Checking Facts In Nonfiction
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
When Naomi Wolf was embarrassed when some of the facts in her new book "Outrages" were challenged during an interview, it renewed discussion about an old problem in publishing - fact-checking. It should be routine when publishing a work of nonfiction. As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, that's not always the case.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Brooke Borel wrote the book on fact-checking. Actually, Borel is careful to say she wrote a book on fact-checking. Borel's book is "The Chicago Guide To Fact-Checking," but she would never claim it's the final word on the subject. Borel has a lot of respect for the craft, and she says it's more important now than ever.
BROOKE BOREL: Now, in this moment, I think, collectively, as journalists, as nonfiction writers, when we do introduce errors of any degree into the record, it just gives more ammunition for folks to say, oh, this is fake news or this is misinformation or what have you.
NEARY: Getting caught in a fact-checking controversy can be humiliating. Naomi Wolf was discussing her new book about the criminalization of homosexuality in Victorian England when she experienced every writer's nightmare. Matthew Sweet, a presenter on the BBC 3's "Free Thinking" "Arts & Ideas" podcast, challenged the facts in the book.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "FREE THINKING")
MATTHEW SWEET: I don't think any of the executions you've identified here actually happened.
NAOMI WOLF: Well, that's a really important thing to investigate.
NEARY: Wolf has since defended her book, saying she is correcting the mistakes in it. But the controversy is not going away. A negative review in The New York Times criticized Wolf for also making false claims in past books. In another Times review, bestselling author Jared Diamond came under criticism for playing loosely with facts in his new book "Upheaval."
MARYN MCKENNA: Did they not think to hire fact-checkers? Are they so confident in their abilities that they didn't think it was necessary?
NEARY: Maryn McKenna is a writer who specializes in science and health. She paid $10,000 to have someone check the facts in her last book "Big Chicken." She says writers like Wolf and Diamond are bestsellers and should be able to afford a fact-checker.
MCKENNA: Or the publisher ought to be able to afford it because they're expecting substantial revenue from these books. It really makes one wonder whether accuracy, as a value, is something that's really top of mind for publishers or whether there's a separate calculation going on about sales volume that accuracy and veracity doesn't really intersect with.
NEARY: But publishers aren't responsible for the accuracy of a book - authors are. It's written into their contracts. And while some writers may be able to pay a fact-checker, says McKenna, a lot can't. Let's say a writer gets $100,000 advance.
MCKENNA: That sounds like a lot of money. Well, in fact, it's not a lot of money. And here's why.
NEARY: You get that money in three payments. The first installment, about $33,000, is paid before the book is delivered to the publisher. And from that, you need to pay for things like your agent's fee and taxes.
MCKENNA: That brings you from $100,000 advance - that thing that sounds like so much money - down to about $21,000 for which you're going to pay for the entire process of writing a book.
NEARY: And that, says McKenna, is exactly when a writer has to pay for fact-checking. Money, says literary agent Chris Parris-Lamb, is the main reason writers don't get their books fact-checked.
CHRIS PARRIS-LAMB: I would like to see every book fact-checked, and I want to see publishers provide the resources for authors to hire fact-checkers.
NEARY: Parris-Lamb sympathizes with writers, but he doesn't expect publishers will start paying for fact-checking anytime soon because, in the end, he says, the author has more to lose than the publisher.
PARRIS-LAMB: It's the author's book. That's what people are buying. That's who people are trusting. And I think it's a very different situation from, you know, someone who subscribes to The New Yorker because it's the author that readers are coming to rather than the publisher. I mean, frankly, very, very few readers know who publishes an author.
NEARY: But writer Maryn McKenna says publishing companies would also benefit from fact-checking, and it wouldn't cost them much to write it into a contract.
MCKENNA: A couple of thousand dollars more - $3,000, $5,000, $10,000 more specifically to guarantee the accuracy of the text - wouldn't that be worthwhile to protect our work and to protect the business that is publishing against the almost, at this point, automatic claim that we are fake news? That would be an easy fence to put up.
NEARY: Meanwhile, Naomi Wolf's new book will be released in this country on June 18. Her publishing company says corrections will be made in future printings. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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