The Mystery of Fact Checking

Megan McArdle comments on a book review that bemoans its target’s many basic factual errors:

This is what fact checkers are for, and I don’t understand why book publishers don’t have them. They cost money, to be sure–but not that much money….A quarter of a million dollars a year would get you the world’s finest staff of crack fact checkers.

….Presumably the answer is that it isn’t economic: readers don’t care, and indeed rarely learn; there’s no money in preventing the occasional catastrophe []. But then one must turn the question around: why do magazines like The Economist, the New Yorker, and yes, The Atlantic, employ fact checkers? Our readers are the potential consumers of books like the one that the Economist is reviewing; do they care less about accuracy in their books than in their magazine articles?

Not that anyone at The Atlantic thinks about it that way; we employ fact checkers because it seems like the right thing to do. But why does this ethic prevail at so many magazines, and at no publishing house?

I have my doubts about this. When I think about the amount of work that MoJo’s fact checkers put into the 4,000-word articles I write, and then multiply that by 20 for the entire magazine, that’s a lot of fact checking. And it’s probably less than you’d need for the average 300-page nonfiction book. At a guess (since no fact checkers are checking this blog), I’d say that fact checking a book would cost upwards of $5-10,000, and considering that most nonfiction books don’t even make back their advances, that’s a lot of money.

But there’s another thing going on here as well: if a book has errors, people blame the author. They don’t generally blame Random House or Simon & Schuster. But if there are errors in a magazine, people blame the magazine. So magazines simply have a stronger incentive to protect their brand than book publishers do.

Beyond that, I suppose it’s just inertia: magazines have had fact checkers for a long time and book publishers haven’t. Any other ideas?


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