Discount, if you will, the tablets of Mount Sinai as a special signed edition, and the fact remains that books through the ages have earned humanity’s high regard as semi-sacred objects, Especially in contrast to the daily press, whose product is designed to self-destruct by sunrise next, and to even more artfully created periodicals of opinion and sensation, books have been our truth bearers through the generational divide. But standards change with time, and technology. One generation’s conception of “truth” may be found by its successors as permissive and simplistic. The gentleman publisher of yore, far more concerned with felicity of style and orthodoxy of sentiment than the research methods of his authors; perpetrated more than his share of what we wouId, today, label consumer fraud. Plagiarism was common, attribution of sources often lax, documentation second- and third-hand or by rumor, and scholarship as much a matter of intuition as industry.
It is harder now, and truth a sterner taskmaster. We all know so much more. There are so many machines interconnecting us all, so many books and journals and newspapers from throughout the global village in common circulation. The whole earth is accessible to a writer, and there is scant excuse for getting the details of the landscape wrong, or attributing false folkways to a people, There are so many libraries bursting with source materials–diaries, letters, memoirs, minutes of meetings, transcripts of hearings. There are photocopying machines and tape recorders to help collect it all more precisely. And every field is subdivided into a dozen narrower disciplines each with its pecking order of experts, appraising and assessing. Indeed there is so much raw data out there now at the writer’s disposal that it is nearly impossible to detect small acts of scholarly distortion or manipulation that an author cannot readily defend rationally and probably even metaphysically.
If the writer today may be held to a stricter standard of truth, may less be asked of publishers? The latter, though, appear to have been smitten in a different way from authors by the onslaught of modernity. The camera, the telephone, the phonograph, the movies and, most devastatingly, television, have all profoundly altered reading habits. And so our literature has been forced to complete with forms of communication that numb and transfix rather than stimulate us To gain and hold readers, publishers are turning to wares that are increasingly blatant, increasingly unverifiable, and full of short, easy answers in a world that seems to grow more complex, intractable, and toxic by the month.
Other industrial developments have affected publishers. The paperback has assumed command of the market. Books are now cheap, ubiquitous, disposable without guilt, and delightfully profitable to the communications giants and conglomerates that have absorbed all but a handful of the small, independent houses. Mass production means higher stakes; hoopla and hype attend the launching of the latest list, heavy in escapist fiction of undetectable literary merit and self-help books of dubious need and efficacy. A “publisher” now refers less to a person of refined taste and committed values than to a pIace of business, to an institution, a locus of power and profits. Editors are likely to be rated by the number of six-figure paperback sales their judgment has yielded, not how many National Book Award nominations.
Of course many works of quality are still being published, under the guidance of people who continue to view books as the repository of our best sustained thinking and most precise and graceful expression. But they are receiving proportionally less attention and promotion than the outpouring of meretricious merchandise–pseudo-histories that are half-factual, half-fudgicle; quasi-scientific revelations, filled more with demons than plausible data; recipes for self-shrinkage (of body and soul) that exploit our severest anxieties; memoirs by the celebrated-but-vapid and the discredited-and-still-bitter…. Nevertheless, the serious reading public persists in holding the purveyors of our literature to a standard of integrity unheard of in other industries. We continue to think book people are a special breed, no less spiritual than the talent they superintend. It is an antiquarian notion.
Some editors and publishers may yet (and even deservedly) view themselves as the least appreciated of freedom fighters, grimly defending the culture against implacably debasing philistinism. But most gather their rewards to the extent they prove quick-witted showmen in the compulsively competitive word-packaging business. Balancing the demands of truth, art, narcissism, and Mammon makes trade-book publishing the most schizophrenia-prone enterprise in the private sector of the U.S. economy. Ultimately, however, those who operate it must defend the basic values implicit in the book form itself or they will wind up running a medium without a message.
(I) Is it part of the publisher’s responsibility to make sure that a nonfiction book is true–that there is adequate, accurate, relevant support for its statements? To the extent that a publishing house cares at all about retaining its moral position in the community, the answer is of course it must share in the responsibility. Otherwise you are talking about a print shop, not a publisher. What else does the publisher’s colophon mean but that it testifies to the legitimacy if not the sentiments of the books it publishes? Book buyers, booksellers, and reviewers all look to this seal of approval of (if not agreement with) the honest effort a given volume represents. All but the most cynical, conscienceless of publishers are obliged to assure themselves that the great preponderance of the material in every work they bring out is substantially true and accurate.
Few publishers would disagree publicly. But in fact, they shift the burden of responsibility in most cases, to the author, who by contract is required to indemnify the house against damages resulting from any false statements or misinformation in the book. On the face of it, this is not an unreasonable position. Even the most conscientious of authors are necessarily selective in assembling their materials; how, short of retracing the entire course of a book’s research process, can the publisher decide whether the evidence presented is indeed factual, whether cited sources have been quoted correctly and in context, or whether omitted data might materially challenge the validity of the author’s conclusions? Plainly, the publisher cannot serve as omniscient monitor.
But to state the difficulties of the screening process is not to excuse its haphazard application. Publishers may say that what they basically pay an author for is the selection and arrangement of information in a pleasing form, and the most they can be expected to do is to spot-check it for authenticity. As a cost of doing business and retaining their literary franchise, however, they are also obligated to provide enough competent editorial personnel to review every nonfiction manuscript carefully–editors with the time and training to assess the substantiality of the material, the logic of the organization, the aptness of the style; a copy-editing department that hunts for statements factually suspect, arguments internally inconsistent, inferences unwarranted, non sequiturs, and sophistries plain and fancy; a house lawyer or outside attorney to scour the manuscript for libel, invasion of privacy or other illegalities. Unfortunately few publishers properly fund this in-house editorial apparatus, preferring to rely instead on the author’s professional standing (and wallet). Pressed to the wall, the publisher may partially ascribe such nonfeasance of duty–or minimal performance thereof–to the literary license initially granted certain authors; that is, the work is presented to the public essentially as a piece of personal opinion, or idiosyncratic advice, or calculated speculation, or frothing polemic, and its “truth quotient” is both unascertainable and irrelevant. The reader is free, in such cases, to accept or reject all or part of the work upon an exercise of critical judgment. Rarely, however will the publisher candidly label such a book for what it is, and the uncritical public gets hooked. That’s book-biz.
(2) Is the responsibility of trade publishers in this regard different from that of university presses and scholarly publishers? No. Unless publishers of every sort are committed to making the American free press a true press as well, it is not at all clear that our liberty is incontestably better than someone else’s tyranny. A license to lie in print marks the system that permits it as corrupt at its core.
Trade publishers are not required to place the broadening horizon of human knowledge above their quest for profits, and so they will often elect to pass up a work of valuable social content that is not likely to sell beyond a small professional circle. But once a trade house agrees to take on a title, whatever its sales potential, it ought to submit the work to thorough editorial inspection comparable to what the academic presses manage. Few trade houses do.
University presses, it may be argued, are subsidized entities and can therefore afford to hire outside experts to evaluate their manuscripts carefully, and to turn out punctiliously edited, handsomely designed, decently bound books selling at extraordinarily high prices the copy. After all, they are issuing books for the ages. But so, too, are the trade houses, even if it sometimes happens by inadvertence. If they wish to remain pillars of civilization, even while coining a fair return on equity, they cannot escape the incumbent costs of a staff adequate to authenticate those books requiring it. By a similar token, university presses ought to open their lists to nonfaculty authors who produce works of scholarly merit that trade houses will not accommodate. Not all esoterica is divine, nor all untenured scholarship dubious.
(3) What is the obligation of the editor to keep the author honest? Under what circumstances should a special reader be brought in? If the problem is literally the honesty of the author, the editor’s duty is clear–or he is an accessory after the fact and, being better fed than the probably desperate author, the more culpable of the pair. But the real issue is more likely to be one of perspective. Authors are unavoidably myopic about their own work; editors, working on several dozen books a year, have the advantage of detachment. The editor who, whether out of sloth, overwork, or unwillingness to muddy the water, declines to offer an author a candid appraisal of his manuscript, and most especially those sections of it that would bring the veracity of the work under question, dishonors his profession. It is their critical skills, in theory, that distinguish editors from publishers, who are primarily impresarios and controllers. In practice, however, editors who prosper in the book business are the ones who act more like publishers, enlisting and ego-massaging authors, while maintaining close contacts with agents, reviewers, reprinters, book clubs and the house sales force. That leaves little time and energy for sifting over the manuscript, a task either feinted at or passed over to underlings who may lack the experience or will power to confront authors with their lapses. Besides, the pressure is on to get the book into the production pipeline;
To the extent that an editor wishes to disengage from the often tedious process of editing, he or she has the compensatory duty to become familiar with the character, work habits and neuroses of the author, all of which must be taken into account by the people to whom the sponsoring editor yields the inspection job. The editor must bring the criticisms of the support staff to the author’s attention, not gloss over them. And when an editor’s personal expertise does not extend to the subject of the book, there should be no hesitation at enlisting outside experts to review the manuscript. Too many houses balk at this added expense, and some authors view the process as an indignity. This is unfortunate. Given the demands on editors nowadays to produce talent and keep it happy and productive, publishers ought to encourage the spot- hiring of such outsiders as a minimal investment in the integrity of their product line and the mental health of their key personnel. Writers who resent, instead of welcoming, expert scrutiny of their work may be suffering from more than normal paranoia (a chronic occupational condition) or terminal laziness when invited to adjust their immemorial prose. Both maladies may be overcome by selecting outside readers agreeable to the author.