Archives for the month of: July, 2016

Ryan Holiday at The Daily Beast (link via The Digital Reader) asks why more books aren’t fact checked, and then proceeds to tell us how difficult (and expensive) it was to get his own book fact checked. Didn’t it occur to him that that may have had something to do with it?

Of course, what people always seem unable to accept is the basic fact that publishers are merely helping authors to get their books out to the marketplace. We publish the author’s book. The book is the author’s, not the publisher’s. Thus responsibility for a book’s content is the job of the author. Now, on the other hand, magazines tend to originate their articles themselves rather than sitting around waiting for writers to come up with something. In consequence they will tend to do more fact checking. There are books which are thought up and put together by a publisher. A good example would be travel guides: in these cases more fact checking is likely to be done, but when Gay Talese submits the manuscript for his latest you don’t say “Hey Gay. Have you checked the facts?” You trust him — he’s a professional after all. If something goes wrong, you deal with it. “Morgan Entrekin, chief executive of Talese’s publisher, Grove/Atlantic books, said . . . the company would consider appending an author’s note or footnotes in subsequent printings to account for errors or missing information.”

The long and the short of it is publishers don’t have books fact checked because they don’t have a budget for that, and as a result have a clause in their contract which indemnifies them against inaccuracies, which are thus made the author’s sole responsibility. Now of course it may be that you think this is a terrible thing — and if you do, then of course when you negotiate your contract with your publisher you will attempt to have that clause removed or altered. Good luck with that.

See also Fact checking from 2014. Also relevant is Error embarrassment.

Reading books “strengthens the spirit of faith and the will to solve social problems” — so there! Get caught reading. Well actually it’s really read after getting caught, because these are the words of a judge in Gonbad-e Kavus, in northeastern Iran. He is sentencing the reading of books from an approved list as an alternative to incarceration, as local prisons are overfull. Quartz provides the story. The convicts have to buy the books, and write a report on each.

The New Yorker had an article about reading as punishment in 2010: Judge Naqizadeh’s trick has been tried in Michigan and elsewhere. The article links to Changing Lives through Reading: An alternative sentencing program based at The University of Massachusetts, which claims good results from having prisoners read.

Of course we all know how damaging it is to punish children by making them read books as a disciplinary technique. I was made to read A Tale of Two Cities as a punishment at school, and I never opened another Dickens’ book till I was about 50: a significant loss. The punishment that keeps on giving! Perhaps forcing adults to read books works better, but I do think we are all programmed to resist compulsion, so this might not be the royal road to creating a world of readers. Whether Judge Naqizadeh’s plan is working or not is not clear from the Quartz piece, but the lessons you can learn from a book are at least likely to be better than the lessons you’d learn from mingling with hardened criminals. Of course showing too much desire to read can get the bejeezus beaten out of you.

It’s an odd thing, but the term “risk-aversion” seems always to be used pejoratively. We all understand that standing balancing on the guard-railings of the George Washington Bridge is not the sort of behavior that leads to the continuation of the species, or any of the species’ institutions, so why does the commentariat constantly imply that hazarding your money on a wild and crazy bet is just the sort of thing publishers should do? New Republic, quoted by The Digital Reader, in an article predicting the demise of B&N, blethers: “In a world without Barnes & Noble, risk-averse publishers will double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits. Literary writers without proven sales records will have difficulty getting published, as will young, debut novelists. The most literary of novels will be shunted to smaller publishers. Some will probably never be published at all. And rigorous nonfiction books, which often require extensive research and travel, will have a tough time finding a publisher with the capital to fund such efforts.”

As The Digital Reader points out this doubling down has got nothing to do with the presence or absence of any bookstore chain. If you remove the first nine words, up to “risk-averse”, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’d really disagree with the sentiment: it’s not a bad description of trade publishing today, tomorrow and yesterday. When does the writer imagine was that golden age in which publishers invested vast sums in “literary writers without proven sales records” or “young, debut novelists”? Does Alex Shephard really think that refusing to publish surefire hits is a great business plan? Show me the publisher who isn’t to some extent risk-averse, and I’ll show you a publisher who’s gone out of business. Of course risks get taken, but they are risks which have been carefully costed out and hedged. Publishing any book is a risk. Even books by celebrity authors have been known to fail, and their failures tend to be relatively more harmful to their publishers because with a celebrity author you’ve probably been dazzled by your payment of a huge advance into an over-confidence that huge investments in inventory and marketing are absolutely surefire necessities. Heck, most books fail — in terms that most commentators would accept — though just where the borderline between success and failure lies is difficult to specify. Different books have different financial profiles, as every book is different from all the others: one of the charms of the business. When one gets right down to it success is really only measurable in the macro sense. Success for a publisher is ending the year with a profit: whether that comes from tiny profits on many titles, or losses on lots and vast profits on one or two, is ultimately irrelevant. We are an industry of both hitters who swing for the fences every time and hitters who prefer to bunt.