It is a dilemma familiar to publishing houses around the world. An author turns in a nonfiction manuscript which has the potential of becoming a runaway best seller, but the publisher lacks the resources to determine whether the material is entirely factual. As a result, most North American publishers insist that authors dealing with controversial subjects sign a contract agreeing to accept liability for any errors in their books. Said Douglas Gibson, publisher of Toronto-based Macmillan of Canada: “When you come right down to it, we are at the mercy of our writers. So much of the relationship between a publisher and an author has to be based on good faith.”
Sensitive: Still, the fact that there is a liability contract between author and publisher does not assure readers that the books they buy accurately reflect the events that they describe. Unlike many newspapers and magazines, book publishers do not usually employ researchers to check and rarely do they make an effort to verify independently their authors’ versions of reality. “How could we?” commented Scott McIntyre, president of Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., a Vancouver publishing firm that specializes in nonfiction books. “A typical work of nonfiction contains hundreds and hundreds of facts. You could spend two or three months just trying to check
everything out.” As a result, most publishers simply send questionable material to their lawyers to have it checked for any obviously libellous statements. “If there’s anything suspicious of any kind, it’s supposed to be flagged and checked,” added McIntyre.
Experienced authors find it easier than novices to have sensitive material published. “If Pierre Berton walks into your office with a story he says is true, you do not check any further,” said Jack McClelland, chairman of McClelland & Stewart. “But if it’s someone you do not know much about, then your editors had better be pretty systematic about going through the book.” Like many book publishers, Janet Turnbull, vice-president and publisher of Seal Books in Toronto, relies on a network of contacts at Canadian newspapers and magazines to provide her with information on unknown authors. “That is the nice thing about working in a publishing community as small as Canada’s,” said Turnbull. “If I have not heard of a writer before, I can usually find out within an hour if he has any reputation.”
At the same time, pub-
lishers admit that their reliance on a writer’s track record sometimes leaves them vulnerable to mistakes. Said McClelland: “It is very easy to be misled by an author who builds up a solid reputation and then suddenly becomes sloppy.” A classic example of a deliberate hoax was Clifford Irving’s 1971 “autobiography” of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, a book accepted by New York publishers McGraw-Hill partly on the strength of Irving’s reputation as a freelance writer. “If a trusted, regular author had walked in here with a similar manuscript, we could have been suckered the way they were,” Gibson acknowledged. “Every publisher lives in fear of that sort of thing.” Last December the respected New York firm Random House was forced to recall all 58,000 copies of a sensational biography of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton after the discovery that a doctor whom the book claimed had supplied drugs to Hutton had been only 14 years old when the alleged incidents took place. “We certainly regret relying on the assurances the author gave us but we really had no reason to doubt him,” said Gerald Hollingsworth, vice-president and general counsel for Random House. “Other than hooking every writer up to a lie detector, there is really no way to protect yourself from a kamikaze attack.” Lawsuit: Despite the pressure on publishers to come up with a best seller, most industry spokesmen flatly deny that the lure of profit shapes their decisions about controversial books. Contended Hollingsworth: “The profits from a successful work of nonfiction would not even begin to pay for a major lawsuit.” In Canada the uncertain economics of the book industry and the fact that Canadian libel laws are tougher than those in the United States make Canadian publishers even more cautious than their counterparts south of the border. Still, a little controversy is not necessarily damaging. As long as a book is not discredited completely, a lively public debate—especially if it becomes international—about it can reinforce the perception that the work is important—and increase sales significantly.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.