In PW's first breakfast panel of the year, Truth in Nonfiction: What Is the Publisher's Reponsibility?, a publisher, magazine editor and memoirist tackled the question Tuesday morning in the Louis L'Amour Room at Random House. In her introduction to the event, moderator and PW senior reviews editor Sarah Gold, cited three recent and varied examples of books that had thrust their publisher into controversy after issues were raised, post-publication, about their facts. Calling the issue a "thorny subject" for publishers, Gold cited the 1997 book Little, Brown published, called City of Light, that was supposedly a lost manuscript by a merchant who had traveled to China four years before Marco Polo went to the far East. LB ultimately had to cancel the publication after anachronisms in the text surfaced. Gold then cited a case of a memoir that fell under fire--Margaret Jones' Love and Consequences. That book, which was supposedly about the author's experiences growing up in L.A. as a half-white and half-Native American raised by an African American family, proved to be entirely fabricated when the author's sister outter her as a liar in the wake of a New York Times profile. (Jones was, in fact, a woman named Margaret Seltzer.) And, in the third example, Gold pointed to Last Train to Hiroshima by Charles Pellegrino, which Henry Holt had to cancel after some of the key reporting in the book, which chronicled some of those involved and affected by the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, was proven wrong. Nothing that these examples highlight three different books--a long lost historical document, a memoir, and a work of journalism and reportage--Gold asked the panel: "What can publishers do to prevent these incidents from happening. ... What is appropriate and what is necessary?"
Jonathan Burnham, v-p and publisher at Harper, took the floor first, saying right off the bat that he felt lucky to have never directly dealt with an issue of this nature with anything he had published. One issue conflating the problem, in Burnham's mind, is the media's fascination with stories of fabricated memoirs and botched reporting, something he said means publishers are now "not just dealing with the problem itself, but also the problem around the problem." Burnahm said that publishers do not employ fact checkers and the reason often given is that it is too expensive to do so. But, he said, money is not the real issue--the issue is that publishers rely on authors to be truthful. To employ fact checkers, something Burnham said magazines must do to protect the reputation of their brand, would mean publishers would be taking on a legal responsibility. Instead, publishers rely on the legal language in their contracts, which puts the onus on the writer to be turthful and accurate. But now, with more cases about fabrications and lying authors surfacing, Brunham said "our antennas as publishers are up." He said that the publishers have become tougher regarding their disclaimers--the short paragraph on the copyright page detailing the nature of the work enclosed. Burnham thinks that if Doubleday, which had published James Frey's infamously fabricated memoir, A Million Little Pieces, initially had a disclaimer--one appeared in copies after the scandal broke--Random House might have faced less scrutiny. But, aside from legal issues, Burnham said he wished when Frey had appeared on Oprah and was grilled by the talk show host, he should have said that he wrote a literary memoir and the prose was never intended to read as fact. "Everyone has a responsibility to articulate the truth, but artists and writers have a responsibility to find truth in their own particular ways."
Nicholas Trautwein, senior editor at The New Yorker who worked in book publishing at Penguin and other houses before joining the magazine, came at the questions from a journalistic standpoint, and of someone working in magazines. Trautwein said that magazines are in a much different position than book publishers since, as Burnham noted, "as a journalistic institution our brand depends on people feeling that our reported information is reliable." Noting that fact checking a 5,500-word article--the length of a piece he just edited at The New Yorker--is much different than fact checking a 120,000-word manuscript, Trautwein said that nonfiction would take years to get out if publishers were to treat books the way his magazine treats its articles. Since there is a desire and a need to publish certain nonfiction fast, certain things are done by publishers. Trautwein said there is a process of legal vetting that publishers do, "toning down the wildest assertions" by forcing the author to assess his sources. For a book like the Pellegrino title, Trautwein said, you may not be able to check the entire book, but you can bring in a fact checker for a week or so to check the most contentious parts of the book. Noting that "the thing that gets the most attention is invented memoir, and that becomes very difficult to solve by fact checking," Trautwein said he thinks it is the agent's responsibility to represent an author and work where they vouch for both entirely. Trautwein added a quote, he felt appropos, by John Berryman: "Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so." That line, Trautwein said, "seems spiritually a very good guide for memoir."
Marie Brenner, a writer-at-large for Vanity Fair and an author of numerous books, said she hires a fact checker to work on her titles. (The cost, as an audience member later asked, can range, Brenner said, for a "good fact checker," between $50 and $60 an hour.) Brenner said she's come to think about fact checking as an "absolute necessity" and it's as if she is a political candidate running for office, and the fact checker is there to "figure out the opposition research," telling her what her adversaries might argue to prove her wrong. Citing the experience she had working on a book called House of Dreams about a wealthy family that had imploded, the Binghams, Brenner said the experience was "incredible" because she was extensively question by an in-house lawyer at Random House who "acted like a prosecutor" and had a question for nearly "every single sentence." Although Brenner said there was in that case a heightened fear of a lawsuit--Random House had, at the time in the 1980s, dealt with legal threats from J.D. Salinger surrounding a biography it was publishing about him--she thinks that publishers can no longer afford to scrutinize books the way House of Dreams was scrutinized. Ultimately, Brenner said, having a fact checker is freeing for an author and "really a boon."