Will Book Publishers Ever Start Fact-checking? They’re Already Starting.

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Photo: dmark/Getty Images

Another spring book season has come to pass, and with it another set of factual mini-scandals. Earlier this month, the New York Post found major inaccuracies in Primates of Park Avenue, Wednesday Martin’s “study” of Upper East Siders and their wife bonuses, prompting Simon & Schuster to slap a quick disclaimer onto its best-seller. A Salon.com writer found that a key statistic in David Brooks’s The Road to Character was badly mangled and wrongly sourced. (Random House will correct it in future editions.) And last week, New York’s Jesse Singal fact-checked On the Run, Alice Goffman’s immersive, quasi-academic account of Philadelphia lawbreakers, which has come under fire for its shakiness on details.

None of these flubs belongs in the pantheon of hardcover frauds and fabricators whose names must by law be dropped in a piece like this: James Frey, Jonah Lehrer, pretend–Native American gang member Margaret Seltzer. Nor have they prompted five-alarm hand-wringing over the utterly shocking revelation that books aren’t fact-checked. Thanks to Oprah, we all know that now. Or do we? In fact, the practice of checking books is fairly common, though it’s also expensive. This fall, for the first time, one publisher is even promising to pay for it. Which is a pretty radical departure. Until now, authors have not just cut the check but decided whether to hire a checker, found one themselves, and directed the process. That’s probably not the most effective system, since it means that the most cautious writers are the ones likeliest to end up with fact-checker support, while the writers who need it most are the least likely to get it. That includes, almost definitely, the next big fraud that comes slithering in.

By tradition and by default, books aren’t verified to anything near the standard of a magazine piece. Publishers don’t even consider verification their business. (Nor do newspapers or most websites, which don’t have the time for it; magazines are actually the anomaly here.) Every nonfiction book contract contains a standard author’s warranty: that every fact is true, and that its accuracy is the writer’s sole responsibility. Thus indemnified, the editor focuses on style and narrative, while a copy editor checks basic dates and names. Outside experts are occasionally consulted (but rarely paid) just to ensure that, say, some counternarrative of Napoleon’s death isn’t completely wacko. The publisher’s lawyer will review it, but only to flag libel, copyright infringement, and the like. If a writer wants to hire a fact-checker, she’s on her own. The house won’t supply one, help find or pay for one, or even build a fact deadline into the publication schedule. Any checker is effectively an employee of the writer, working on the side, and any writer who’s taken the trouble to hire him already has more than the average level of integrity and research funding. The rich get richer; the poor and the duplicitous just get printed.

That’s how it’s been until now, anyway. But the status quo might shift a notch this fall, at least for a lucky few. In September, Tim Duggan Books, the editor’s eponymous new imprint under the Crown Publishing Group, will be the first ever to offer fact-checking as a service paid for by the publisher. Duggan declined to discuss his imprint yet, and one agent describes the fact-checking policy as “in flux.” But for months, Duggan has been quietly promoting in-house fact-checking as a special feature of his new shop. New York Times reporter Scott Shane confirms that his book, Objective Troy — the second on Duggan’s list — was fact-checked by Andy Young, an experienced freelancer hired by Crown.

“My first reaction was somewhat skeptical,” says Shane, whose book is about the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. “I told Tim that, as a reporter for 30-something years, I felt my job description was fact-checking. I’ve had a CIA officer source go to prison for leaking, and so that just made me wary.” But Young earned his trust. He didn’t call confidential sources, and he managed to correct Shane’s epigraph (from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent), “which was sort of embarrassing.” In the end, “it was extremely reassuring.’”

Duggan will only publish four or five works of nonfiction per year, and his imprint is a tiny cog at Crown, itself just one division of the mammoth Penguin Random House. His fact-checking initiative, whatever its scope, will amount to a pilot project. Shane’s contract still has the author’s warranty.

“The publisher functions more like an executive producer on a movie,” says the nonfiction author Susan Orlean. A New Yorker writer steeped in its culture of obsessive fact-checking, Orlean has had the converse publishing experience to Shane’s. “I remember being absolutely flabbergasted when I turned in my first book and they said, ‘Terrific, we’ve already typeset it.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding? What about the tortured process of fact-checking that comes next?’”

Orlean soon realized it was up to her; she hired an expert to cover the finer points of botany in The Orchid Thief. No editor ever talked to her about checking. “Publishers assume that writers do their own fact-checking,” says Orlean, “but that’s a little bit like having an internal-investigation department that’s run by the people being investigated.”

Writers who want to be investigated — and can afford it — tend to opt for either a young research assistant (as David Brooks did) or one of a small but growing band of elite checkers. The latter group, mostly connected to The New Yorker or The New York Times Magazine, will usually offer a menu of services — anything from trumped-up copy-edits to a rereporting Cadillac plan. They charge authors and magazines between $50 and $70 an hour, but usually agree on a flat fee for books. Most fall between $5,000 and $25,000.

Those who hire fact-checkers may not be James Freys in the making, but no one is immune to the kind of brush fires and shame parades that afflict the well-intentioned (if perhaps overworked) with increasing frequency, accelerated by Twitter and fueled by an army of Googlers. Before Brooks and Goffman, there were “plagiarists” Doris Kearns Goodwin and Fareed Zakaria, writers who deserved to be called out but not to be pilloried.

An author bracing for the pitchforks might be receptive to the “Big Picture” page on Verificationist.com. The site’s sales pitch opens with an apocalyptic litany of scandals (“A publishing house is forced to recall 200,000 copies of a bestseller …”) before panning out: “The 24/7 news cycle, the content-ravenous internet, and an unprecedented, polarized cultural and political landscape has created a climate where accuracy and reliability are more important than ever — and the lack thereof costly … Be wise. Invest now, instead of paying the price later.”

Verificationist was started by Boris Fishman and Rob Liguori. Fishman fact-checked for The New Yorker before embarking on novels (Liguori fact-checked his most recent one, A Replacement Life). Liguori was a criminal-defense attorney before being laid off in 2008. He was licking his wounds when Fishman, his old Princeton buddy, asked him to help fact-check a book by former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley. Soon they were advertising their expertise, wagering that a climate of scandal was a growth opportunity for a business built on covering your ass.

“This is actually a very thriving business right now,” says Fishman, who actually stopped checking more than a year ago, leaving Liguori as the sole "Verificationist." For one of his last gigs, Fishman was hired by Houghton Mifflin to enumerate the errors in one of Jonah Lehrer’s books — part of the litany of small inventions that led to that 200,000-copy recall. “There’s a real gotcha culture of exposure right now,” he says. “Ordinary people salivate over the prospect of bringing down the powerful.” He actually sides with David Brooks in the statistics dispute, which he considers an oversight overzealously exploited.  Liguori wonders if Brooks’s student fact-checker might have been overruled. “What you’ve got is a lot of finger-pointing,” he says. (Brooks’s publisher declined to comment beyond a statement.) 

In magazines, the fact-checker’s mandate competes with those of editors, lawyers, and even designers, but in books, the writer tends to call the shots while the publisher stays out of it. When Liguori was one of two fact-checkers on The Loudest Voice in the Room, an exposé of Roger Ailes by New York’s Gabriel Sherman, Random House let them use a conference room to go over material — but he never discussed anything directly with the editor or the lawyer.

Sherman’s book is an extreme example of writer-driven fact-checking. He spent close to $100,000 of his advance on his checkers — primarily, he says, to make it “something that would stand up for a long time,” but also because he knew the head of Fox News would attack. “I didn’t want Ailes to find some minor, inconsequential error and blow it up to impugn the integrity of the whole book.” Sherman would prefer publisher-driven checking not only for the cost savings but also because it could ferret out deception in other books. In 2008, Sherman revealed in The New Republic that a Holocaust memoir by Herman Rosenblat was a fraud. “That could easily have been prevented,” he says, “if there had been some rudimentary fact-checking.”

Liguori was hired directly by a publisher only once. A hybrid print-online outfit asked him to vet an online piece they were thinking of putting between covers. “I had to say, ‘I wouldn’t publish this if I were you.’ But they knew that already.” There is at least one other author who, according to sources, will soon be fact-checked at his publisher’s insistence: Jonah Lehrer, who’s working on a new book for Simon & Schuster. Before Tim Duggan, if a publisher called a fact-checker, there was already a crisis of confidence, if not a full-blown crisis. If a writer calls one, it’s because she already cares about the facts.

“It’s called self-selection,” says David Rosenthal, the publisher of Blue Rider Press (another Penguin Random House imprint). He thinks in-house fact-checking on a large scale would be “logistically impossible.” When it comes to outright frauds or extremely fast-and-loose memoirists, he believes “common sense is the best answer. There needs to be more diligence, and whether it’s on the part of the editor, the publisher, the author, the agent — that can be discussed. Whether you need to formalize it as a fact-checking thing, I’m skeptical about that.”

He and others in the industry proposed a spot-check system — something along the lines of what Nicholas Lemann advocated for the New York Times after Jayson Blair was found out. But no one really sees an imminent transformation in publishing culture. “What’s interesting about Duggan,” says one agent, “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.” Even $10,000 for a basic fact-check on every book still feels too high. “You have to sell at least a few thousand books to pay for that,” says one publisher. “That’s an advance for a poet.”

Never mind that there are greater obstacles to publishing poetry than the expense of fact-checking, from sky-high tentpole advances on down. What’s missing from the equation may not be money, but the will and the creativity to make it cost-effective. “Why not just get an editorial assistant to do it,” Liguori suggests. “That way you’re not paying my prices for it but you’re still getting fact-checking. There’s a million different ways to do it.”

It may be simply that publishers don’t suffer long-term consequences from scandals. (Quick: Who published James Frey?) But in an atmosphere of self-publishing, their lack of commitment might erode their value to the authors. Many writers already hire their own publicists or even freelance editors. “Frankly,” says Orlean, “this 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. I’m lucky because I love my publisher, but I do think publishers are putting themselves out of business by forcing writers to outsource so much of the cost.”

Even if publishers don’t pay for fact-checking, says Orlean, they should at least be pushing for it. “It’s a problem to not have it understood that fact-checking will happen, regardless of who’s paying. Nobody has ever said to me, ‘Did you have a fact-checker on this?’”

In light of scandals great and small, publishers’ see-no-evil culture may slowly change, especially if Tim Duggan helps make it part of the conversation. That would be a relief not only to writers, but also to editors who read about the latest non-memoir or feat of plagiarism and think, there but for the grace of God. “It’s every editor’s nightmare,” says an editor. “You live in fear that someone’s gonna get by you. It’s like working for the TSA. You don’t want to be the guy who let the terrorist in.”