I occasionally contribute suggestions to travellers on the Thorntree forum of Lonely Planet, it seems that most of the people seeking advice go directly to the forum which has some really expert advisors helping people sort things out. Some “wizard” should come up with a mobile aggregator based upon the GPS coordinates of the traveller. The website/app would attempt to sort out the good stuff from the fluff. Thanks for sharing…

  5. Sounds like a great book Monica! I love travel guides but that’s what I use them as: just a guide because as you say they can be outdated and irrelevant.

    I love travel blogs because they’re more personal and I also use my iPhone while I’m travelling to check out TripAdvisor etc so look at hostel reviews. Definitely good to use more than one source. I way wanna read that book though!

    1. I think it’s good to use a combination. I do like guide books for checking out facts and history and sometimes you can find really unusual things to do. Then, like you say, blogs are great for a personal perspective.

  6. Sounds like an interesting read, Monica. Travel blogs can definitely be a much better resource than guide books. I love that he likens travel writing to working in pornography…oh dear 🙂

    1. Haha, I know. That’s a quote that has stayed with me ever since. Well written and well researched travel blogs are definitely a better resource but it’s tough to find blogs with the same quality as a guidebook. Maybe one day…

  7. Sounds like a great read Monica – you certainly are becoming by favourite book reviewer at the moment. *Must note these down*

    I agree, I use guidebooks to help me roughly map out a route, get the lowdown on local services and outline the main things to see, but mainly it comes down to lots of other reseach – trip advisor, blogs, travel forums, social networks.

    We are literally too spoilt for choice, and of course this overshadows the giant need for a guidebook that once was the ultimate companion of travel. Saying that, I don’t go anywhere witout a Lonely Planet. While I don’t take it as gospel truth, it’s also a comfort thing to know that I have something quick to hand.

    1. That’s so true. A LP is like a comfort blanket while you’re travelling. Even if it isn’t 100% accurate any more you know it will get you through.

      Feeling some pressure to read more books now Beck!

  8. I’d love to give this book a read. While appreciating that it is just one guy’s view of the industry, it might shed some light on why he chose to have the attitude he did. I always thought this would be a dream job, but now I’m not so sure…

    1. I know, this guy put a massive downer on it for me. He made it all seem so mundane but if anything he made me think, ‘Pull yourself together, I could do that!’ So it wasn’t all bad 😉

  9. Yep, I read it a while back, and there’s no doubt Kohnstamm is a great writer. And yet…

    We all kinda know that writing travel guide books, like a life of travel blogging or the reality of a round the world trip, is devolved from the romantic preconception of what it’s going to be like. And that’s probably the same for any profession. I used to be an archaeologist, and I decided to have a crack at it after watching both ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘Time Team’. 😉 Neither was truly representative (no golden idols, dammit. I felt cheated).

    What Kohnstamm seemed to do was do everything he could to widen this gap, and then he wrote about it. He lost faith, then wallowed in misery and completely lost the ability to do his job in a professional manner. In other words, he stopped acting like a Lonely Planet author. Which was probably a living hell for him, the way he described it. And that’s miserable, and yet he totally has the right to write that up. That’s his story.

    But then he uses it as a platform to diss Lonely Planet guide book culture itself. Tiresome, in my opinion – the same as the folk in the popular media who go onto Twitter, see a sea of people tweeting what they have for lunch, and *then blame Twitter itself*. Paul Theroux did the same in interview with Rolf Potts on the subect of blogs, all blogs.

    When you blame the medium and not the people using it, seems to me that the point is utterly missed.

    There are some really talented, dedicated, hard-working people writing LP and other guide books, and they all make sacrifices to do it because it’s not an easy life by their own accounts. (Check out posts on this subject by Leif Pettersen at “Killing Batteries, or Celeste Brash at “Coconut Radio”). It’s not as glamorous as the standard public perception, sure. But they still choose to do it. And they do it in a professional manner – which it to their credit, nobody else’s. And similarly if they were dreadful at their jobs, that’d be on their heads too.

    Have to say, too, I love my LP & RG guide books – not so much as a super-timely reference point (blogs are great to up-to-the-munite info), but as a really thorough grounding before I go travelling. Perfect for research, and for fact-checking afterwards. And they’re usually exceptionally well written too. (In particular, I’m a big fan of the dry, rather English tone of the Rough Guides).

    1. I really enjoyed the book but I did find the wallowing in misery a bit tedious. I think you’re right, if you choose to do something you should do it properly and be professional about it. The book has given me a lot of respect for LP writers though. I always knew it wasn’t all free holidays and champagne but, while I wanted to give this guy a slap for being such a pansy, you can also see that it’s really hard work.

      I’ve just noticed that this guy has probably made a bit of money off the back of this book which basically just talks about how rubbish he was at his job. He’s a clever guy for doing that I’d rather read something more positive.

      Definitely going to check out the Paul Theroux and Rolf Potts interview. Found it here: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/05/paul-theroux-on-blogging-travel-writing-and-three-cups-of-tea/238955/

  10. Sounds like an interesting book. I love my Lonely Planet guidebooks for maps, logistical info, history, info about the sites, etc. But I rarely use them for hotels/hostels, restaurants, bars, or anything like that. For a place to stay, I’d rather read the reviews on whatever booking site I’m using, and for restaurants I’d rather wander around when I’m there and just see what I find.

    1. Same here actually. I love just having a wander and seeing what I stumble across. Sometimes you end up somewhere a bit crappy but that’s part of the fun of being somewhere new. If I’m only in a place for a night or two though I tend to do a bit more research and follow the guidebook so I can tick off the ‘must-sees’.

  11. With guidebooks, I always use them as a start-off point to spark my interest on the history and learn more about the culture and people of the place im visiting.
    For a visual reference on what I’ll be visiting, the internet is my pal. for more indepth info on the history of a destination, wikipedia seems to my old friend with that one! although wikipedia did say that the japanese language is quote ‘related to Hungarian and is gay’…..

    1. Haha, good old Wikipedia. I guess this just shows that we all go to different places for different things when we’re researching travel or actually on the road. It’s good to have all the options we have these days.

  12. Nothing is ever what it’s all cracked up to be 😉

    I saw this book the last time I went around travel area in a bookshop and was intrigued! It sounds entertaining and I might pick it up sometime.

    I think guide books and travel blogs / any information on the Internet can compliment each other well. Guide books are good for a really thorough coverage of a place, especially for some places that are not widely written on the Internet. Blogs are good for direct real-people opinions and experiences, but they’re all over the place and unedited, so you need to dig through the mess a bit.

  13. Great post Monica. I’ve just bought the book so I will let you know my take. I’m not a travel writer, but if I’m looking for reviews and information on a destination I would always pick a blog over a guide book. Things change so quickly these days, so you can’t always rely on a guidebook to give you up to date information.

  14. I haven’t read this, but I’m going to because I authored two guidebooks and it is really, really difficult. They aren’t just good for maps. From my perspective, they’re more inclusive and the fact-checking is way better (author depending of course). I’d only trust a local blogger because even if you visit a place for a week, you don’t really get to know it unless you live there or visit there quite often. Plus, a guidebook has to adhere to some sort of standard. You never know why a blogger picked a certain restaurant. That said, I like both, I do both. I like that I can contact a blogger for advice in real time.

    Guidebook writing can be miserable. I just read Travel Writing 2.0 and the author says it’s the most difficult type of travel writing.

    I had to call 100 or so places in French and track down so much information. I did so many restaurant and hotel reviews in a few weeks. The deadline is short. The pay is not great. But it’s really worthwhile because you get to send tourists to the best places. And you get your name in a book. Can’t wait to read this, thanks for reviewing it.

  15. This book definitely sounds interesting. No, traveling and travel writing aren’t the same. When I was writing guides for Expedia last year, I realized how limited I was in time. Like Thomas, I had to depend on locals for recommendations for places as I couldn’t possibly see and do it all. In some ways, I felt like a failure for doing this. However, it is reality. And it’s all consuming too!

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