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Low Pay, Shady Ethics Drive Travel Writers to Speak Out

Guidebooks: Group wants readers to know how undisclosed practices, like taking freebies, can affect a review.


There's an old saying about sausage, laws and newspapers: The product may be useful or even pleasing, but no one with a delicate stomach should ever watch them being made.

Shrewd tourists know this is also true of travel guidebooks. The writers are generally paid little; their data gathering is often dependent on free services from the hotels, restaurants and other companies that they're supposed to be evaluating; and their information is often outdated by the time it reaches bookshelves. But these books are nevertheless usually a traveler's best pre-trip source, more detailed than a newspaper or magazine, more independent than a visitor bureau brochure.

Recognizing all that, and hoping to shine a little light into a long-shadowy area, several veteran members of the Raleigh, N.C.-based Society of American Travel Writers have formed an Institute for Guidebook Writing--really more a committee than an institute so far--and will stage a two-day seminar at SATW's convention in Boise, Idaho, in September. There, several veteran authors will explain to novices the practice and thorny ethics of guidebook-writing. Their larger ambition: to spark a reform in the way guidebooks gather their information (and pay their writers).

"It's a first step." says Herb Hiller, an SATW member and Florida-based freelancer who has been contributing to guidebooks for 11 years. If current practices continue, Hiller suggested in SATW's June newsletter, "it won't be long before the public, urged by the media and the availability of new traveler forums on the Internet, tells the collective guidebook business where it can go."

Until that revolution arrives, readers should consider the following when browsing in the guidebook aisle:

Every series cultivates a distinct audience of its own, such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guides among penny-pinching, globe-encircling backpackers; Blue guides (especially good on architecture and history) and Michelin green guides (which cover attractions well, but say nothing about hotels or restaurants) among the upscale and well-educated. Meanwhile, Eyewitness and Knopf guides stress visuals, and so on, through Frommer's, Fodor's, Fielding, Let's Go, Baedeker's, Moon, Access, Birnbaum's, Berkeley and scores more. By some estimates, travel books are now generating sales of $200 million a year.

"The complaint that I hear most often is that the prices quoted are wrong," says Priscilla Ulene, owner of the Travelers Bookcase on West 3rd Street Street in Los Angeles. The logistics of publishing dictate that a guidebook's information is likely to be at least 8 months old, probably twice that, and perhaps much older. Before you buy any guidebook, look for the publication date.

Money, of course, is an issue too. Though a handful of veteran stars among Lonely Planet's 90-some writers may get $40,000 for a six-month project, the company's U.S. publishing manager, Caroline Liou, estimates that others might get as little as $5,000. Insiders say most other publishers are closer to the latter figure, or below it. Hiller tells of being offered a flat $500 and no expenses--but plenty of freebies--to update an entire guidebook on Jamaica, a project requiring minimally three weeks of morning-to-night site visits on the island.

"How much skill could you have to take that job?" asks Hiller, who turned it down.

Because most publishers employ them on a work-for-hire basis, guidebook writers generally don't share in later royalties. And when a guidebook author signs a contract, the publishers agree to pay a single lump sum, expected to cover both the author's payment and research expenses.

And pressed as they are for time, writers sometimes rely on reports from other travelers or a phone call to update details.

"You do it, and you don't feel good about it. But you rationalize," Hiller confesses.

Then there are freebies. Industry veterans say most guidebook publishers choose to accept complimentary food and lodging (and the appearance of a conflict of interest) rather than pay the potentially prohibitive cost of their writers' expenses. Even Lonely Planet, known throughout the industry for frank information, high standards, relatively generous payments to writers and annual worldwide sales of $20 million, has habits that might surprise readers.

Caroline Liou, the company's U.S. publishing manager, notes that the company bans its authors from accepting free services on the road in exchange for positive reviews, and says the vast majority of the company's 90-some writers take no comps. But those writers are free to accept meals, lodgings and other services, as long as they make no promises. Other publishers follow similar approaches; but looking through their pages, one finds no disclosure of those practices.

"I think the public needs to know that," says Hiller. He suspects freebies will always be part of the way business is done. But as with the other tricks of the trade, he says, "if the public knows and gets a little worked up about it, the publishers will respond."

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053; telephone (213) 237-7845.

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