Why professional travel writers are important

Travel writers in the Vassari Corridor, Florence
They certainly don't feel important right now.

Self-esteem is very low as they are attacked from all sides. Their fees have been slashed and burned by publishers who by & large treat them like shit and demand all rights in perpetuity... plus free photos too.

And they get no support from anyone else, just derision and contempt poured down on a pack of 'miserable whinging freeloaders'.

But I was struck by something a traditional travel writer, John Ruler, told me last night. He is writing a guidebook on northern France and he spent yesterday pouring over maps of the area and making phone calls to France.

"The maps show the main road up to Douai as the N43, but when I was there I wrote it in my notebook as the D943 from the signage". His perseverance paid off. A contact in the regional government tourist office explained that a few months ago the French government handed over responsibility for main roads to the department so now the Route 'N'ational had become a Route 'D'epartmental.

"Even if you look at a Google map, which you'd think would be up to date, it still shows it as the N43", he said. "Unless I'd been there and driven that road, I wouldn't have known".

"The Internet is a wonderful thing", he said, "but you can't rely on it. Take restaurants, especially French restaurants. They all have websites full of stylish graphics and glamorous photos. They'll tell you about their food and their chefs, but they often won't tell you their opening hours".

As I listened, I was struck by the contrast with experiences that are often recounted by other BGTW members in our private forum. (So I can't wholly reproduce them, or identify the authors, but I can describe some of the points they make.)

One recent thread was started by a travel writer who is revising a guidebook and was stunned to find the original author, or last person to revise it, had simply copied word for word text from a website about certain attractions, hotels and restaurants. "Not only that", she writes,"but they state that a town is in a place where it isn't - it's about a mile inland and not on the coast. As a result, the accompanying map has restaurants whose location is marked in the wrong place!"

Another guidebook writer suggests it might be the other way around - the website copied the text from the book. That's happened to him several times. "...and those are only the websites that I've discovered", he writes, "almost always by chance. There are probably dozens more out there who think it's OK to copy and paste my text (and maps) onto their own pages".

A third described recently updating a city guide and finding a bar listed that had been closed in the mid-nineties, before the first edition of the guide had even been published. "The original author was presumably relying on his own old information about the city and hadn't checked it for this new guide. What is worse, the guide had allegedly been updated several times since it was first published, and not one of the updaters had deleted this bar from the listings."

A fourth points out that it is not just writers missing errors because they haven't been to the destination. There are the editors who think they know best and correct the writer's copy because they've read something different elsewhere.

"I've had this happen to me on numerous occasions", she writes. "I've painstakingly researched things, an editor has come along, read something in another guide and rewritten it without reference back to me. Sometimes I get to correct it again at proof stage, sometimes it goes straight to press without me seeing it. In one howler they decided I'd muddled up left and right and set my gentle stroll round a lake, off on a 40 km route march through the mountains!"

She goes on to point out that, "having done proper research for the first edition, an increasing number of publishers are asking us to cut corners, to the extent of not paying for trips and relying on web-based updates - meaning updates based on improperly and unreliably updated versions of plagiarised material based on the first edition of the same book...And they wonder why the industry is in trouble!"

The state of the guidebook industry is picked up in several threads, including one started yesterday about a guidebook publisher that is cutting jobs in London and building up their publishing base in Delhi. The post author makes it clear that he doesn't want to tar all Indian editors and writers with the same brush but he has had bad experiences "with some Indian packaging companies, whose rates are even lower than those in the UK, and whose standards, in my experience, have been abysmal".

"A year or so ago I was asked to verify a guide to Athens that had been commissioned and written in India. After a few pages I saw how awful it was, and that the author had clearly never been to Athens, and was even less familiar with the English language. It was written in a kind of 1920s English. The editor read the manuscript and agreed it had to be totally rewritten or it would have made them a laughing stock. Luckily I was free to do it and it paid well – they had to pay as it was about to go to the printer and the entire series would have been compromised".

That's why professional travel writers are important.

...unless, of course you don't care about quality.

The writer who discovered the city bar that had been closed for over ten years points out that, presumably, in all that time not one reader complained, or the publisher would have picked up on the error. Maybe publishers moving towards the 'pay shit/get shit' business model think that the public aren't bothered about accuracy.

What do you think?


David Atkinson said…
It's easy to be all doom and gloom at the moment. There are many good reasons to feel downcast. But I do think that quality will alwyas rise to the top and professional writers who stick with it, do a professional job and take it seriously for the long term will always find an outlet - in print or online. Lots of freelancers are probably cashing in their chips right now and taking other jobs. I don't blame them. But some of us still have staying power and look to the future. Even if we're changing our working habits along the way.
Matthew Teller said…
Bravo! Well said, Alastair. Couldn't agree more. Nobody (in their right mind) would trust user-generated content in, say, financial journalism, or sports journalism, or political journalism, or technology journalism - because they know that only professionals deal in high finance, or make a living following sport, or get wrapped up in politics, or have access to cutting-edge technology.

But everybody goes on holiday... so suddenly everybody is a travel writer.

No, they're not!

As the industry gets more and more squeezed from the top and distorted from the grassroots, the difference between professional travel writers and people who can bang out a few lines about what they did on their holidays will - I believe - start to become more and more clear...

Matthew Teller
the idle poor said…
Hear Hear! Nice post Alastair.
Salt E C Dog said…
So So True

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