Home > Uncategorized > BREAKING NEWS: Lonely Planet’s official response to Memoirgate, aka the Thomas Kohnstamm scandal

BREAKING NEWS: Lonely Planet’s official response to Memoirgate, aka the Thomas Kohnstamm scandal

Thomas Kohnstamm\'s WaterlooAs a Lonely Planet guidebook author myself, I’ve had the opportunity this week to read the opinions of many of the company’s highest-ranking employees (including its CEO, Judy Slatyer) in regards to the recent Memoirgate scandal perpetuated by travel writer Thomas Kohnstamm. (The company maintains a private Yahoo Groups forum, accessible only by current LP guidebook writers and current LP employees/staffers. Kohnstamm’s Memoirgate mess, as I like to call it, has been raising quite a ruckus on the forum for a little under two weeks now.)

And for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, a brief explanation: A former LP author and Rough Guides editor has just had a tell-all memoir published [see image at right]. I haven’t yet had a chance to read the book, although it apparently details the supposed “dark underbelly” of the guidebook industry. In the book, which covers the period of time Kohnstamm spent in Brazil while researching the sixth edition of LP’s guide to that country, he claims to have traded Ecstacy as a way of supplementing his very meager pay; he claims also to have written a positive review of a restaurant where he had sex with a waitress, after-hours and on the top of a dining table.

There’s more: Sometime yesterday or today, Kohnstamm admitted during an interview that he didn’t actually visit Columbia while working on Lonely Planet’s Columbia guide. Here’s his quote, which I took from the Times Online (UK): “They didn’t pay me enough to go to Columbia. I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating — an intern in the Columbian Consulate.”

But here’s the thing: Kohnstamm was never contracted to go to Columbia. That’s because on very rare occasions, Lonely Planet does contract its writers to do “desk jobs”. And in those instances, all the work is done without the writer ever traveling to the country in question. Also of note is that in this particular instance, Kohnstamm was only contracted to update the book’s introductory matter. As Kohnstamm says in a World Hum interview posted today:

“Lonely Planet didn’t expect me to go to Columbia. They knew full well that I wasn’t going. My advance on the work was less than the cost of a flight down to Columbia, so there was no question as to whether I’d be going to Columbia. I was asked to work on the history, culture, environment, food and drink sections.”  

He wasn’t writing about entertainment options or the current tourism infrastructure. And he certainly wasn’t reviewing restaurants, bars or hotels. In other words, Kohnstamm effectively stretched the truth in such a way as to make it appear that he had done something horribly wrong: researching and writing his Columbia content from a futon in San Francisco. But that wasn’t really the case at all, because he knew full well when he took the job that it was, in fact, just a desk job. 

So why in the world, you might be wondering, would a professional writer do such a thing? To me, it’s obvious: The guy embellished a few details here, and he exagerrated a few details there, because he wanted his memoir to sell.

I’ve never met Kohnstamm in person, but a few months ago, when I first learned of his book deal, I exchanged a few back-and-forth emails with him about the nature of the publishing business. I even asked if he would share his agent’s contact information with me, which he kindly did. He seemed intelligent, ambitious and hard-working — just like every other guidebook author I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. I’m sure he’s also media savvy, and is probably well-versed in the machinations of the PR industry. And although his career as a guidebook writer is certainly over, I suspect he’ll have many other options in the weeks and months ahead, if only because his Memoirgate scandal has now been covered in literally every major media outlet in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand. Personally, I’m very curious to see what he’s ultimately going to do with all of this attention, especially considering that so much of the attention was — according to Kohnstamm himself — unwanted.

I’m not going to waste any space by posting links to stories about Memoirgate here, because as is often the case with the mainstream media, most of the news reports filed today all had the same information, more or less. If you’re interested, just do a Google search.

One Memoirgate piece you absolutely should read, however, is the Q&A interview between Kohnstamm and Frank Bures that was posted to World Hum today. And I suppose since I referrenced it in this post’s title, I’ll also link to Lonely Planet’s official response to Memoirgate, which is posted on the company’s website and available for all the world to see. [Comments on this post will be very much appreciated, by the way.]

  1. April 16, 2008 at 11:23 PM

    Let’s try to keep the tone civil, OK? I’m writing here in my personal capacity, in the same way that you’re writing in your personal capacity. Your opinions don’t represent the official views of Lonely Planet, and my opinions don’t represent the official views of Wikitravel Press.

    So, to be perfectly clear here, I think Thomas Kohnstamm is fully responsible for his own actions, and that this little publicity stunt of his is highly unethical. All I’m saying is that it’s too glib to dismiss him as a lone rotten apple, because there are biases in the traditional guidebook publishing model that encourage writers to cut corners and that encourage publishers to look the other way.

    And to clarify how Wikitravel Press operates: yes, contributions to Wikitravel.org the website are accepted from anybody, even anonymously. However, most destinations have regulars who watch over them like hawks and check any changes, with anonymous edits getting even closer scrutiny. Only the best guides are picked for print publication, and those guides are assigned editors who are very familiar with the destination in question (most live in them), take personal responsibility for what goes into print, and are paid royalties in cold hard cash for their efforts.

    As for point 3, Thomas Kohnstamm has himself stated in interviews, repeatedly, that he has never set foot in Colombia. See eg. http://travel.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/travel/news/article3746887.ece . (Whether you’re willing to trust that assertion is, of course, another kettle of fish.)

  2. April 16, 2008 at 4:20 PM

    Hi Jani,

    Thanks again for the comment. I’m afraid you’ve dug yourself into an even deeper hole with this one, though. So in the interest of journalism — you do, after all, operate a website that purports to publish true facts about people, places and things — I’m going have to set you straight.

    1. First of all, you absolutely should have stated your bias in your original comment. I realize, of course, that a blog and a daily newspaper are two very different things, but considering the fact that the argument in question here has to do primarily with journalistic ethics, and considering also that you and I are both journalists, I don’t think there’s any reasonable way you can wriggle your way out of this one. It simply is not proper or ethical to question the ethics or business practices of a travel guide company when you run a competing company, UNLESS you state that bias up front. (Never mind the fact that your company isn’t actually a Lonely Planet competitor. Not even close.)

    2. Alex Robinson, who posted the comment underneath yours, is absolutely correct: You have completely contradicted yourself. I find it almost beyond belief that you would criticise LP for not sending Kohnstamm to Columbia, knowing full well that Kohnstamm was not contributing to any of the book’s sections that would contain opinions. He was contributing only to the sections that would contain facts. You already know this, Jani, and are obviously just trying to fan the flames with a very weak argument. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that you personally operate a travel guide company that relies entirely on anonymous sources for its own content!!! Have you never heard of someone creating a prank Wikipedia page, Jani? It happens all the time. Why? Because the contributors are anonymous! Good God.

    And let me guess: You pay your contributors with good vibes, right?

    3. How on earth do you know that Thomas Kohnstamm has “never even set foot in Columbia,” as you put it? He didn’t visit prior to his LP assignment, true. Nor was he supposed to. But how can you possibly know that he never visited the country before? Answer: You can’t. Here’s another journalism tip for you, Jani: Make sure you always do your own fact-checking before submitting or posting content. That should save you a fair amount of public embarrassment in the future.

  3. Alex Robinson
    April 16, 2008 at 12:19 PM

    Wow, Jani, you are contradicting yourself! You run a guidebook company that never goes to places while trusting amateurs to do the job for you, and you fact check from a desk at home.

    While LP sends multiple professionals (in the case of Columbia) to a location and also hires professionals to fact check from home. How is that not a valid arrangement when it parallels your company except LP send professionals to it’s locations? I think you’ve discredited your own comments.

  4. April 16, 2008 at 11:51 AM

    I don’t doubt that you can write a pretty decent History section without ever sticking your nose out of the library. However, the LP page states that “his contribution was to the introductory chapter covering history, culture, food and drink and environment”, and being somewhat of an obsessive gourmand myself, I find it rather mind-boggling that you’d hire somebody without extensive on the ground experience to write the food and drink section in particular. I could understand hiring somebody to do a “desk job” for a country they used to live in or at least travelled to, but c’mon, Kohnstamm never even set foot in Colombia, and what’s more, LP knew this from day one!

    So I definitely think LP has some complicity here, but lest I appear to slam them too hard, I’ll grant that this can (and has) happened to any traditional guidebook company, where the company is under pressure to do things as cheaply as possible and the editor is under pressure to get his job done as fast as possible. Rolling Stone did a story a while back called “Let’s Go, Or Let’s Not and Say We Did”, telling a similarly sordid saga about a hapless Istanbul writer at one of your competitors.

    I’ll state my own bias here: I happen to run a small guidebook publisher called Wikitravel Press, and we rely 100% on traveler-contributed content, with editors just fact-checking and polishing up the info for publication. This has its own challenges, but at least people writing about places they’ve never been to isn’t one of them. This is not to say that somebody couldn’t try: it’s just that, thanks to the wiki model, the next person to come along who actually knows the place would promptly fix it, and there’s rather less incentive to fake it when you’re not getting paid by the word.

  5. April 16, 2008 at 10:05 AM


    First of all, thanks for the comment. It’s appreciated. And second, I certainly do understand your question — as well as your concern — and the fact of the matter is that I probably should have gone into somewhat greater detail in explaining the situation. The reason I chose not to was two-fold: I absolutely did not want anyone to assume I was sanctioning Thomas Kohnstamm’s behavior, which I’m not. Also, there has been so much news coverage that I didn’t consider it necessary to explain every … last … detail.

    But apparently I was mistaken.

    In fact, my gut instinct is that you probably do understand the difference between a guidebook writer who travels to a country in order to personally examine and review its tourist facilities (hotels, restaurant, bars, etc.), and one who can update a ten-page history section — a section that has already gone through multiple editions, with minor updates taking place in each edition — from home.

    And if you in fact really don’t understand, then you have to think about the average History/Background section that appears in the average Lonely Planet guidebook. I’ll use the 10th edition of Lonely Planet’s Turkey guide as an example, because that was very first LP guidebook project I personally worked on.

    The History section in “Turkey 10” starts on page 30 and ends on page 44, for a total of 15 history pages. Fifteen pages! And we’re talking about a civilization that has existed for approximately 7,500 years before the supposed birth of Christ, Jani. So why only 15 pages? Well, the answer to that question lies in the fact that Lonely Planet’s “Turkey 10” is not a history book — it’s a travel guidebook. It is therefore meant to guide travelers. Naturally, of course, any curious and intelligent traveler to Turkey will likely have some sort of interest in the history of the civilization they are now living amongst. And yet after nearly 35 consecutive years of selling literally thousands and thousands of the world’s most popular guidebooks, Lonely Planet has obviously learned that 15 pages of history in a book the size of “Turkey 10” — which is 724 pages long, by the way — is quite enough to satisfy their average reader.

    Moving right along.

    I’m sure you can also understand, Jani, that when nearly 10,000 years of human history is condensed into 15 pages, there’s a pretty good chance that a thing or two will be left out. I don’t mean to come across as condescending, Jani. I only mean to emphasize the fact that even though the majority of LP guidebooks are updated every two years, the history sections in even the youngest of countries — yes, even the United States — are barely changed from one edition to the next. Why is that? I’m sure you’ve figured it out by now: It’s because when updating a given guidebook’s history section, we only add the most pivotal and determining events that have taken place during the past two years of the country in question. (Or the past three years, if that particular guidebook is updated only every three years, and so on.) Events that anyone, Jani, who regularly reads a decent newspaper will probably know about. Or in the case of slightly more obscure countries, events that anyone with even the most cursory amount of knowledge about the country in question will probably know about.

    It doesn’t require a trip to Turkey, for instance, for a guidebook writer to know that a devastating earthquake took place in Istanbul in the summer of 1999. It probably does require, however, that the guidebook writer have a decent store of knowledge about the history of the country that he or she has been assigned to write about, so as to better put that country’s more recent events into a context that LP’s readers can relate to, and therefore better understand themselves.

    And in the case of Thomas Kohnstamm and the Columbia guidebook, I repeat the quote listed in Crusty’s comment, above: “The guy’s got a Master’s in Latin American studies. He actually studied Columbian history and culture as part of that specifically. We thought we was an expert. Two other authors were paid on that book to go to Columbia and they did.”


  6. crusty
    April 16, 2008 at 2:11 AM

    Jani, here’s a quote from LP publishing manager: “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.

    “Two other authors were paid on that book to go to Colombia and they did.”

  7. April 16, 2008 at 1:49 AM

    ” But here’s the thing: Kohnstamm was never contracted to go to Columbia. That’s because on very rare occasions, Lonely Planet does contract its writers to do “desk jobs”. And in those instances, all the work is done without the writer ever traveling to the country in question. ”

    In other words, it’s actually Lonely Planet corporate policy to hire people to write guidebooks to places they’re not familiar with!? Quite frankly, that sounds a lot more worrisome than a single rogue author.

  8. April 15, 2008 at 12:37 PM

    Hi Dan,

    I personally am miffed about the whole thing (for the record, I too am an occasional Lonely Planet author). I’ve been getting into astronomy lately and there’s this saying in science: If you don’t want to/can’t come up with a new discovery the way to get famous is to puncture a longstanding theory. In other words, attack the good name/idea of someone else.

    I think he lied about lying–in other words, yes, he greased the truth about how carefree and fun-loving his research trips were to make the trips read more Hunter S. Thompson-like. I just read his interview over at World Hum, and to me, it was deception on top of deception. So, now he’s backing off of his lies about lying, but when you look at the book cover closely (a beautiful woman writing his notes for him while he gets soused) it’s pretty clear the story the book is trying to tell. I’m next to certain that he approved that cover (I did when I wrote a book that was more narrative-based for Arsenal Pulp Press). So, although we can parse the details, I think the overall story he’s trying to tell is pretty clear.

    So, yeah, he’s surprised that people care that the one thing they trust the most on the road (rightly or wrongly, but mostly rightly, I’d say) was compromised. I can tell you, when I was in Vietnam the last time I understood–really–the importance of a guidebook. I noticed that everyone, including myself, was walking around with the pages open to the maps–I understood that guidebooks, and especially the map sections, center us, mentally, in a strange place. Yes, it’s a security blanket, to start, but hopefully after a few hours/a day, after people get situated–physically, mentally, and spiritually (in the sense that we are more than the sum of our mental and physical parts)–they put aside the guidebooks and explore on their own. But, with the help of a thoroughly researched guidebook, they’ve crunched the learning curve that every new place presents. Yes, if we had unlimited time guidebooks would be silly, but we don’t, and if I”m in Cairo for three days I might not want to spend my first 12 hours finding out where most of the hotels are and then researching them one by one.

    Travelers are paying you and I Dan, as LP writers, to do what they don’t have time or inclination to do (isn’t that all labor, really?). Here’s a good article about this idea: http://www.slate.com/id/2163727/

    So, I can understand why people feel ripped off. Travelers pay us to be honest, trustworthy, and thorough. Thomas, no matter what the “real” story might be, is apparently none of those things, or, not enough. My dad had a good line: Not only should we avoid impropriety, we should avoid even the appearance of impropriety–because the second often leads to the first.

    Anyway, that’s my rant.


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