Book Fact Checking: Who is Responsible?

magnifyingglassI used to assume that the books I read, especially nonfiction, especially those from big-name publishers in New York, had been fact-checked down to the type of boots the hikers were wearing, what brand of vodka the Serbian operative ordered at the bar, and the hotel where the narrator met the contact who broke the story open. But several sources indicate that most publishers do NOT routinely fact-check authors’ manuscripts. And that it has NEVER been a standard practice of book publishing, the way it has been in magazines and newspapers.

You might think it’s not as important to get the facts straight in fiction, because it’s, well, fiction. And fiction does ask for a certain suspension of disbelief in order to entice you to care about people and situations that don’t exist. Novels — those penned in non-fantasy universes, anyway — even come with handy disclaimers that events, places, people, dogs, penguins, and velociraptors are used fictitiously. Even so, major miscues can prove wicked distractions, especially for readers well versed in the topics you’re writing about. For instance, I’m fond of the historic landmarks of the lovely part of New York in which I live. In a novel I read recently, one of those landmarks was the centerpiece of the story. And the author got it wrong, wrong, wrong — in so many ways that I stopped reading.

It made me wonder why this has to happen. With Google at your fingertips, it’s so easy for authors to verify facts. You can check if that building you remember from twenty years ago is still standing. You can pull up a map and see if you really can get there on the subway, on foot, or only via pack mule or camel. If the info is something you don’t have current, intimate knowledge with, you can always find an expert to beta read and make sure you’re using the correct thingamabob to do whatever and calling it by the right name.

There are fewer excuses to be lazy. No reason to have the characters in your 1960s story drinking Diet Coke. Or to make a train station listed in the National Register of Historic Places look like a Greyhound bus depot. Not when it’s easy enough to use your Google finger.

Yet some things slip by. We’re human; it happens. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch it before you publish. If you’re not — like I was with my first novel, where I had a flower blooming out of season — a reader might bring it to your attention. Luckily for me, it was sent via a private message. If it all blows up, you, your publisher, and maybe even Oprah will back away and leave you hanging, your book pulled off the shelves.

But where does the responsibility fall for an indie? Still squarely on the author’s shoulders, in my opinion. As an editor, I’ve fact-checked many things that looked “off” in a manuscript — a location, a brand name, the title of a song or movie. Many of my editing colleagues have confirmed that they, too, fact-check — either as details poke at them or because it’s part of their natures. Sometimes, particularly in academic writing and if the editor is working for a publisher, it’s standard operating procedure to confirm the details with several different sources. But unless it’s part of the agreement (and for most general editors, it is not), beyond what catches our eagle eyes, we usually assume that you, the author, have your facts straight.

Can you hire some incredibly detail-oriented researcher/editor to do your fact-checking? Yes. If you’re writing nonfiction that’s heavily fact-based and you have the scratch, it might not be a bad idea.

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

22 thoughts on “Book Fact Checking: Who is Responsible?”

  1. This is becoming more of an issue as publishers reduce the services they provide for their authors. It is especially important for self-published authors. If we wish to compete with the big guns we need to be better than they are. Since most of us have very limited funds to pay editors to “do it all” it is incumbent on us to make sure we do our research and get our information straight.

    I include a clause in my contract (as a fledgling editor) that states I will not fact-check. Yes, if something jumps out at me I will let the author know, but It takes too much time to check all the facts. The author could never pay me what that would be worth.

  2. I think the onus for checking should be on the author, who really ought to consider this part of the job. Artistic licence is all very well, and we all perceive and appreciate some things differently, but at the end of the day facts are facts, and you get them wrong at your peril. Readers can be very critical and will soon stop reading authors who consistently get things wrong.
    It may be very convenient, but beware using Google as your primary source for checking facts. A lot of what gets published on the internet is not correct, as I have found on a number of occasions. Also, anything published in Wikipedia should be treated with the utmost suspicion, and double checked against at least two other sources as its origins are often quite dubious.

    1. Excellent point, Ian. After “who, what, where, when, and why,” the next thing I learned in journalism class was to use multiple sources. Wikipedia wasn’t around then, but I’m sure I would have been flunked for citing them.

  3. I think fact-checking is becoming a lost art all over, Laurie. And it’s too bad. As you say, it’s easier than ever to double-check something you’re not sure about (with the caveat Ian pointed out that anybody can post anything on the intarwebz…).

  4. Great post, Laurie. I do a LOT of fact-checking, because even though I write fiction, I like to sprinkle facts throughout: the weather on a certain day (even if that day was twenty years ago), a specific building, a county regulation. I use Google, but I also make phone calls. In fact, the (current) cause of my procrastination on my WIP is that I dread calling the Hillsborough County Clerk of the Circuit Court. :-p

    1. Thank you, Melinda. I like that realism, too. Google Earth is my friend, but nothing beats getting on location if I really need to check out something important. That is, if I can afford to go there!

  5. Agree totally, Laurie. It’s all on us. In my second book, a western romance, I had an idea of where the Superstition Mountains lay in regard to Phoenix, Arizona and wrote accordingly. Luckily I checked a map before I was done and found out I was 180 degrees wrong. I think the hard part is forcing ourselves to check when we think we’re right. Those are the things that will bite us in the end. Excellent post.

    1. Thank you, Melissa. I thought I could wing it when I had a character traveling from uptown to Times Square in NY. Good thing I took a day to refresh my memory, or else I would have had a cab going the wrong way down a one-way avenue!

  6. As a compulsive fact checker for my own fiction, I’m especially disturbed by finding HUGE or just plain silly mistakes in the work of other authors. I’m working on a novel right now and have checked references over and over again. Will something small slip by me? I hope not. But since part of the novel takes place in a distant country and distant time, I’ve been doing my best to double check historical facts.

    In the realm of non-fiction…. the minimum is a thorough fact checking. Don’t you think? Unfortunately, this is the author’s problem. Even the biggest publishers don’t do it and we are all out there in boats paddling on our own.

  7. I don’t ever expect my editor to fact check unless it has to do with how to spell a certain word. I tend to make up towns, roads, places, etc. and always have a reason for doing so, but the back story on, say, the reason an owner called a bar something unusual for the surrounding area isn’t something most readers care about. I’ve traveled a lot and I always notice some kind of anomaly in every town, so I know it happens. One exception is that if I’m using a landmark in a scene I try to be accurate. And, yes, I check google earth/maps/people, etc, and work to be close to the truth, but at the end of the day if I need a road to intersect with another and a gas station needs to be there, I go ahead with the scene. I believe they call it artistic license. As long as it doesn’t interrupt the reader’s flow, it works. Nonfiction, on the other hand, is an entirely different animal.

  8. Fact checking comes into the public consciousness whenever a major book is shown to be essentially untrue.

    Traditionally, at a newspaper, the copyeditor had a sound knowledge of the publication’s primary coverage area and would red-pencil not only errors in grammar and style but facts that didn’t look right.

    I expect the same from a good publisher’s copy editor. That doesn’t mean I’ll get it. Part of being an editor is having a good store of general knowledge so that warning flags go up if something seems off.

    Non-fiction often goes through peer review; sometimes the experts the author consulted check certain sections of the book. Some authors use beta readers who have special knowledge in the subject-matter areas referred to in the book whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.

    Basically, though, it comes down to the author. It’s easier now than it was in the days when we laboriously had to contact experts by snail mail or even travel to libraries and archives to do research in person. However, the Internet has a lot of errors on it partly because everyone and their brother who has a passion for a subject is likely to put up a website that isn’t always of the same caliber as those put up by scholars.

    Fact checking is obviously a must for nonfiction, but I would dispute anyone who says it is less rigorous in fiction. The facts used in fiction are presumed by readers to be correct. Fiction doesn’t imply fictional real-life facts.

    Nice to see this post here.


    1. Thank you for visiting, Malcolm. Yes, every time there’s another incident like James Frey’s, the focus comes down for a while on lack of fact-checking. Fiction, as I said, has more leeway, except where it would distract a reader (like me) who might think, “Hey, polyester wasn’t invented in the 1700s” or something like that. True, Internet errors abound, but it depends on the source. For example, I was searching for a flower that might be blooming in the fall in New York. So I’m more likely to trust an online source like Better Homes and Gardens or my local cooperative extension rather than Aunt Ida’s gardening blog. No disrespect meant to Aunt Ida.

  9. It’s funny because I work in magazine publishing, and I have to fact-check everyone and their dog! 🙂

    1. I know, Vickie! Magazines and newspapers are held to a higher standard of fact-checking. And textbooks. My colleagues who edit those have multiple layers of fact-checks to contend with.

  10. I agree it’s a real issue and as an editor, I always flag or check things that look “off”. Some things are obvious, like the author of a children’s book who somehow, since the book involved a “magical world” thought it would be okay to make a swan a mammal and not have her babies hatch from eggs (?!) Sometimes, though it’s a subtler mistake. Especially as fiction should make a reader really resonate, both on an actual and a symbolic level, I find that increasingly, authors don’t even “fact check” their myths. After all, you can’t make Venus and Diana Greek gods. The Greek versions were Aphrodite and Artemis! Yet I see that kind of thing all the time.

  11. Fact-checking is my favourite part of editing, though I may sometimes take it to extremes. Somehow I doubt the readers of my client’s historical transvestite soft porn would care that Dom Perignon was not sold in that particular era!

  12. I wish writers of historical fiction who do not live in a country would not just check facts but atually do a bit of research into the facts. I mean that doing superficial quick checks can land you in the soup. I have read of Victorian morning calls paid at 10 am! I have read about Edwardian men tipping a boy five pence! And the number of writers who get British money pre 1816 totally wrong is disgraceful. The Bank of England has excellent resources.

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