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from the hotels, restaurants and other companies that they're supposed to be evaluating; and their information is often outdated by the time it reaches bookshelves.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 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, 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, veteran authors will explain to novices the practice and thorny ethics of guidebook writing. Their larger ambition: to spark a reform in the way writers gather information for guidebooks and the amounts they are paid for their work.
"It's a first step," says Herb Hiller, an SATW member. 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; and 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. 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 Traveler's Bookcase in Los Angeles. The logistics of publishing dictate that a guidebook's information is likely to be at least 8 months old. 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.
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.
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.
Hiller 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."
Pub Date: 8/25/96