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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Getting Real About the Problem of Accuracy in Book Publishing

Today's New York Times has a story about the latest mini-scandal to hit book publishing in relation to inaccuracies in a non-fiction book. The topic is The Last Train from Hiroshima written by Charles Pellegrino and published by Henry Holt. It now appears that some of the stories recounted in the book are probably false, and some of the eyewitnesses quoted the author either didn't exist or weren't in the right place to have the experiences claimed.

For the umpteenth time in recent years, it seems, the general public is discovering what has always been the case--that book publishers generally don't do fact-checking. The truth is that, under the industry's normal business model, it simply wouldn't be feasible.

Think about it. A good-sized publishing house brings out several hundred books every year, sometimes more. How many people would it have to hire to do the exhaustive research needed to verify the hundreds or thousands of facts that appear in a typical non-fiction book? And spot-checking wouldn't do. No one is claiming that Pellegrino made up most or even many of the stories in his book--just a handful of them. To avoid a problem like the one Holt is now facing, a fact-checker would have to independently source, say, ninety percent of the information in the book, a task that, even in today's Googlified era, would take weeks.

The Times quotes an Iowa professor named Jeffrey Porter as being critical of Holt, saying, "Maybe the idea of a scoop was irresistible. But somebody should have been skeptical." I'm dubious. Once you accept the notion that accuracy is basically the province of the author, then the publisher can reasonably be expected to catch only egregious falsehoods. Was someone at Holt supposed to call the Australian university where Pellegrino claimed to have earned his Ph.D. to verify his credentials? Human resources people will tell you that most corporations don't perform such due diligence even when hiring an executive for a six-figure job. Are publishers supposed to do this hundreds of times every year?

We all like the idea that, when something bad happens, it should be possible to identify a systemic fix that would prevent similar things from happening in the future. This is why we have been endlessly re-jiggering our airport security systems since 9/11--we want to believe that, with a little extra effort, they can be made perfect. But I for one don't believe it. Nor do I believe that book publishers can reasonably be expected to recognize what is happening every time a credible, experienced author succumbs to the temptation to exaggerate his facts for the sake of an exciting story.


  1. The Times article also raises the question for me- is it time for publishers to be responsible for fact checking? Just because they have not been responsible doesn't mean they shouldn't be now. The media is changing. We are all adapting. Theoretically they are the people with corporate dollars to spend on lawyers, operations people,and fact checkers. Jack Macrae, the editor of the Holt book was quoted as saying "there is a thin line between fact and fiction". What does this mean? Too many mistakes like this the last few years. it's time for publishers to get the message. Somebody has to be responsible or narrative non fiction is going to be tainted.

  2. Sandi, I hear you and I am not unsympathetic. But realistically where will the resources come from to enable publishers to take on this big new task? How would you handle it if you woke up tomorrow and found yourself in charge at Random House or Simon & Schuster? I don't know what I would do about it.

  3. As a somewhat tangential addendum to Karl's post, I want to say that with so much information a click away on the Internet, the job of source checkimg has taken on a whole new dimention.
    I find that when I'm working with an author who quotes a source with whom I'm not familiar, I automatically go to the Internet to find out who this person is. Is he or she a reliable source? What are this person's credentials? Affiliations? If I have any doubts I then go back to the author and ask a few questions: Do you know who this is? Is it someone with whom you want to be associated? Do you think quoting this person is going to make readers take your point more seriously--or less? Are there other sources you might prefer to quote on this subject?
    As a collaborator/ghost writer, I believe this is part of my job--just as it should be the author's job to ask him/herself the same questions.
    I understand that this isn't the same thing as fabricating anecdotes or information, but it's part of that amorphous, potentially dicy/dangerous quagmire of "validation" publishers are more and more being expected to navigate--ironically at a time when their human resources (those in-house editors) are already overtaxed. So--where does the buck really stop?