Truth or Consequences

June 2006
by Curt Matthews

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Curt MatthewsCurt Matthews (photo right) is CEO of Independent Publishers Group and Chicago Review Press, Inc.


Some years ago, a tourist wandering around a huge wine-storage facility in Bordeaux discovered a sign on a section of it that said “Good Enough for America.” When this discovery hit the news, American wine consumers were outraged, and the consequences for the French winemakers were dire. It is never a good idea to disrespect your customer.

Recently some very sophisticated New York publishing folk changed the label on a book from “Fiction” to “Memoir” without feeling the need to change a word of the text. The results in this case were many weeks on the bestseller lists, but also litigation alleging fraud and personal damage.

Every year, I receive dozens of books labeled “True Fiction” to consider for distribution by Independent Publishers Group. These go straight into the trash, because the very idea of true fiction seems to me oxymoronic.

But truth is tricky. Suppose you want to publish a biography of a famous politician. Your book asserts the following: he was born on a particular date and in a particular place; he gave a great speech that made his career; his mistress was in the audience; he ruthlessly exploited her.

These assertions move stepwise from simple matters of fact to much more complex issues. Truth becomes harder to arrive at objectively with each step. Date and place of birth are checkable facts. The exploited mistress is another matter.

Practical Paths Toward Truth in Publishing

For decades now the English and history departments of our colleges and universities have been dominated by the set of ideas (emanating from France, I am afraid) called postmodernism.

Since postmodernism asserts that truth is “culturally conditioned,” all questions of truth—if you accept the strong version of the theory—are relative to particular societies or groups, or even individuals. Objective truth is out of our reach.

There is something to this theory. The truth about that mistress is probably culturally conditioned. Different groups have different ideas about what constitutes the exploitation of women.

But the fact that truth is often hard to find does not, in my view, absolve us as publishers (or as individuals) from doing the best we can to find it.

It would be wonderful if every independent publisher had a fact-checking staff. We don’t, and we won’t. The expense would be greater than all the other costs of editing and printing a book.

Still, there are some practical, affordable things we can do. We can tell our authors that it is their responsibility to recheck all facts—many authors think we will do that work for them—and make sure they do it. And we should remind authors that inaccuracies, even unimportant inaccuracies, will be discovered by reviewers and used to undermine the credibility of the text as a whole.

But by far the most important thing we can do is work only with authors who have the appropriate credentials or experience to handle to the topics about which they are writing. It is not enough that a book is in some sense interesting or plausible, or that there is an audience of the credulous out there large enough to ensure its success. Or that the book asserts a proposition that is true only in the sense that people would like it to be true. Far too many independent publishers succumb to such temptations, even when they know better.

Yet here again there are serious practical difficulties. Highly credentialed authors are expensive, usually too expensive. And a very large part of the value of the independent press comes from its ability to contribute new voices to the cultural dialog. Why not let a thousand voices contend? Surely readers can distinguish between the true and the false.

And besides, what is the damage done? Kids used to say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Books are just words. Any night of the week you can hear political pundits on TV hurling ill-considered opinions and insults at each other, and no real harm is done. The point for the participants, and the audience, is to have a good emotional workout. Truth is beside the point.

When the Gatekeepers Are Gone

The problem with this view is that words do have consequences, in the long run greater consequences than sticks or stones. Readers of bogus cancer-cure books avoid real treatment and die. Children are hurt by stupid child-rearing manuals. There is growing evidence that terrorists do a lot of reading.

Which brings us, as does any discussion of anything, to the Internet. In recent memory, a series of gatekeepers watched over the quality of books. Publishers, wholesalers, distributors, and booksellers made a point of dealing only in books that met certain standards of quality.

These standards were not codified or consistent, and their application had more to do with maintaining credibility for a business than with abstract notions about the value of truth. Nonetheless, these gatekeepers kept a lot of junk off booksellers’ shelves.

The world of Internet bookselling could not be more different. The Internet ethos and business model eschew, reject, and despise gatekeeping. Any object that quacks like a book can be found online. It is an experiment in radical democracy. So what if many thousands of these titles are abject trash. Let the readers vote with their mouses! As for those grumpy old gatekeepers, off with their heads! This is exciting stuff, but in the long run it will not do. The body politic has an immune system, even if it sometimes takes a decade to kick in. In the early days of television, Johnson could sell any amount of wax by showing a pretty housewife admiring her reflection in her kitchen floor. This sort of thing does not work anymore.

Recently a publisher asked me if it was all right to put phony reviews (by the author’s mother, brother-in-law, etc.) for her titles on Amazon. “After all, everyone is doing it,” she assured me. Everyone is doing it, but I suggested she instead send real reviews to IPG so we could put them up on the Internet bookselling sites. Let’s be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. At some point, the American public will wise up.

But will it wise up before serious damage is done? Every time a foolish, dishonest, or sloppy book is sold, a customer is disappointed and disrespected. This is bad business. It damages the status of The Book as an especially reliable source of knowledge. We have a venerable and enormously valuable brand to protect. “Good enough” is not good enough for books or Bordeaux.

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