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