June 25, 2015

Should publishers be responsible for fact-checking their books?


image via Shutterstock

image via Shutterstock

Unlike magazine articles, books are not routinely fact-checked, and when they are, it’s usually at the initiative (and expense) of the author himself. Copyeditors check basic facts—names, dates, places, matters of consistency—and in some cases publishers will run manuscripts by their legal department if they have any concerns about libel or copyright infringement.

But for the most part, authors are responsible for not being full of shit when they write a book of non-fiction. They sign contracts saying so.

Still, with each publishing season there seems to be a new batch of books that contain varying degrees of factual inaccuracies, and with them new discussions (like this one and this one) of the distinction between “fact” and “truth,” of the fine line between “lying” and “art.”

This is tedious but basically fine with me. Fact checking is extraordinarily expensive, and when a publisher buys a book from an author—in some cases for lots and lots of money—it seems reasonable to expect the author to hold up his end of the bargain.

But one of those lots and lots of money places, Tim Duggan’s imprint at Crown (which is itself a part of Penguin Random House), has announced a “pilot project” to “offer fact-checking as a service paid for by the publisher,” according to Boris Kachka’s report for Vulture.

One agent told Kachka, “What’s interesting about Duggan is that it’s Crown, and they have so much money. No regular publisher could do it. FSG couldn’t do this. I think it’s a luxury.”

Probably a very enticing luxury for some authors—Susan Orlean said that publishers’ disregard for fact-checking “adds one more element to the question of what is it that publishers do to account for their significant take of the cost of a book”—though it’s presumably much less enticing to the many authors who are writing into the genre that Janet Malcolm calls “some kind of hybrid, as yet to be named,” or that David Ulin describes as “reality reconstructed, redefined.”

Fact-checking is a nice thing for a publisher to offer, but I’m not so sure that it should be expected by—or imposed upon—the author.


Taylor Sperry is an editor at Melville House.