Off course

Are you confused — baffled even — at the huge selection of travel guides at your local bookstore? As a travel-book author myself, let me say that I feel your pain. Never before have travelers had so many guides from which to choose. And never before have so many of those travel books been so hastily researched and shoddily written.

Blame it on the brutal economics of the publishing business. Once upon a time, guidebooks reflected a writer’s deep knowledge of a country or city. Often they were labors of love. Arthur Frommer really did tour Europe with $5 in his pocket. Bill Dawson began Moon Handbooks by selling mimeographed sheets of information on Thailand to Aussie back-packers for fifty cents a page. Those author-publishers knew their territory first-hand.

Nowadays travel publishing has grown into a huge business and it’s an anonymous crew of hundreds who churn out most guides. As publishers scramble to maximize their shrinking profit margins, they expect editors sitting in New York or London to oversee small armies of writers reporting from a multitude of countries. Those writers often toil for slave wages, but they’re usually the only authority you have that all the myriad phone numbers, addresses and descriptions are accurate. (When I discovered that the publisher planned to do next to no fact-checking on my Fodor’s Around Toronto with Kids guide-book, I hired three researchers at my own expense to make sure that all the details were right.) The upshot of this mass-production system is a proliferating mass of travel guides that repeat the same information, get updated haphazardly and often miss the mark.

How bad is it? Well, one travel writer I know was appalled when he discovered at the last minute that the cover of his guide to Santiago, Chile, was supposed to feature a photo of a church in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. It turns out that the book designer had mixed up the two cities. My friend was able to correct the error, but there’s no guarantee that similar mix-ups won’t happen in the future.

You can’t expect much better when publishers increasingly tend to hire the cheapest help available. Hunter Guides recently offered Vancouver travel writer Michael DeFreitas $3,500 to write an entire book on Cuba. “For $3,500?” he asks. “It would have taken me three months of solid writing. Never mind the research.” He turned down the assignment, but someone else took the offer.

The only way many guidebook authors can fulfill the money-scrunching conditions is — believe it or not — to stay home. Wayne Curtis, the 2002 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year and author of last year’s Frommer’s Guide to Atlantic Canada, scoffs when he’s asked if he’s being nickeled and dimed by publishers. “Nickeled and dimed? That would be a raise in guidebook writing,” he says. “I’m convinced that the only way to turn a profit doing most travel guides is to do a lot of phone updating and to take lazy shortcuts that shortchange the reader.”

Part 1 Part 2

From the April/May 2003 issue.

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