The New Yorker is always spoken of in awed tones when it comes to fact checking. Why do you think that is? Almost entirely, I suspect, because they actually do do it. Many places don’t fact check, and if they do, do so in a fairly cursory way.
There’s a little kerfuffle going on about a 2009 book, Somaly Mam’s The Road of Lost Innocence, which Kathleen Newman suggests in The Atlantic should have been fact checked. I’m not so sure. As Publishing Perspectives comments on this controversy “of course, publishers are able to find the funds when it comes to ‘an in-depth legal vetting process, during which lawyers review a manuscript and flag any passages that may expose the author or publisher to issues of legal liability.’” It’s a bit of a non-sequitur to take the next step and suggest that this means fact checking should also be done. I don’t think any law is being broken if I write about my childhood as a female prostitute in Cambodia (even though I’ve never been there, have never worked in the oldest profession, and am in fact a male), even if I and my publisher try to pass this off as a true memoir. Publishers pay their lawyers (a lot of) money to protect themselves against potentially more expensive law suits for libel, defamation etc. I don’t think there are any laws establishing a public right to factual accuracy in memoirs or any other books: and if there were the novel would be in even more danger that it is said to be. The Atlantic piece mentions an author who employed a fact checker who’s work took eight months. That’s a lot of delay and a lot of money, and while the author in question, a former fact checker herself, presumably thought it necessary, I wonder if it was really worthwhile. A note in the Preface saying “the facts reported are as I remember them, but memory is fallible” might have been sufficient. Of course if a wrong fact in your book is going to lead to someone’s death, this is a horse of a different color. But is that ever likely to be the scenario? Maybe in non-fiction books about espionage — but no doubt the CIA is all over those manuscripts. Maybe The Mother Jones fact checker’s book about Burma did indeed include stuff like this, in which case caution was of course justified — on the part of the author.
But that brings me on to the second salient point. Publishers contracts tend to include a standard clause in which the author indemnifies the publisher against damages resulting from the content of the book. The book is a “Publisher-X book” of course, but much more importantly it’s an “Author-Y” book. Publishers are responsible for whipping the book into shape, getting it to the marketplace, and selling it. Authors are responsible for what goes on between the covers. The cautious publisher of a textbook on drug therapy is likely to publish a disclaimer in the front saying that nobody should follow any procedures described in the book without first getting advice from a professional. Authors have a right to say what they want. If the publisher doesn’t like what they say they can decline publication, but this can lead to litigation initiated by the aggrieved author — specially if there’s an advance against royalties involved. Having to fact check every non-fiction manuscript would probably lead to most of them not being published — we are just not willing to pay the price (“we” here meaning the customer as well as the publisher).