Don’t judge a guidebook by its cover: judge it by its author, or, How to choose a guidebook

Last week we wrote the posts Brilliant minds think alike, or, Why so many guidebooks share the same listings: part 1 and part 2, in which Terence and I tried to explain why guidebook reviews don’t always resemble the places they’re written about, and why reviews of a certain place across a number of books might be similar. As if they’re written from the same press release or website, perhaps? We think so.

Eric Daams from Travel Blogs asked: “If buying a guidebook is such a lottery, how can the average consumer, who has never been somewhere before, pick up a book that is actually based in reality, not press release fantasy?”

Well, here’s our advice:

1. Never and we mean NEVER judge a guidebook by the cover: just because the photo is fantastic doesn’t mean the contents are. Think about it. The authors, who have everything to do with the content, have nothing to do with cover. The quality of the cover is no reflection of what’s inside. No matter how cute that baby gorilla looks.

2. Do judge a book by its author: do as much research as you can online about the author before going to the bookstore. Seriously. You’re about to put this person in charge of showing you a good time. You need to make sure they’re qualified, but also make sure you share the same tastes, opinions, likes and dislikes. Read the author’s bio on the publisher’s website or the author’s own website/blog and consider a few things:

The author’s qualifications: does the author have a degree in journalism, communications, writing, media studies, international studies, history, politics and economics, archaeology, social sciences, tourism and hospitality, food and wine, or any other field that has allowed them to develop a) research, writing and analytical skills, and b) relevant knowledge to what they’re writing about?

The author’s local knowledge and connection to the destination: does the author live in the destination, has s/he travelled there frequently, or do they have some special connection to the place? Why? Because the more intimately the author knows the destination – and the destination knows the author! – the less likely they are to be ‘inspired’ by press releases or website blurbs. If they live in the destination they’re going to possess an immense knowledge of the place. But their book is also going be judged by their family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, local travel, tourism and hospitality industry, and the local media, in addition to their publishers and readers, so there’s a high chance their book about their hometown is going to be their best.

The author’s body of work: has the author written on this destination before for the same publisher or others? Look for this info in the author’s bios or google the person. Look not only other books on that destination by the author, but also magazine and newspaper articles. If the author has written a book on Paris, a book on France, and a handful of stories on the place, chances are she/he knows it well. Their book bio might not list work they’ve written for other publishers, so cast your net wide. The more an author has published on a particular place, the less likely they are to resort to press releases and other propaganda: their credibility (and further work opportunities) depend on this destination expertise: getting it right is everything.

The author’s lack of local knowledge: was the author’s guidebook research trip the first trip they ever did to the place? Most authors would never admit this but very occasionally they do. Never buy a book written by an author who had never been to the place before researching the book. Think about it. Would you invite your blogger pal from (Insert country) to (insert your hometown), a place they’d never been, and ask them to show you around and give you hotel, shopping, restaurant, and bar recommendations?

3. Do judge the book by its content: spend 10 minutes reading the book. Start with the introduction, skim a bit of the politics and culture sections, consider the book/music/film lists, read a few hotel and restaurant reviews. So, what are you looking for? Is the writing intelligent, honest, critical, and opinionated? Does the author express a high level of competence in their understanding and knowledge of the place? Are there small insights, details, and observations that could only have been written by someone who’d been to that destination and experienced those places? Or is the writing bland, boring, overly-objective, and banal? OR, is it superficial, silly, gushy, and always super-positive? If it’s the latter two then you have every reason to be suspicious. Lastly…

4. Use this test: If you have been to the destination before, look for a review of a hotel or restaurant you know. Is it in there? Good. Does the review make it sound remotely like the place you know? Even better. If it doesn’t list it or it describes it in a way you don’t recognize, leave the book on the shelf and take a look at another.

What do you think? Have I left anything out? How do you go about choosing your travel guidebooks?

2012-04-26T15:44:07+07:00

About the Author:

Lara Dunston is a Cambodia based Travel & Food Writer and has regular gigs with: The Guardian, CNN, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Feast, Delicious, The Independent, Telegraph, National Geographic Traveler / Traveller, Get Lost, Wanderlust, Travel+Leisure SEA, DestinAsian, AFAR. Read more here.