Gay Talese’s Basement
The Price of Truth
by Matt Nippert
In the wake of the scandal over the fabrications in James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” book publishers pleaded poverty when asked why they don’t follow the lead of magazines by fact-checking before they publish. Morgan Entrekin, president of Grove/Atlantic Press, told Publishers Weekly in January that the book industry simply couldn’t bear the cost of fact-checking. Estimating that a fact-checker paid $35,000 per year could process 10,000 words per week, he calculated that one full-time employee dedicated to accuracy could sign off on only four 125,000-word manuscripts per year. Entrekin concluded that installing this new editorial layer would add $8,000 to the publication cost of each book. “That’s more than the typesetting, copy editing and proofreading costs combined,” he said. “It’s just not viable.”
But it is viable in the magazine world, where most publications are able to find the time and money to fact-check nearly every word they publish. If magazines can do it, why can’t books?
It’s a question that Sarah Lazin asked more than 20 years ago. As the chief of research at Rolling Stone, she supervised the fact-checking of the magazine’s articles. In 1976, she established Rolling Stone Press. “We would present ready-made books to publishers,” she says. The magazine-editing procedures carried over into hardcovers, including the fact-checking of reference books such as “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll” and collections of magazine articles such as Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Great Shark Hunt.” Upon leaving Rolling Stone Press, she believed that there was a potential business in providing fact-checking services to publishers of nonfiction, using a team of researchers.
Lazin pitched the idea to “a number of top people” in the book industry. She recounts a typical meeting:
“That sounds good, that would be great,” said the book people. Pause. “Who is going to pay?”
“That may be, but it’s up to the author to present a true manuscript to us.”
“I’m sure they try to, but everyone makes mistakes.…”
She didn’t get any work. “They didn’t see it,” she says.
Brian Gallagher, a staff fact-checker for Vanity Fair, says, “We check everything.” He claims that he has walked around New York City confirming that routes described in words can physically be traversed. If authors mention specific furnishings, he talks with the owner to confirm their vintage and materials. “If someone’s floor is described as limestone, we ask the person if it is actually limestone. Sometimes it turns out to be granite.”
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