Accusations Fly Over New Honduras Guidebook

The new edition of Moon Handbooks’ guide to Honduras and the Bay Islands, published in December, already has 49 reviews on Amazon. That’s 15 times more than the previous version of the book. But 39 reviewers gave it a one-star rating, the lowest possible. What happened to warrant such an unusual trashing? Did the author confuse Honduras for an entirely different country?

No – in fact, the writer, Amy E. Robertson, lived in Honduras for nearly five years and co-wrote two earlier Moon guides to the country. It’s safe to say that she knows the place well.

But one hotel owner, Bobby Durette of D&D Brewery (a budget-conscious hotel/hostel/microbrewery in the Lago de Yojoa region), found his listing to be outdated and believed Robertson and Avalon Travel, Moon’s publisher, whiffed on the reporting. He asked his Facebook followers to post low ratings of the book on Amazon. Dozens of them did, calling the book – not just D&D Brewey’s listing – unreliable and disappointing.

Then the author’s supporters rallied by posting five-star reviews (some based on their satisfaction with Robertson’s previous Honduras guides) and tagging the one-star reviews as “unhelpful.” Online democracy at work.

Unfortunately, both sides made too strong and possibly not fully informed accusations about the other for millions of Amazon users to see.Among the negative reviews, one claimed that Roberson “refuses to visit or verify the places and businesses that she critiques so harshly.” On the flip side, another Moon author characterized Durette’s actions as a “vicious smear campaign.”

Durette says, “Our call-to-action was not an impulsive, angry move. It came after weeks of frustration and e-mailing the author back and forth, asking her to correct the mistakes in the online version of her [previous] book, which has yet to be updated. We’ve taken some heat for our call-to-action on our Facebook page, but we still feel we did the right thing.”

We contacted Robertson, Durette and Avalon Travel to get to the bottom of the spat, and in the process learned a few things about guidebooks – and Honduras.

Durette objected to about 20 pieces of information in Robertson’s description of his facility, which spans half a page. Some were matters of characterization or word choice, others factual. Some of the verbiage is unchanged from the 2009 edition of the book, despite the fact that Durette had since bought and renovated the place, he says.

Of the “saggy beds” mentioned in Robertson’s description of D&D, Durette says, “They aren’t ever since I replaced all of them.” Of the statement that only one room has double beds and the rest have two twins: “NONE of my rooms have two twin beds.” Of the mango and coffee brews in rotation: “I’ve never made mango or coffee beer in my life.” Of D&D’s listing as “lakefront lodging”: “We aren’t, and we don’t market that we are lakefront, which leads to unhappy guests arriving.” (The photo at the top of this post is of the Lago do Yojoa region, not D&D Brewery.)

Compounding Durette’s frustration about the errors is that he says his message to Avalon about D&D’s renovation went unanswered. “I believe D&D did contact about the web copy from the previous edition. But reference to his specific complaint was not in the web copy,” says associate publisher Donna Galassi.

Robertson (pictured) acknowledged the errors, but disagrees that she was negligent or sloppy in her reporting. In her account about the romance and realities of guidebook writing, she says she spends hundreds of hours on the ground for each edition. She researched the Lago de Yojoa region in the latter half of 2011, before Durette upgraded the place. Because it had gone downhill under the previous owner, she removed D&D’s “Top Pick” designation in the book.

Robertson says she tried to contact Durette via Facebook for updates on the hotel but didn’t get a reply. She submitted the manuscript in early 2012 and the book was published in December.

Robertson says Avalon will correct its information on D&D Brewery in the digital version of the Honduras guide, due for release this spring.

Amazon didn’t respond to an email asking if it has an algorithm to detect dubious review patterns, but Galassi said, “Amazon typically does not remove reviews and so far they have not done so in this case, either. Avalon Travel did contact Amazon in response to the reviews posted by D&D Facebook friends. Avalon Travel is confident that Amy Robertson did a good job researching and writing her book. We know her to a conscientious, hard-working travel writer.”

So what are the takeaways from this situation that can help travelers?

First, don’t trust a glut of similarly phrased bad reviews on Amazon, Trip Advisor and other user-review sites. The same goes for glowing reviews thin on details of a personal experience and posted by people with only one review to their name. The red flags are obvious. (Yet however plainly dubious a string of bad reviews is, it’s not harmless; the low ratings drag down the average total rating and unfairly push the listing down on the search-results page.)

Remember that there’s a lag time in publishing – even digital publishing – because high-quality research and editing takes time, especially a book on an entire country. Most guidebook authors don’t revisit every place they wrote about in a previous edition; the logistics and cost are unrealistic. It’s also not feasible to constantly update digital editions at this point – Avalon says the technology doesn’t exist. And, hey – mistakes happen. Who hasn’t made several errors on the job? The solution is to check for the most current details online.

Robertson maintains a Facebook page with updates to her Moon Honduras book. That qualifies as going the extra mile. Perhaps other authors do, too. It’s worth checking next time you travel somewhere with a guidebook in hand.

Also check the guidebook publisher’s website for updates. Avalon does not update e-books in real time, but it does make an effort to update information on as necessary – although Galassi says this process has been suspended lately for technology upgrades.

Robertson also articulated a reminder on why guidebooks are still valuable in the Internet age. “In countries where the use of internet for business is not as widespread as it is in the U.S., guidebooks can be especially helpful in leading travelers to places that they might not otherwise find,” she says. Guidebooks are also often written by locals, not visitors, another advantage over many online travel resources.

Lost amid the kerfluffle is that Lago de Yojoa appears to be a beautiful, underrated destination, and D&D Brewery sounds like a terrific place for budget-minded travelers. Hammocks for $3. Cabins for around $30. Hikes to waterfalls. Guided bird-watching tours.

Let’s all be friends and go to Honduras.

[Photo credit: Mixedeyes via Flickr]