Gay Talese’s Basement
Of course, the time it takes to fact-check an article—and, ultimately, the cost—varies according to the type of story, as well as the depth of the checking. A long investigative piece can take days. Some magazines have in-house fact-checking departments; others hire freelancers and pay them by the hour, with rates starting at $22 and peaking at $45, according to the New York Newspaper Guild. According to Vault, a career-information agency, the yearly salaries for fact-checkers on magazine staff range from $35,000 to $45,000.
Columbia University professor and nonfiction book author Samuel Freedman explains that the book industry’s perspective on fact-checking “starts with its business model.” Authors are paid royalties tied to sales (typically around 12 percent of the sale price), while journalists normally receive standardized payments—either a salary or fixed amounts per word. To the writer of books goes a proportion of the spoils, but they have also traditionally borne the cost of delivering an accurate manuscript. Freedman, writing about the Frey affair in the Columbia Journalism Review, noted: “A publishing house views an author as a contractor, no more or less the embodiment of the institution than the janitorial contractor who vacuums the halls overnight. … Due diligence in publishing remains an individual editor’s option, not a job requirement or even part of the communal culture. The writer who wants his manuscript to receive the kind of fact-checking it could get from any major magazine either does it himself or pays for it out of his own pocket.”
The expense of magazine-quality fact-checking is beyond most book authors. Dale Maharidge, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about rural tenant farmers, “And Their Children After Them,” says that while he calls back sources to confirm details, he cannot afford to outsource the process. “There’s no money for that, not with the books that I do,” he says. He says he is still owed $30,000 by his publisher for a previous book, “Homeland,” after spending months researching it. “I spent out of my own pocket to do it.”
Best-sellers move by the truckload and may make seven-figure profits for both author and publisher, but of the 1.2 million titles sold in 2004, only two percent sold more than 5,000 copies, according to Neilson Bookscan. Even taking into account long-term sales, the success of “A Million Little Pieces,” which has sold more than 3.5 million copies, is far from typical.
At the lower end of the book industry, where most authors reside, the financial returns are small, says Sarah Lazin. She became a literary agent after her fact-checking business failed to impress book publishers, and calculates that a mid-list author, who writes full-time but doesn’t produce best-sellers, would receive about $28,000 in an advance and/or royalties for a book that sells 10,000 copies. This share, says Author’s Guild Executive Director Paul Akin, is roughly the same amount publishers net after “around three-quarters” of sales revenue is spent to cover fixed printing and distribution costs. Absorbing the cost of fact-checking, says Akin, would hurt both parties in the book transaction: “You’d drive up the cost of publishing, which is not good for publishers or authors.”
Sitting in a different chair, Lazin now appreciates the point of view of those publishers 20 years ago who “didn’t see it.” “I understood it at the time, but I thought it was stupid. I thought it was in their interests that what they were doing was on solid ground. It is in their interests, but now I empathize,” she says.
Although Morgan Entrekin may have a point in insisting that the publishing industry can’t afford to pay $8,000 for each of the more than 100,000 nonfiction books released each year, his $8,000 figure cries out for some fact-checking. The fact is: there are alternatives to full-time in-house fact-checkers. Tightening standards of accuracy need not require each and every book manuscript to be scrutinized in its entirety. Book editors merely may need to develop a more critical eye.
The high-end, $8,000-a-book ideal of The New Yorker or Vanity Fair isn’t the only model of fact-checking available to magazines—or book publishers and authors—who want to put a premium on accuracy without being left penniless. The Nation employs a battery of nine fact-checkers but pays them a stipend of only $150 a week. They’re interns, getting experience in the world of journalism in three or four-month shifts (in addition to fact-checking, they do original research, proofread, serve as messengers and write occasionally). And The Nation is not alone in creatively harnessing the enthusiasm of young people. Among other magazines, the Chicago monthly In These Times hires unpaid interns who each work a couple of days a week. “We have five to six at any one time. They do the fact-checking,” says editor Joel Bleifuss.
Using The Nation as a model, breaking down costs (including the interns’ stipends and the costs of a full-time director to co-ordinate intern employment and training), the cost to fact-check a 120,000-word manuscript would fall to roughly $3,000. Roane Carey, a senior editor at The Nation who previously worked for the book publisher Alfred A. Knopf, says publishing houses could easily adopt this model. Young, dedicated people would be attracted to books for similar reasons that The Nation’s interns dedicate a few months of their lives to journalism. “There are young people who care about books, who want to get into publishing and want to get into the industry,” says Carey. “And the publishing industry really needs to address this problem. There’s a gaping hole in their quality control.”
“The editor is the choke point. When something doesn’t smell right, they’ve got to put the author against the wall and get him to provide and confirm sources.” Book editors routinely query passages of text that might be defamatory, and publishers pay lawyers for the subsequent libel read. Vigilant editors, deploying intern fact-checkers, would mean fewer lawsuits and, in the end, would save publishers money and their reputations.
Samuel Freedman emphasizes that it’s not enough for book editors to limit their scrutiny to statements that might be libelous. “You could expect editors to be more skeptical, to ask questions, to require more source material. There’s way too much trust extended now,” he says. Worried about a chapter in own his book “Jew vs. Jew,” the Columbia professor took the intern route, paying a former student $400 to check one-tenth of his manuscript.
This combination of spot-checking and increased editorial scrutiny might be a way out for the besieged book publishing industry at a fraction of Entrekin’s estimated cost. Ignoring this option will fail to deter the growing concern over works of nonfiction. After all, Frey wasn’t the first. In 1991, Steve Weinberg, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about Kitty Kelley’s biography of Nancy Reagan, noted a persistent problem with nonfiction books: It was, “publishing’s dirty little secret—few nonfiction books are checked for accuracy.”
Now it’s an open secret.
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