Thursday, 17 April 2008

Scandal in a slightly bigger pond

In his forthcoming book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics and Professional Hedonism, Thomas Kohnstamm, a Lonely Planet author, reveals he didn’t actually travel to some of the countries he wrote guidebooks to. As CNN reported, ‘He plagiarized or made up portions of the popular travel guidebooks and dealt drugs to supplement poor pay.’ He used information supplied by friends who lived in those countries and some he found on the Net. He also accepted free travel, which is against Lonely Planet’s policy.

I have firsthand knowledge of how little travel writers and updaters are paid. I can confirm he wasn’t being greedy.*

His employers panicked and urgently double-checked all his books and didn’t find any inaccuracies.

Lonely Planet isn’t the only travel-guide publisher that panicked after Thomas Kohnstamm’s revelation. They all did. They all reviewed the way their writers and updaters operate, in the hope of being able to say that they worked in a totally truthful way. However, since none of them pays well enough, none of them could issue such a statement. They all cut corners.

When told by an editor (not a million miles away from where I’m sitting) , ‘And you think we double-check the facts of the update at editorial stage? We would only check if a fact looks contradictory or suspicious,’ one boss queried, ‘Why do we proofread, then? And what do copy-editors do?’

This is the editor’s answer.

‘What copy-editors do:

- edit the text while looking constantly at the map to ensure that the text is structured correctly using four or five levels of heading, and that the map matches the text exactly.

- check that any changes made by the updater in one chapter are transferred to other places where they might be relevant such as the architecture chapter, colour section or maps.

- check that the updater has done their job properly, followed the brief and not missed anything out.

- compare the text with competition guides to see what elements are missing, focused on by others or covered unsatisfactorily in the guide.

- edit the text, especially new text, for grammatical and spelling errors and then edit it also to make it read well and flow. Then edit again to length if the book is over or under.

- edit the history, art and architecture sections to make academic information clear to a lay reader. Check that all artistic movements, architects and artists mentioned in the rest of the book are covered generally in an explicatory way here so that the chapter serves as an introduction. Check then that unfamiliar terms in this chapter and the rest of the book are explained in the Glossary of Terms at the back of the book.

- edit the Food and Drink chapter so that all typical types of food and drink mentioned in the guide are explained.

- look out for anomalous facts such as phone numbers that look as if they have a digit missing or websites where the name of a hotel is spelt differently from the name in the text, and check such facts again.

- apply house style to all the practical information such as addresses and opening hours, which must be the same throughout the book and the series otherwise the guide will be unusable.

- study practical sections intelligently to see if they apply to the text they belong to. Rework such sections or request more information e.g. if a getting there section leaves out how to get to a major place or a bus is not mentioned but happens to be mentioned in the running text.

- ensure that listings sections are at the end of text they actually belong to, and that all villages and towns mentioned in the listings boxes are in the same order that they appear in the descriptive text. Ensure that listings sections follow the same order of information throughout the book.

- in [name of imprint] guides, sort out the top five highlights for each chapter and mark them on maps and in the text.

- edit the travel chapter and compare with the travel chapters of other guides to ensure consistency of material and that everything is covered; recheck any discrepancies.

- in [name of imprint]’s case, decide which kind of box to apply to stories and background information.

- brief the author on writing their colour sections and the kinds of themes that would work with the images available or that suit the book.

- edit the colour section and do picture research if necessary, or brief the photographer if not.

- check that foreign languages are set correctly especially those needing special fonts such as Greek, Russian, Turkish, Swedish, Icelandic, Latvian, Polish, Hungarian, Czech. Keep an eye out for adjectives that don't look as if they agree with their nouns and plural verbs with singular nouns in the basic European languages Italian, French and Spanish. Check with a native speaker if in doubt.

- ensure that all scale bars on maps look correct.

- dealing with prices and putting them into ranges.

- questioning whether there is enough information to be genuinely helpful at every point.

- making sure the hotel listings don't read all the same or use the word 'pleasant' or other meaningless adjectives.

- looking out for consistency in foreign proper names that may have English equivalents (Seville/Sevilla, or famous people, or the chosen spelling of Velázquez).

- having to know your Renaissance from your Reconquista, your apse from your apsidum, your quattrocento from your medieval – not in depth, but just enough to spot errors.

- cross-referencing the maps with the text, e.g. in church plans or Roman site plans with keys or for listings in the few books where hotels and restaurants have numbers with blobs on the map and then the updater changes three and every single number has to change in three places but remain correct or it's worse than useless.

- having to do all the cross-references for the text, of which there are around 100 per book, plus all those in the colour section.

- editing the index to see whether it makes logical sense and has the right things in it.

As one does *one* copy-edit (at around 70 pages – 35,000 words – per day) one has to do all this in one go alongside the spelling and grammar, which is why the latter has to come absolutely naturally.

What copy-editors don't do:
Recheck all the facts provided by the author and updater, doubling up on work the company has already paid someone else to do.

What proofreaders do:
Proofread. While doing all the above, the copy-editor will have made typos and errors, not lined up practical information correctly, missed essential bold and italics and will have missed spelling and punctuation errors because they have been trying to do all the above in a matter of a few weeks.’

Slapping bosses who haven’t got a clue what their employees actually do day to day. Especially those who drive around in expensive cars. They don’t live on the same planet as us – lonely or not.

* I know of an editor who went on a two-week trip to Holland once to help an author finish their book quickly: she planned it all out and worked out she had to visit five towns a day. She parked her car, got out, went to the tourist office, picked up leaflets, possibly went to one museum or anything that was brand new, looked around and made a few notes on atmosphere, and then an hour and half later got in her car and went to the next place. She wrote it all up in her hotel room each night. She stopped for ten minutes in small villages. She was paid £1,000 for that trip, and she spent £890 on travel and accommodation and food. That means she earned £7.86 per day.


  1. And for this, what do the copyeditors get paid?

    Bugger. All.

  2. Is that a copy editor speaking, by any chance?

  3. Copy-editors (working in non-fiction, especially) are paid very little for the amount of work they do, but travel writers are paid even less, I think. (I've added a story in support of that.)

  4. Both an occasional "travel" writer and a copy editor. You could say this post speaks to me!

  5. Oh, what happened? I left a comment several days ago: it's gone. Weird.

    You have the worst of both worlds, B. I'm sorry.

  6. Ach, could be worse. Could be working in a call centre.

    Have you cyber-met LoveGermanBooks? I keep meaning to tell you about each other. She's a literary translator too.

  7. I just think travel writers SHOULD go to hell.

    Mind you, if you *enjoy* travel, you're halfway there already!

    I've never seen the point of 'abroad' myself. Does this make me hopelessly something-ist? Except my motives are more along the lines of I don't want to gawp or be a pain in the proverbial not knowing the language/customs etc. And I certainly don't want to treat anyone exotic as 'exotic'. They say travel broadens the mind, but I've seen it NARROW plenty!

  8. I haven't met your friend, B. Wonder what she thinks about translators not being credited.

    Welcome to my blog, TPL. I'm not a great traveller myself. Mostly because I hate flying and sailing, and I have very strict diet requirements, so it's a real pain. And, as Alain de Botton says, you can't get away from yourself anyway.


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