The “Times” Closes the Barn Door

Friday, March 7th, 2008

Publishers Lunch today quotes a memo from the NYT Standards Editor, Criag Whitney, with new guidelines on “single-source profiles” (e.g., autobiographies ala the one of fake memoirist Margaret B. Jones [aka Seltzer], who wrote the recently discredited Love and Consequences):

Single-source profiles of people who are not already well known quantities are traps we have fallen into twice in the past year or two, and that’s too often. Until publishers start fact-checking their own nonfiction books, and that’ll be the day, we should remember that profiles of unknown authors should always include reporting from other sources — not just surrogates of the profilee like agents, publishers, lawyers, etc. — to verify the most important facts. But even when there’s no book involved, the same rule applies. If we can’t find ways to check key facts, names, graduation claims, etc., we should hold the story until we can verify them, and if we can’t, we should be suspicious. Live and learn….”

As if it weren’t difficult enough to get book coverage in newspapers.

More Than You Wanted to Know About Fake Memoirs

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

O.K., this is getting silly. The NYT today publishes its third story in as many days on the fake memoir, Love and Consequences (and there’s even a fourth story — on the Times book blog, “Paper Cuts”). Perhaps the Times is a bit bothered that they, too, were taken in by the book — they featured the author in the magazine and gave the book a stellar review. But the Times isn’t the only one covering the deception — Google shows 360 news stories to date. The L.A. Times even explores the history of fake memoirs, back to the 1700’s.

The media seems to love stories that are about them, even tangentially. And, the question of trusting sources is one that newspaper and magazines also grapple with. In this case, they seem to enjoy playing themselves as holier than book publishers. The Times blog post, by NYT BR staff member, Rachel Donadio, puts it this way:

The fact is, publishers edit most books and lawyer some — but they rarely ever fact-check. It’s seen as too time- and cost-consuming. The average magazine article is fact-checked far more rigorously than the average book. At the Book Review, we check our facts against the books being reviewed. But books, as we’re once again reminded, can be unreliable.

It would be costly to completely fact-check a book, but that is not the point. Publishers regard authors as the authorities and their job is to help authors tell their stories in the best way they can and get readers’ attention for them. This more hands-off approach may be the reason books beat newspapers to the story that deceptions led us to the Iraq war.

The one source to add something interesting to the story is Library Journal. They talked to libraries how they are handling the recall. Laura S. Clover, manager of Collection Development and Cataloging at the Free Library of Philadelphia, said they will simply reclassify the book as “Fiction.”