When you read a nonfiction book, do you ever wonder how well it’s been fact-checked? It seems like there’s a schadenfreude-laden new scandal every few years about some book being published with a marvelous error of fact. Most recently, Naomi Wolf’s publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had to cancel publication of her latest book after Wolf found out in the middle of an interview that some of the facts she’d based the entire book on were completely wrong.
Author Emma Copley Eisenberg has a long article in Esquire about her experiences getting a book of hers fact-checked. It also discusses why the vast majority of book publishers foist that task off on the authors rather than doing it themselves as magazines and other short-form media do.
The article is well worth the read. I won’t condense the whole thing here, but fact-checking costs can range from a few thousand into tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the length of the book and whether the fact-checker is paid by the hour or in a lump sum for the whole thing. Compared to the overall cost of publishing a book, this seems like pocket change, but publishers nonetheless prefer to have authors pay for it out of their advances (or their own pockets if they don’t get advances).
Why? It seems to boil down to “because they can get away with it.” And also, book publishers have a key difference from news services and magazines where a mistake reflects upon the organization as a whole. If a news story was factually wrong, it’s usually the news publisher (CBS News, Fox News, etc.) or magazine (Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, etc.) who gets smeared with the error. But if a book ends up having some egregious error, it’s always the author who gets blamed for it, not the publisher. So why should the publisher spend its own money to protect an author’s reputation? Let the author do that themselves.
In practice, many authors try to fact-check their own books, which is just as bad an idea as trying to edit your own book and for the same reason—you often don’t see the errors you make yourself, otherwise you wouldn’t have made them in the first place. Otherwise, like Eisenberg, they bite the bullet and shell out their own money and hope that the fact-checker they hire does a good job.
There are a few publishers that do fund fact-checking themselves, and Eisenberg discusses them in her article. She believes that this is a practice the wider publishing industry should adopt, and I certainly can’t disagree with her. Publishers don’t make people pay for their own editing, and fact-checking is surely just as important to the process in a non-fiction book. Of course, people who go the self-publishing route will already be accustomed to paying for (or skipping) both services.
This may be a time where we need fact-checking more than ever, and yet in some ways even the best fact-checking may not matter. We seem to have reached a point where people seek out only those “facts” they agree with, and anything they don’t like is “fake news.” That may not change no matter how well a book is vetted before publication.
Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com
If you found this post worth reading and want to kick in a buck or two to the author, click here.