An Awkward, Anomalous Step, Usually Skipped
August 30, 2020 2:05 PM   Subscribe

Emma Copley Eisenberg delves into the process of fact checking nonfiction books – who does it, how much does it cost, and who pays for it?
posted by adrianhon (23 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
So interesting! I wrote a non-fiction book and was not asked to even think about fact checking. In fact, it was expensive enough (i did not get a 50K advance like the author) to even pay for indexing which my contract specified would be at my expense) as it was. I've always loved the New Yorker articles about fact checking including this one from John McPhee. It's so interesting that at the New Yorker this used to be a Big Deal and is something they still do on the regular.
posted by jessamyn at 2:19 PM on August 30 [17 favorites]

This reminds me that Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was fact checked by his childhood friend Harper Lee.

That’s not to suggest anything deficient in the fact-checking, but that the whole idea is fraught with difficulties.
posted by sjswitzer at 6:05 PM on August 30

I've found factual errors in a couple of non-fiction books and have put them down soon after that. If I, a non-expert, can find one then how many more are there? I don't have interest in reading something that is intentionally fiction.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 7:10 PM on August 30 [2 favorites]

Very interesting reading. I would be fascinated to know more about what fact checkers learn in the magazinr fact - checking training programs I imagine they are skills we could all do with more of these days.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:12 PM on August 30 [1 favorite]

Fact-checking, hell. Even a top name such as Esquire doesn't do basic copy editing: "a legal read to protect Hachette and I from potential lawsuits."

I may have previously told the story about a book I began reading some years ago about U.S. Grant. The first three or four pages were a timeline of his life. Grant's name was misspelled. His date of birth on the timeline was different from his date of birth on page one of the text. There was another egregious error I now forget. I wrote to the publisher offering my services to help protect against such problems. I received a very nice letter from one of the VPs stating that these are the normal, expected sorts of errors in modern publishing, and they're not a big deal. Again, when basic copy editing is absent, you know the book was never fact checked.

When I was a freelance book editor for a small publishing company, a minor part of my job was to fact check. Just if something seemed "off" or if I knew that something was wrong. I could mark a change in the text or make a note to the development editor I was working for. But nothing beyond that. Misspelled words and arcane points of Chicago style were more important.

Interesting article, and thanks for sharing it, adrianhon. I'm heartened to see that things might yet change.
posted by bryon at 10:07 PM on August 30 [9 favorites]

I've always been happy to see on most of the books I've written - a copy edit review and a tech review, but I'm in a fairly niche world and would still be unchallenged unless I made huge technical mistakes.

I'm still amazed when I actually get called - mostly by newspapers/glossies to be fact checked for quotes or my area of expertise.
posted by drewbage1847 at 11:03 PM on August 30

I have done some fact checking on non-fiction books I have edited, but this was in fields I knew a bit about (and usually a bit more than the author). But nowdays I always put in the contract that I will not be responsible for fact-checking, as much for legal reasons as anything else.
posted by Megami at 12:11 AM on August 31

I've written technical books about computers and we always had a technical reviewer, although they weren't always perfect. There were also lots of editors but mistakes do slip by.

Most frustrating: I wrote a book about a programming language and one of the program examples was supposed to produce an output of text that was surprisingly different than the reader might have expected based on prior examples.

My paragraph after the code describes the output and then says "This is not a misprint--it comes out this way because blah blah blah."

Did you guess the ending? Yes, they managed to print two separate editions of the book where my line "This is not a misprint" appears after an actual misprint.

Needless to say I stopped tempting fate with words like that.
posted by mmoncur at 3:41 AM on August 31 [4 favorites]

When I was a naive journalist turned book author, I was used to magazine editors "kicking the tires" to make sure the story stood up. So I was surprised when I wrote a book and it was really different.

The magazines would have a staffer comb through every single claim. This was good for sleeping well at night. But now that I had a book editor, they would only leave the kind of notes you would get from a friendly 10th grade English teacher ("interesting!" and little check marks). Realizing too late there was no fact-check support coming (or editorial/structural support, really), I scrambled to check everything. The publisher then became interested in fact-checking, but only after the book came out, when a defrocked priest was threatening to sue us.

Still upset about getting the description of a door to a building wrong.
posted by johngoren at 4:03 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]

I would be interested to learn more about which publishers (books, magazines, whatever) do or do not fact check or even copy edit.

I am a former newspaper copy editor and have seen such a decline in standards across various types of publications.
posted by NotLost at 6:29 AM on August 31

And just like that, a new possible career path is revealed. Imagine the vast swaths of knowledge one might absorb, all while getting paid to fact check! The bank will lay me off (again) soon enough, and it's about time for another 90° turn. That card is definitely going into my deck.
posted by phrits at 7:20 AM on August 31 [3 favorites]

The debacle surround Pill City by Kevin Deutsch (published by St. Martin's Press) really brought this home to me. That book - about Baltimore drug dealers who created an "Uber for drugs" - was convincingly torn apart by the Baltimore media shortly after its publication. There really is a city called Baltimore, and that seems to be about as far as the factual content in the book goes. It's clear that most of the story is entirely fabricated. Deutsch had a previous nonfiction book published by Lyons Press and had also written for Newsday and Newsweek. After the criticism of Pill City, Newsday reviewed Deutsch's articles and found rampant fabricated quotations. Knowing this, I think it's pretty obvious that this ridiculous Newsweek article and his first book (which covers the same subject matter) are also almost certainly wholesale (and totally racist) fabrications.

However, only Newsday took any remedial action. St. Martin's Press stood by Pill City. Lyons Press didn't withdraw Deutsch's previous book. Newsweek didn't issue any corrections to Deutsch's work for them. Not only were errors allowed to slip through, but it's clear that Deutsch was a complete fraud. When that fraud was brought to light, all these publishers just shrugged.

The situation with Deutsch is an extreme example, but it goes to show that not only can you not trust mainstream nonfiction to be correct in every detail, but that many publishers have no interest at all in the veracity of what they publish.
posted by vathek at 10:01 AM on August 31 [5 favorites]

That Daniel Radcliffe article that djb linked is basically a fucking delight and everyone should go read it.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:12 AM on August 31 [4 favorites]

notes: Greywolf Press, Bold Type Books, Tim Duggan Press (defunct), and possibly Little A and Audible are cited in the article as fact-checking their nonfiction. Also The Nation, which trains factcheckers, as does the Type Media Center.

vathek's counterexample does point out a deeper problem, that the world is splitting into normative camps that don't trust each other's accepted facts. I really need to know not just whether a book was factchecked but whether I trust the factcheckers! And whether the editor or author felt obliged to listen!
posted by clew at 10:35 AM on August 31

I don't have interest in reading something that is intentionally fiction.

That was unintentionally fiction when I was thinking the comment. Either there was some disconnect between my brain and fingers or autocorrect came to the rescue.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:50 AM on August 31

Back in the 1990s, I had a distant relative who wrote a book (something like In Deadly Skies, no not the ones that seem to be in print) that was supposed to be a true stories about British, German, and American fighter pilots being in combat against one another. The fact checkers found a few of the stories to be unverifiable, so it had to be released as fiction instead. The publisher paid for 2 fact checkers!
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:37 PM on August 31

That's not true about Esquire - I just did my first piece for them and it was fact-checked (and edited) within an inch of its life.
posted by gottabefunky at 1:29 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]

> I would be fascinated to know more about what fact checkers learn in the magazinr fact - checking training programs

I was a magazine factchecker, and I learned how to do it at an unpaid internship.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:33 PM on August 31

I've found factual errors in a couple of non-fiction books and have put them down soon after that. If I, a non-expert, can find one then how many more are there?
any portmanteau in a storm

I had this experience with New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop Kindle Edition. I noticed a few errors with dates, but what sunk it for me was the author's claim that The Sq--- Man (1914) (title uses a slur for Native Americans, sadly) was the first feature-length Western film (used in the sense of made in a Western country) and was predated by the first feature-length Indian film, Raja Harishchandra (1913). This didn't seem right from what I knew about early film history, and sure enough, The Sq--- Man is the first feature-length Western film (that is, in the Western genre). The world's first feature-length film is Australia's The Story of the Kelly Gang (1909), followed by a number of feature-length productions in Europe, the US, and Asia all before 1913.

That the author or editor or whoever could confuse the meaning of Western like that, and no one caught it before publication, made it impossible for me to take the rest of the book seriously, as interesting as it was. I simply had no faith that any fact presented in it was accurate.
posted by star gentle uterus at 3:09 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]

I've found factual errors in a couple of non-fiction books and have put them down soon after that. If I, a non-expert, can find one then how many more are there?
any portmanteau in a storm

I had a fun e-mail exchange with a non-fiction author I really respect.

In one of their books they claimed that after extensive research they had found cultures that eat every single part of a cow/pig/sheep, except for the uterus.

I sent an email with directions to a taqueria about a mile and a half away from their neighborhood where anyone can order tacos de nana, i.e., pig uterus.

Their response was something along the lines of "thousands and thousands of dollars of fact-checking and I could just have walked down to the taqueria".

I still enjoyed the rest of the book and learned a lot.
posted by Dr. Curare at 3:47 PM on September 1 [8 favorites]

It’s also in Apicius, sow’s womb - so people have been regularly exposed to the idea over the last couple millennia.
posted by clew at 9:18 PM on September 2

I was a fact-checker for a small children's non-fiction book publisher in NYC in the mid oughts/aughts. I got the job mostly on the strength of having been in a doctoral program for English literature--yes, I said, I know how to do research, I said. I can digest absurd amounts of information in very short amounts of time, I said. Given three days and a pile of books, I can be an instant expert in basically anything, I said. I get really obsessive about details, I said.

Twenty thousand a year? Before taxes? I thought about it. My grad student stipend had been fourteen thousand per year. I'd spent my first winter in Jersey without heat. Picked my way through flocks of sleeping geese next to the Piscataway River at midnight, clutching a large Maglite for illumination and reassurance.

Sounds good to me, I said.

It was a strange time in my life.
posted by what does it eat, light? at 6:58 AM on September 3 [1 favorite]

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