Written by Alexandra Alter
In an era plagued by deep fakes and online disinformation campaigns, we still tend to trust what we read in books. But should we?
In the past year alone, errors in books by several high-profile authors — including Naomi Wolf; former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson; historian Jared Diamond; behavioral scientist and “happiness expert” Paul Dolan; and journalist Michael Wolff — have ignited a debate over whether publishers should take more responsibility for the accuracy of their books.
Some authors are hiring independent fact checkers to review their books. A few nonfiction editors at major publishing companies have started including rigorous professional fact-checking in their suite of editorial services.
While in the fallout of each accuracy scandal everyone asks where the fact checkers are, there isn’t broad agreement on who should be paying for what is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process in the low-margin publishing industry.
“The standard line from publishers is, ‘We rely on our authors,’ and, well, that’s not good enough,” said Gabriel Sherman, a journalist who paid two fact checkers $100,000 from his advance for his 2014 book, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” about Roger Ailes and Fox News. “I wish publishers did see the importance of fact-checking as essentially an insurance policy.”
Publishers have long maintained that fact-checking every book would be prohibitively expensive and that the responsibility falls on authors, who hold the copyrights. But in today’s polarized media landscape, that stance appears to be shifting as some publishers privately agree that they should be doing more, particularly when the subject matter is controversial.
“If you’re writing a remotely controversial book, there’s going to be an active audience that’s invested in discrediting it,” said Kyle Pope, the editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. “This notion that books are above the fray, I don’t think it’s going to last.”
Accusations of sloppiness and journalistic malpractice quickly explode on social media. Abramson was pilloried on Twitter by sources and other journalists for mistakes in her book “Merchants of Truth” and for failing to cite source material from other writers. She made corrections and credited sources in the digital version and future print editions.
“I was aware that taking care of all of that was my responsibility as an author,” Abramson said in an interview. “There were mistakes and imperfections and dropped footnotes, and I’m pained by that.”
The stakes have gotten higher as the publishing industry has become increasingly dependent on political tell-alls, memoirs and newsy nonfiction books to drive profits. From 2014 to 2018, revenue for adult nonfiction grew 23 percent while adult fiction fell 10 percent, according to the Association of American Publishers, a trade group.
At the same time, scrutiny of such books is growing. After Wolff in June published “Siege,” his account of volatility inside the Trump administration, journalists highlighted numerous inaccuracies in the book.
Wolff’s publisher, Henry Holt, has stood by his incendiary account.
“While there could be minor copy editing corrections made to the text in future editions, Holt has no plans to alter the author’s reporting or perceptions,” the company said in a statement.
In May, The New York Times Book Review published a blistering review of Diamond’s book “Upheaval.” The reviewer, author Anand Giridharadas, cited mangled facts and what he described as misleading generalizations, and argued that the flaws were emblematic of a systemic lack of fact-checking in publishing.
“Fact checkers are as important as cover designers, as editors,” Giridharadas said in an interview. “It’s not treated as mandatory, and I think it should be.”
In response to an inquiry from The Times, Diamond disputed the characterization of his book as “riddled with errors.”
“Mr. Giridharadas’s claims are variously wrong or deliberately misleading,” he said, adding that “newspapers, not only authors, can be guilty of flagrantly deficient fact-checking.”
Mistakes in books often persist and become magnified, spreading like a genetic mutation as they’re repeated in articles and subsequent books.
In his new book, “Talking to Strangers,” Malcolm Gladwell writes that poets have “far and away the highest suicide rates,” as much as five times the rate for the general population. The statistic struck Andrew Ferguson, a writer for The Atlantic, as odd, so he tracked down its source: a paper that cited a 1993 book by Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychologist who based the finding on suicides among 36 “major British and Irish poets born between 1705 and 1805.” Somehow, a narrow analysis of a few dozen 18th- and 19th-century poets was mistakenly applied to all poets, then amplified in a best-selling book.
When publishers do conduct a factual review, it’s often in response to a crisis. In June, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt postponed the release of Wolf’s “Outrages,” which explores how 19th-century British courts criminalized same-sex relationships, and commissioned independent evaluations from several scholars after questions were raised about the accuracy of her research. The publisher took the unusual and costly step of recalling copies from retailers and pulping them. Wolf has said that she disagrees with the delay and that only a small number of errors must be corrected.
Publishers have manuscripts reviewed by their legal departments to guard against libel and copyright infringement. But that process doesn’t include vetting an author’s research and thesis, and doesn’t always prevent errors or even fraud, as was the case with fabricated memoirs by James Frey, Margaret Seltzer and Holocaust survivor Herman Rosenblat.
The economic realities of commercial publishing — an unpredictable business that often relies on outsize hits and blockbuster authors — make routine fact-checking difficult. Rigorously fact-checking a book-length manuscript, which can involve calling sources and reviewing notes and documents, can cost tens of thousands of dollars, the equivalent of a modest author advance.
“It’s not ideal. I would love to be able to fact-check every book that I publish, but it’s just the reality,” said Morgan Entrekin, publisher and chief executive of Grove Atlantic, which weathered its own scandal over Gay Talese’s book “The Voyeur’s Motel.” “I don’t know what the alternative is, other than to publish fewer books on a different model.”
But a factual controversy can also be costly, driving down sales and, in extreme cases, forcing the publisher to recall and destroy finished copies.
Barry Harbaugh, a senior editor at Amazon Publishing, said the company paid for fact-checking for many of its nonfiction titles.
“A lot of the time we talk about fact-checking in this defensive framework, like when something horribly wrong happens,” Harbaugh said. “But it’s also a way to lay many more hands on a story that’s being sculpted from facts, and it’s qualitatively improving the piece.”
Tim Duggan Books, part of Penguin Random House’s Crown publishing division, provides a stipend for its nonfiction authors to hire fact checkers. The imprint, which was founded in 2014, has attracted some prominent journalists and scholars.
“Part of the nature of the work is to make no assumptions and ask the most basic questions,” said Andy Young, a professional fact checker who has worked with authors published by Tim Duggan Books.
Early in her career, New Yorker writer Susan Orlean was shocked to learn that publishers didn’t vet books for accuracy but couldn’t afford to spend a chunk of her modest advances on fact-checking. For her past two books, “The Library Book,” about a 1986 fire at the Central Library in Los Angeles, and a biography of Rin Tin Tin, Orlean hired fact checkers herself.
“I don’t want a substantial error that changes the meaning of my book, but I also don’t want silly errors,” she said.
Even so, the occasional mistake slips through. After “The Library Book” was published, a firefighter emailed her and said her description of firefighters using oxygen tanks was wrong. They use air tanks, since pure oxygen would explode.
“We corrected it in the next edition,” Orlean said.