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Who's guiding the guidebooks?

Savvy travelers check the fine print to determine whether writers know the stuff of which they write.

By HERB MILLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2000


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[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]
Ten years ago when I served as area editor of Fodor's Florida guide, I was offered the opportunity to update a guidebook on Jamaica. I knew Jamaica well. As a former cruise line vice president and later as executive director of the Caribbean Travel Association, I had logged more than 70 trips to Jamaica.

I figured the update job at three weeks, maximum.

The publisher's offer: $500, and I would have to pay my own expenses.

I turned the offer down, though of course somebody was willing.

The question is, who?

Was it anyone ready to work up to 12-hour days for two to three weeks for $500? Was it anyone competent at all?

That question of competence becomes critical when you need a guidebook.

Even when you already know where you're traveling, you are likely to find dozens of books on store shelves and wish there were a guide to the guidebooks.

But guidebooks rarely get noticed.

Newspapers and magazines publish infrequent reviews, although National Geographic Traveler broke the mold in its January/February issue this year by comparing 16 guidebooks to France and then commenting on 21 additional series.

Among the big online sellers, Amazon.com reviews the most titles but these reviews mainly enthuse about what's good, instead of providing helpful critiques.

No authoritative standard exists for guidebook authors or publishers. There is no guild. Guidebookwriters.com has banded a hundred or so top writers together but its objective is self-marketing its research to individual travelers. The members do not set standards.

So how do you check out authorial competence? The place to start is up front -- in the book you are looking at, the stuff before the actual guiding begins.

Consider Lonely Planet's Florida guide. Authors Nick and Corinna Selby have produced Lonely Planet's usual good read. They are brilliant on everything they cover, from the Everglades and Palm Beach history to the South Beach night scene and the roadside whirligig man along U.S. 17 in north Volusia County.

Yet though the Selbys take South Florida history seriously, the book ignores Lake Wales and Bok Tower Gardens, Ocala and thoroughbred ranching. Nothing at all about Tarpon Springs or Destin. Nothing about Lake Okeechobee as a destination or the Panhandle away from the Gulf Coast. The book says nothing about DeLand as houseboating capital of Florida -- the sort of tip a visitor might build into a vacation.

Why all the exclusions? Maybe the job was rushed or space was tight, though this book is unusually large at 615 pages.

But more to the point, read the authors' biographies, which appear in the front: The Selbys live in Europe; their Florida credentials are tinsel thin.

Even the most-skilled guidebook practitioner cannot fathom a place and credibly guide others there without immersion. Outsiders rarely get perspective right. Extent of coverage and detail become equally suspect.

But, as mentioned above, guidebook work rarely pays enough to allow an itinerant writer the time to dig in.

LESSON NO. 1 for the consumer: Does the author live in the place or otherwise connect deeply with it?

Tom Brosnahan, for example, who for 23 years wrote the Frommer Guide to Turkey and since 1982 has covered Turkey for Lonely Planet, may live in Concord, Mass. But he spent 21/2 years in the Peace Corps in Turkey, speaks fluent Turkish and returns to the country at least every two years.

Publishers proud of their author's credentials highlight them up front or on the back cover. Look for this.

You will see in A Paddler's Guide to Everglades National Park, newly published by The University Press of Florida, that author Johnny Molloy is an outdoors writer and adventurer based in Knoxville, Tenn., with years of paddling in the Everglades, "logging trips of two hours and up to two weeks (and in) writing this book, he paddled over 500 miles in one season."

Similarly, the Compass Guide to Florida lists author Chelle Koster Walton's several Florida books, cites her Florida freelance credentials and her 17 years as a Florida resident.

You can learn more by having your store check Books In Print for other books an author has published on a given destination.

The guidebook field is notorious for writers who accept free accommodations while doing their work. Publishers' refusal to pay research expenses almost guarantees this. Authors insist their objectivity remains uncompromised but seldom acknowledge this freebie practice in the pages of their books.

The worst abuse of objectivity shows up in bed-and-breakfast books, where B&B owners often pay to get reviewed. That's how the late Norman Simpson put together the granddaddy of B&B books, Country Inns & Back Roads. The read was always charming and accurate. But then, Simpson only wrote about places he liked, while loads of others, equally good, went unreviewed.

Bernice Chesler, author of Bed and Breakfast in New England, publicly defended her charge of $125 per listing as a "processing fee," in a Boston Sunday Globe report a few years back:

"What difference does it make as long as it's true?" she asked.

Still other guidebooks accept ads, which may skew coverage.

LESSON NO. 2: If at all in doubt, e-mail the publisher and ask whether any source identified in the book has had to pay to be included.

These practices by writers and publishers go hand in hand with over-dependence on official sources.

So check an author's acknowledgments: If writers are chiefly beholden to people from tourist offices, they are more likely to rely on official viewpoints and on media handouts instead of first-hand observations. This suggests the book may not be authoritative or critical as it ought to be.

Instead, look among the acknowledgments for historians, preservationists, naturalists and other folks whose advice would more likely be free of promotional taint. This suggests the author made contacts and personally checked things out.

No official tourism acknowledgments appear in Arthur Frommer's book on Branson, Mo., a book he called a guide to "what's good and what's bad." While praising the music shows and general affordability of the Missouri music capital, Frommer, different from other writers about Branson, wrote about what he called "right-wing excess (coupled with) political and religious proselytizing."

It is easy to believe that this kind of book would be equally forthright in its lodging and restaurant reviews. It was, yet advertising coupons appeared in the back of the book.

LESSON NO. 3: Work Web sites against guidebooks.

Countless destinations and hotel chains have their own Web sites, but that means they are serving themselves by posting that information. Now publishers increasingly lay out their wares online: Rough Guides was first to provide entire books this way. Lonely Planet supplies generous excerpts. Fodor's lets you organize your own "mini-guides" from a menu of hotel and restaurant offerings.

Check the destination Web sites against what guidebook authors say (online if you can, otherwise in print).

Also, compare what different authors say on the same topic -- or whether they say anything at all.

Some guidebooks, like the Fodor's and Frommer series, detail hotel rooms to the color of bedcovers and art on the wall, and three or four entrees in restaurants. Other guide series, such as Insight Guides, relegate places to sleep and eat to the back of the book. Insight prefers that listings include only places in business a long time. That is meant to improve the odds that these hotels and restaurants will still be there when you come by with the book in hand.

Years can pass before Insight updates its lavishly photographed books. But these books are largely essays, written for background by informed locals.

LESSON NO. 4: Know what kind of information you are looking for and then buy what best suits you, which could be one for readable background and another for informational detail.

Paul Glassman, editor of Passport Press, who for years divided his residence between Central America and Montreal and has authored books about both, cautions book buyers to look for mistakes in foreign-language terms. Glassman says these tip off unfamiliarity with the territory.

On the other hand, sudden change in writing style or point of view indicates plagiarism or outdated information, he says, "to the degree not masked by editors."

LESSON NO. 5: Do read sections of the book you're holding in your hand before buying it. At least see if the book covers what you know to be there -- and how well it does that.

Guidebook writer Connie Emerson, who lives in Reno, Nevada, and has written three books about Nevada, cautions readers not to assume a book is up to date just because it is in a well-known series.

To the contrary, Emerson says, "Those are the guides most likely to be carelessly updated by underpaid researchers."

That reminded me of a writer updating a book for a major series who once called me about a restaurant she was not going to visit herself. When asked why, she said the job did not pay enough to justify revisiting all the places originally listed.

One reason for the great rush to the Net for travel information is that it's more likely to be up to date than print.

When I wrote for Fodor's, material had to be turned in by February for books that would bear the following year's date. That meant starting the update around October or November, a year before the book appeared in stores.

Rough Guides keeps its books up-to-date electronically with letters from user-travelers. But Lonely Planet online outdoes the competition with its so-called Upgrades. These author-written reports detail changes in everything from politics and environment to travel safety and currency exchange rates since the previous edition of the relevant guide. The reports are quick journalistic reads, invaluable as updates -- and they are free.

But at least Fodor's, like Frommer's, updates most books yearly. Few other series do. Tired information can go on misleading for years.

Case in point: The Insiders Guide to Florida's Great Northwest lingers on the shelves of at least some Barnes & Noble stores though its publication date is 1995.

Finally, with most of us spending big money on travel these days, $20 for a guidebook is a bargain for getting the most out of it. But research the books thoroughly. Then buy two, three or four among what look like the best. Take the trip, see how the books perform. Guide yourself accordingly when you are back at the store.

* * *

-- A Florida resident since 1958 and longtime Florida traveler, Herb Hiller is completing Florida Inside Out: A Guide to the Clouding Sunshine State, due out in 2001 from Moon Travel Handbooks. He is chairman of the Society of American Travel Writers' Institute for Guidebook Writing. You may contact Hiller by phone at (904) 467-8223 or by e-mail to hiller@gbso.net.

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