Service of Whose Job is it Anyway? Fact Checking a Nonfiction Book

June 13th, 2019

Categories: Authors, Books, Facts, Fake, Nonfiction

Photo: arstechnica.com

Writing a book is daunting. Grasping the tremendous amount of information often gathered over many years and then wrapping it in the coherent and engaging form of a nonfiction book leaves me in awe and admiration of authors. Writing is just the second of many essential steps.

Lynn Neary wrote “Checking Facts in NonFiction,” a transcript of an NPR program I heard on Weekend Edition Saturday. “Authors, not publishers, are responsible for the accuracy of nonfiction books. Every now and then a controversy over a high-profile book provokes discussion about whether that policy should change.” Fact checking is in an author’s contract with the publisher.

Photo: phys.org.

The controversy Neary mentioned involved feminist author Naomi Wolf’s latest book Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love. Matthew Sweet, the host of a BBC 3 podcast “Free Thinking,” said in an interview “I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.” According to Neary, The New York Times joined the fray adding that she’d also made errors in previous books.

An author/journalist friend wrote me in an email: “It’s a privilege to be an author and it’s also a responsibility. We’re human and mistakes are unavoidable…and it sure would be nice if publishers were willing to pick up the tab for fact-checking. But at this point, they’re not, and I think there is a level of due diligence where you are responsible for either hiring a fact-checker or putting in the long, tedious hours to do it yourself.”

Photo: phys.org

Neary reported that Maryn McKenna “paid $10,000 to have someone check the facts in her last book ‘Big Chicken.’” McKenna concentrates on science and health. Best-selling authors like Wolf– and another author caught with errors, Jared Diamond who wrote “Upheaval”–can afford to pay fact checkers McKenna told Neary.

McKenna said “It really makes one wonder whether accuracy, as a value, is something that’s really top of mind for publishers or whether there’s a separate calculation going on about sales volume that accuracy and veracity doesn’t really intersect with.”

My author/journalist friend, who did her own fact checking for her fifth book—it was nonfiction–added: “I also asked a leading neonatologist to read the whole manuscript so he could tell me what I got wrong, and he very generously pointed out my errors so I could correct them before the book went to press. I’m sure there are still mistakes in there somewhere–there was so much conflicting source material and as a journalist there’s also a point where you need to make your best judgment. (For instance, newspaper eyewitness accounts of the same event on the same day conflicted, which I explained in the end notes.)”

The author/journalist added: “I was terrified of making mistakes and agonized over details. So while this opinion might come back to bite me, my feeling is that there was a level of sloppiness in Wolf’s book that’s troubling.”

Photo: pediaa.com

Neary wrote: “Money, says literary agent Chris Parris-Lamb, is the main reason writers don’t get their books fact-checked.” Parris-Lamb told her “I would like to see every book fact-checked, and I want to see publishers provide the resources for authors to hire fact-checkers.” Neary said: “Parris-Lamb sympathizes with writers, but he doesn’t expect publishers will start paying for fact-checking anytime soon because, in the end, he says, the author has more to lose than the publisher.”

Do you read nonfiction? Do you assume the information in the biographies, history, memoirs, journals and commentary you read is accurate? Does a sloppy research job feed the fake news monster? Given the state of book publishing today, what if anything do you think will inspire publishers to step up and pay for fact checking?

Photo: prowritingaid.com

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5 Responses to “Service of Whose Job is it Anyway? Fact Checking a Nonfiction Book”

  1. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Debbie wrote on Facebook: I’ve been reading lots of nonfiction. I feel extensive research and fact ckg went into what I’ve read.

    Books relying on “witness” accounts of things have a personal skew which must be taken with a bit of either skepticism or room for more info on the subject.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Debbie,

    My author/journalist friend addressed your point when she wrote “I’m sure there are still mistakes in there somewhere–there was so much conflicting source material and as a journalist there’s also a point where you need to make your best judgment. (For instance, newspaper eyewitness accounts of the same event on the same day conflicted, which I explained in the end notes.)”

    Paying someone to fact check is costly as noted in the post which is why some authors, as she does, do it themselves and others skip the step. Perhaps publishers and authors could meet in the middle and split the cost of this crucial element for nonfiction books.

  3. ASK Said:

    The Times of London’s book critic savaged the Wolf book and Wolf in an interview. It’s hard for me to believe she even checked the source material… but then I heard her speak at an editors’ conference when she came out with her first book and was not impressed…She’s always appeared to me to be someone who jumped on the bandwagon. For people like that, any publicity is good publicity.

    And I don’t believe publishers should pay for factchecking. If a writer, particularly of non-fiction, is going to set him- or herself up as an expert or present a serious examination of a certain issue or issues, he or she needs to investigate the question fully, else why should we as readers consider their words important or meaningful…That writer needs to know MORE than the factchecker…

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    ASK,

    Fascinating that you have insight on Ms. Wolf. Your instinct appears to have been spot on.

    Some rely on researchers to gather material and conduct interviews so that the information is only as good as the person trusted with this task–plus typos happen. [I sometimes shudder when I re-read the simplest post or press release in the morning. Paragraphs that seemed crystal clear the night before elicit a big “huh?” from me. A misplaced modifier or poorly constructed sentence is so easily misinterpreted.]

    True the buck stops with the author.

    When at Art & Antiques I interviewed the owner of a fine collection of ancient Chinese sculpture a few days before a photo shoot at her home. It happened that visiting at the same time was a specialist on the topic. He heard her giving me a tour and whispered to me when she was out of the room to take good care of my quotes as this owner knew nothing about the collection that was her husband’s. She’d shared some exotic reason why so many of the legs of the ceramic horses were broken, for example. The expert said that they broke because they were thin and tended to break easily over centuries–nothing more. I don’t even recall her fantasy reason, but could see how easily such a myth could creep into a photo caption and then into the world because her version was so much more colorful. Perhaps she got it from a salesman/antiques dealer?

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    I read nonfiction on untimely issues, such as what went on during late XVth Century Medici vs. Borgia events, or more recent revelations of Amenhotep III, perhaps indicative of a head in sand personality. There is no purpose other than enjoyment, and I haven’t the slightest idea of the accuracy of these texts.

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