I think we can all agree that fact-checking is important. There have been several high-profile cases over the past few years that have had authors and publishers scrambling to make sure their books are perfect. Overlooking fact-checking can lead to an ill-received book at best and a controversial book at worst.
For example, New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson wrote a book titled Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts which “sparked a major controversy when multiple people featured in the book said she had misrepresented them.” Some of these stories included misgendering (which was later fixed), instructions given to a reporter regarding personal protective equipment during the Ebola outbreak, and the fact that people were never contacted by a fact-checker after their initial interviews.
Now where’s the problem with that? According to The Chicago Manual of Style:
In book publishing, the author is finally responsible for the accuracy of a work; most book publishers do not perform fact-checking in any systematic way or expect it of their manuscript editors unless specifically agreed upon up front. Nonetheless, obvious errors, including errors in mathematical calculations, should always be pointed out to the author, and questionable proper names, bibliographic references, and the like should be checked and any apparent irregularities queried.
However, according to Abramson’s title as executive editor at the New York Times, one would think she would be a qualified person to speak on fact-checking in journalism and would fact-check her book about fact-checking. But the dilemma here is that fact-checking is a time-consuming, expensive project to take on. Some books will be easier to fact-check than others—a fantasy set in a new world won’t need much, if at all. On the other hand, a book about climate change would need a lot of fact-checking in order to be portrayed as an accurate source of information. According to the Editorial Freelancer’s Association, the going rate for freelance fact checkers is forty-six to fifty dollars an hour. That’s a lot of money for many authors. Not everyone is going to have large advances or people backing them, nor is everyone simply rich. Authors come from a variety of backgrounds including stay-at-home parents, teachers, and students. It may not be in their budget to pay someone forty dollars an hour to check work when they’re already pretty certain they’re portraying the facts as accurately as possible.
The Chicago Manual of Style does state that glaring issues should be pointed out to the author. Even though the brunt of the responsibility is placed on the author, it doesn’t mean that publishing houses can turn a blind eye to something they know is incorrect. But, if that’s the case, why don’t publishing houses just foot the bill for fact-checking? For starters, it means they aren’t liable if a controversy does happen. All of that responsibility has fallen to the author and while the publishing house may get some backlash, they can ultimately say that it wasn’t their fault. Another reason is simply that it’s an expensive process. When you’re a larger press, a good chunk of your money is going toward paying royalties from the author and promoting the book. At a small press, it’s mostly just printing and promoting the book.
Publishers are beginning to look more into fact-checking! Whether it be hiring fact-checkers or, in Ooligan’s case, having a team dedicated to fact-checking manuscripts, the publishing world is shifting so that the responsibility is on both parties. While the author ultimately needs to be fact-checking, publishers cannot overlook fact-checkers and just assume that authors have done their research anymore. Doing so will leave a big, red mark on their backlist that can never be removed.