Fact checking departments in book publishing houses are rather small: in fact they are so small they are invisible. I doubt if any book publisher has a fact checking department or person. The accuracy of facts in any book is the responsibility of the author, and their contract with the publisher will make that quite explicit and unambiguous. If you think of a publishing house, as I tend to, as a sort of service company hired by an author in order to bridge the gap between author and reader, then this seems altogether reasonable. All we’re doing is getting the book printed and delivered to bookshops around the country.

Latest to fall foul of this view are Jill Abramson and Simon & Schuster. Vox (via LitHub) tells the story of dismay about the accuracy of many facts in her book Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts: bit of a shirt-trailing title in this context. Their article starts “Book publishing has a fact-checking problem”.

I do recall the subeditors in Cambridge who’d get onto their bike and go over to the University Library to check up on the veracity of this authorial claim or that dramatic statistic. Academic publishing has of course got a different relationship to the “product” than a trade house. Sure we’d like to sell as many copies as possible, but we do feel that we are part of the academic process. Not perhaps an overwhelmingly important part of it, but making the results of academic research and endeavor available to all in neat and tidy form is part of the academic and educative process.

But fact checking in so far as it happens in a publishing office happens as a by-product, not as a formal step. We know this; most authors know this; and things pretty much work out. The trouble comes when an author used to writing for The New Yorker, The New York Times, or some other fact-checked entity is writing a book. I don’t suppose Jill Abramson is any more error-prone than the next person: but as a New York Times writer she is used to having her facts checked. No publisher ever called up an author and asked them to take longer writing: it’s always “Hurry, hurry, hurry. The book’s scheduled for the Spring, and we have to have the manuscript next week or we’ll miss our slot which will kill sales long-term.” So you finish the damn thing and send it — and of course once there it goes through the system likety-split so that ARCs can be distributed to the trade. Maybe Ms Abramson has been going through the ms ever since she released it doing her own fact checking: she obviously picked up that Charlottesville is in Virginia not North Carolina. Now that early printed copies have been shown still to contain lots of errors the publisher has a decision to make. Quite probably the early printed copies in question are a short-run digital printing of a few hundred copies, and were always intended to be disposable. The final run can be made from corrected files: the question comes down to how much time (and money) can we afford to spend on fact checking. Surely a couple of weeks will be seen by S&S to be a reasonable investment. According to Amazon the book is scheduled for publication on 5 February. No doubt reviews will tell us all how it all worked out.

I have dealt with fact checking before. At this link you’ll find a couple more to other pieces.