After a series of recent controversies over fact-checking in book publishing, the question of accuracy is facing more scrutiny than ever. Becoming known as the focus of a book fact-checking controversy is the wrong kind of publicity for any author—and newer authors looking to establish themselves have even more to prove. In self-publishing, the accountability for fact-checking falls squarely on the author (as with just about every other step of the publishing process), and often traditional publishing companies leave the author just as responsible for the accuracy of their work—including any legal consequences. Part of being an author is making sure your information is accurate, and this post will help you get started.
With such a wide range of potential sources of information in the digital age, fact-checking has never been more important, and this isn’t just limited to news reporting. Non-fiction authors have a responsibility to make sure the facts in their books are truly facts, and even fiction writing calls for a well-researched basis in reality. Let's take a look at each of them.
You might be thinking the rules of book fact-checking don’t apply to you as a fiction author. But unless your book takes place in a fantasy universe, you’re going to want to make sure your events and setting can hold up for readers that might be experts in a particular topic.
For example, if your novel is set in a certain city, make sure you know enough about the city that readers who are long-time residents won’t be confused or annoyed. Check out maps or ask a resident to read your work. Another example involves your plot itself. If you’re writing a novel about a paramedic, it’s important to ensure your procedures are reasonably realistic, especially since actual paramedics are likely to take an interest in your book!
Getting these facts wrong in fiction is certainly a less grievous error than getting your facts wrong in non-fiction. But it is enough to turn off certain readers from your book, and that’s reason enough to be cautious.
For non-fiction authors, the stakes are even higher. Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson released a new book in February 2019, itself focused on the subject of facts and accuracy in journalism (extra reason, one would think, for cautious fact-checking). But as advance copies of the book started to make the rounds, several sources and subjects in the book disputed the accuracy of Abramson’s book on journalistic accuracy. This latest incident follows several controversies last year over the accuracy of quotes and facts in widely anticipated non-fiction books from high-profile authors such as Sally Kohn and Amy Chozick.
For non-fiction authors, controversies over accuracy will cast a shadow over your book that’s very difficult to ever emerge from. Non-fiction readers are looking for information, and if even a few of your facts are inaccurate, your whole book will be called into question. If one of those errors leads to legal action, you have an even bigger problem on your hands.
How to Fact-Check
How much time and money should be invested in book fact-checking? This depends on the nature of your work. By default, it is your responsibility to ensure that quotes, facts, and information are all accurate. If your book involves just a few interviews and some research, you should simply be as cautious as humanly possible. If you’re even remotely uncertain about something, call your sources to check. Reporters in a newsroom setting are responsible for this too, and careful note-taking and double-checking with sources are common practice.
To fact-check your own work, you’ll need to take a step back. If you’ve been buried in writing and editing your work for a while, take a break. When you come back, reread your book paying special attention to any points that could be inaccurate or disputed. Whether it’s research or a phone call to a source, double-check. And don’t overlook the details—make sure you know how to properly spell the name of your sources, not to mention everyone else you mention in your book.
For fiction authors drawing on real-life settings and situations, careful research is likely to do the trick. If you have a friend or family member with personal experience in a certain area, ask them for their input. Don’t be afraid to ask experts in the field—many people will be happy to provide knowledge in exchange for a mention in your “Acknowledgments.”
If you are writing detail-heavy non-fiction book, and if you have reason to be worried about the accuracy of your content, this is where hiring a fact-checker is worthy of consideration. This is especially true if your book makes controversial claims about specific individuals. But remember, book fact-checking is its own job—not something that a content editor is responsible for.
The stakes are high when it comes to accuracy, especially for non-fiction authors. But the fix is simple, if not always easy. Take care when it comes to quotes and facts, and take nothing for granted. If you’re a careful researcher and interviewer, you’ll find that fact-checking comes naturally as you write your book.