Just the facts, man

Fact checking: it’s not just for magazines. Apparently non-fiction writers have to hire their own fact checkers for books? My ninjas, let me spin you a tale: The Walrus will not only “fact check” your article on Dungeons and Dragons, they’ll fact check a piece of fiction. They’ll fact check a fucking poem, if it’s narrative enough. Honest to God. They literally called a truck stop diner to check that the soup Ms. Ninja referenced in a short story was actually on the menu. I was like, AYFKM? But they’re serious. It’s a full rubber glove treatment. They get right up in there, way past the prostate until they’re poking right up against the Thisisfuckingridiculous Gland. All this for what amounts to an ephemeral, one-month sit on a magazine rack at Shopper’s Drug Mart or your conservative-uncle-who-likes-to-think-he’s-a-liberal’s end table. But a book, which will presumably be used by other writers to write more books, doesn’t get fact checked? Wow. Can anyone elaborate on this and how/why the frig it happens?

Fact checking is a comprehensive process in which, according to the definitive book on the subject, a trained checker does the following: “Read for accuracy”; “Research the facts”; “Assess sources: people, newspapers and magazines, books, the Internet, etc”; “Check quotations”; and “Look out for and avoid plagiarism.” Though I had worked as a fact checker in two small newsrooms, did I trust myself to do the exhaustive and detailed work of checking my own nonfiction book? I did not.

From reading up on the subject and talking to friends who had published books of nonfiction, I knew that I would be responsible for hiring and paying a freelance fact checker myself. This is the norm, not the exception; in almost all book contracts, it is the writer’s legal responsibility, not the publisher’s, to deliver a factually accurate text.

As a result, most nonfiction books are not fact checked; if they are, it is at the author’s expense. Publishers have said for years that it would be cost-prohibitive for them to provide fact checking for every nonfiction book; they tend to speak publicly about a book’s facts only if a book includes errors that lead to a public scandal and threaten their bottom line. Recent controversies over books containing factual errors by Jill Abramson, Naomi Wolf, and, further back, James Frey, come to mind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s