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What the Jill Abramson book scandal tells us about publishing’s fact-checking problem

In book publishing, the onus for fact-checking is on the author. That creates problems.

Jill Abramson, Former Executive Editor of the NY Times, Visits GLG (Gerson Lehrman Group)
Jill Abramson at Gerson Lehrman Group in December 2015.
Donald Bowers/Getty Images for GLG
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Book publishing has a fact-checking problem, and that problem might have just caught up with former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson.

Abramson’s highly anticipated new book, Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts, is scheduled to publish at the beginning of February, but advance copies have begun to circulate through the media. And more than one of the people featured in the book have disputed the facts and truth of Abramson’s writing about facts and truth.

In a lengthy Twitter thread, journalist Arielle Duhaime-Ross cites a paragraph of Merchants of Truth pertaining to her work at Vice and says it contains six errors, including about her gender identity and her journalism background.

“I met Jill Abramson in June ’17 in the VICE office,” Duhaime-Ross wrote. “We chatted for less than 40 minutes. She took handwritten notes. I have not heard from her since, by which I mean she did not contact me for a fact-check.”

Duhaime-Ross later updated her thread to note that she was initially working from a galley copy of Abramson’s book. (Galleys are early bound copies of a manuscript that are produced before final proofreading and distributed to the media to drum up early interest in a book. Typically, they include a disclaimer saying that the text has not been finalized and should not be quoted. The Abramson galley did contain this disclaimer.) Duhaime-Ross says her gender identity was corrected in the completed book but the other errors that she identified remained.

Duhaime-Ross’s critique was echoed by many of her current and former colleagues at Vice, who focused on a portion of Abramson’s book that characterizes the site as a salacious and irresponsible news outlet more focused on curating a certain image than on reporting the truth.

Danny Gold, a video journalist who is now at PBS Newshour and who previously worked at Vice, writes that Abramson misrepresented his decision not to wear protective clothing while covering an Ebola clinic in Africa. Abramson portrays Gold’s decision as dangerously reckless — in contrast to safer decisions made by reporters for the New York Times while covering the same story, who she says wore protective clothing the whole time — but Gold says that’s inaccurate.

“Like every other reporter there, i was told by experts not to walk around with a PPE [personal protective equipment] unless you were in the ICU. I also worked alongside Times reporters, who a. Gave me that advice and b. Did the same,” he tweeted. Gold added that he explained as much both to Abramson and on camera, in the published version of the Vice documentary The Fight Against Ebola.

Also on Twitter, Jay Caspian Kang (formerly of Vice, now at the New York Times Magazine) noted that Abramson says Charlottesville is in North Carolina (it is in Virginia; North Carolina is the home of the city of Charlotte), and Vice’s Elle Reeve notes that a figure Abramson describes as a “southern white nationalist” is in fact from Long Island.

(Abramson also misstates the number of headlines Vox writers are required to draft with our stories — it’s 10, not 20 — but that one is, uh, less noteworthy.)

I reached out to Abramson and her publisher Simon & Schuster for comment and was directed to Abramson’s statement on Twitter. There, Abramson wrote that the screencaps of her book currently circulating are from uncorrected galleys and not from the finished version of the book, which will not come out until February 5. (It was after Abramson’s statement that Duhaime-Ross updated her Twitter thread with citations from the finished version of the book.) I’ve requested a copy of the finished book from the publisher and will update this story upon receiving it.

The portions of Abramson’s finished book that have circulated online suggest that some but not all of the errors people identified in the galley have been corrected in the finished book. Either way, it is unusual for major factual errors to linger this far into the book production process, only to be corrected later. By the time galleys are released, it’s more typical for a publisher to be correcting proofreading errors on the level of spelling and grammar than is it to be correcting the facts. It’s certainly possible that Abramson did a good-faith fact check of her book very late into production, but that would be unusual.

Moreover, it’s worth noting that all the people disputing Abramson’s claims say they were never contacted by a fact-checker. So if the book was fact-checked, that process didn’t include a conversation with Abramson’s subjects.

Regardless of what the final edition of the book looks like, there’s a reason that factual errors could have lingered so late in the production process, and a reason that so many people are willing to believe they will appear in the final book: Book publishing has a fact-checking problem.

The Abramson controversy fits into a larger institutional problem in book publishing

I wrote about book publishing’s fact-checking problem for Vox in 2018. As I wrote then:

In general, fact-checking is not a standard part of the workflow in book publishing, even in nonfiction book publishing. What usually happens is this: Authors submit their manuscripts, the manuscripts go to editors who help to refine them and shape them, and from there the book goes into production and copy editing.

The copy editor will look for grammatical errors, and sometimes the publisher’s lawyer will check the book to make sure there’s nothing libelous in there, but fact-checking is not part of the standard publisher’s process. […]

So how do publishers generally handle it if factual errors creep into a book? Basically, the same way they handle plagiarism: They make it the author’s problem.

One of the standard parts of any book contract is the warranty and indemnity clause. By signing on to that clause, an author is guaranteeing that their book is their own, original project, not plagiarism, that it doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s rights, and — if the book is nonfiction — that its facts are accurate. And if it turns out that any of these claims are untrue, the liability is all on the author. They’re the ones who pay up if someone decides to sue.

So the facts are all up to the author. And different authors handle that liability differently. Some might want to hire a freelance fact-checker, but that can get expensive: Vulture cites flat prices of between $5,000 and $25,000, and the Editorial Freelancers Association quotes a rate of about $30 to $40 per hour. The money for fact-checker fees would have to come from the author. And since most nonfiction book authors aren’t exactly rolling in spare cash, it’s a tempting corner to cut. Many authors decide to just fact-check themselves or to skip that step entirely.

Either way, we’re left with an industry in which a lot of nonfiction books don’t get looked over by a professional fact-checker.

So Abramson was going from the New York Times, an institution with a team of dedicated fact-checkers, to a medium that left the fact-checking entirely up to her. And judging from the disputes we’ve seen so far, she may have been ill-equipped to handle that transition.

Unlike most nonfiction authors, Abramson almost certainly had the resources to hire her own fact-checker. She reportedly earned a $1 million advance on her book, which is well above what most nonfiction authors receive. If she had to pay $25,000 for a fact-checker, that wouldn’t exactly be small change, but it also wouldn’t threaten to swallow up her entire advance, the way it might for a less well-compensated author.

We’ve seen similar scandals in book publishing very recently. Last spring, the New York Times political reporter Amy Chozick published her memoir Chasing Hillary, about her time covering the Clinton campaign, and was greeted by a series of tweets from Chelsea Clinton that disputed Chozick’s version of the facts. Chozick’s publisher announced an initial print run of 200,000 copies of the book, but according to NPD BookScan, which tracks 85 percent of industry book sales, Chozick ended up selling just 12,800 hardcover copies of her book over the past eight months.

We don’t know for sure that the fact-checking scandal is the reason Chozick ended up selling less than 10 percent of what her publisher publicly predicted, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have helped. The incident suggests that a fact-checking scandal isn’t an “all publicity is good publicity” kind of scenario, and that, in fact, it may have a negative impact on sales.

But even if it doesn’t, high-profile social media dustups over fact-checking — like the one Abramson is currently navigating, or the one Chozick dealt with last spring, or the one Sally Kohn dealt with before that — reveal a crucial weakness in book publishing’s typical workflow.

Should the onus really be on authors to pay for fact-checkers in the first place? Or should fact-checking be a standard part of the publishing process, like copy editing and layout, one that is anticipated and paid for by the publisher?

Everyone makes mistakes. That’s human. Good systems assume that mistakes will happen and build in redundancies to handle them.

When it comes to fact-checking, book publishing hasn’t gotten there yet.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Chasing Hillary sold fewer than 1 percent of the copies publicly predicted by her publisher. It was fewer than 10 percent. We regret the error.

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