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July 25, 2019
By Daniel Lefferts and Alex Daniel
The fine art of getting your facts straight.

How does an indie author lend her self-published book credibility? Apart from a good cover image, a professional author photo, and all the marketing bells and whistles, veracity—a book’s adherence to fact, or, to put it another way, its freedom from errors, omissions, and inconsistences—can help distinguish a title from the flotsam of an ever-growing indie market. But when an author is working outside the standard editorial system that most published authors enjoy, assessing her own work’s accuracy—i.e., fact-checking—can pose unique challenges.


The first decision regarding fact-checking that many indie authors will have to make is whether to do it themselves or hire an outsider. Dick Margulis, who offers editing, fact-checking, and design services to publishers and self-published authors through his company, Dick Margulis Creative Services, argues that hiring someone else to fact-check is preferable mainly because it’s difficult to fact-check oneself. “It’s almost impossible to edit your own work effectively,” he says. “If the author thought the statement was correct in the first place, why would she think to fact-check it at all?”

Margulis also says hiring an outsider can save an indie author crucial time. “Once you’ve written your manuscript, you need to change roles. You need to stop being the author and start being the publisher: your goal is to develop a successful product. You should not be doing the fiddly bits.”

Margulis adds that fact-checking is a “minor part” of the basic editing process and doesn’t usually require a “separate pass by a specialist.” Books “do not require the type of fact-checking that news magazines do, where every source is contacted by a full-time fact checker to verify quotations," he says. "The density of facts in a book tends to be lower than in a news article, and the deadlines are usually more leisurely.”

Fact-checking Tips

Errors, like facts, come in all shapes and sizes, and, probably, there’s no one way to identify the parts of a text that require checking and the parts that don’t. But there are, according to Margulis, a few common mistakes that an author should avoid to make her own (or her editor’s) life easier.

For nonfiction books, the accuracy of foot- and/or end-notes (if the book includes any) is paramount. Margulis says, “In that kind of book, the bulk of the time spent fact-checking is looking up bibliographic information to correct the citations. Use a database tool such as EndNote (and use it carefully and well) to take care of the formatting, but get the facts right in the first place.” Margulis also recommends using services such as WorldCat, the Library of Congress, or Google to research citation information.

Another trouble area, according to Margulis, is quotations. “If you insist on using random words of wisdom from famous people, look them up in a reliable source such as Bartlett's or The Yale Book of Quotations.” And if there’s no citation available? “Assume that it’s incorrect.”

Fact in Fiction

It may seem like fact-checking applies only to non-fiction (i.e., fact-based) books. But veracity can play just as big a role in fiction. Peter Fritze, an indie author who writes legal thrillers, fact-checks his own novels rigorously, being of the opinion that “a writer opens [herself] up to questions about the quality of the fiction overall if there are glaring factual mistakes.”

Such errors, according to Fritze, can be surprisingly minute. “I’ve heard publishers talk about how their authors will get emails saying something like, ‘The sun doesn’t set that way at 5 p.m. in May on this-and-this street,’” he says. “Readers, as they get engrossed in a book, really do pay attention to detail—they get involved.” (Margulis echoes this, albeit with a darker example: “If you’re successful at attracting reviews on Amazon, you will be pilloried for any factual errors a reviewer encounters. Those people are mean.”)

Fritze has queried facts of similarly small stature in his own fiction. In his novel False Guilt, a character transports an illuminated manuscript from Italy to Canada in a carry-on suitcase. While editing the book, Fritze realized that, despite his deep research into the topic of illuminated manuscripts, he hadn’t yet determined whether one would fit in a carry-on bag of regulation size. “I ended up emailing the British Museum…and got somebody to pull the manuscript on which my fictional manuscript was based, measure it, and send me the measurements. I was able to confirm that it actually would fit.”

Such attention to the “fiddly bits” (to use Margulis’s formulation) isn’t essential to every work of fiction, or to every aspect of a single fictional work. “Can I say with 100% confidence I’ve gotten every fact checked perfectly? I’m not sure I could actually say that,” says Fritze. “Fact-checking for non-fiction must be essential. For fiction, it’s close to essential. It’s a question of being sufficiently organized, and willing to take the time.”

Indeed, fact-checking is as much a test of one’s patience as it is a measure of one’s attention to detail. Fritze completes as many as 10 drafts of a single novel, and performs “factual cross-checking” at each stage. He also maintains a supporting document laying out facts and information relating to relevant research topics. 

Margulis says that, depending on the nature of the book, there can be “anywhere from dozens to thousands of facts” that require checking. “As to how many of those checks turn up errors, it depends on how conscientious the author was. I've seen as few as zero. I'd say there are typically a dozen to two dozen factual errors that need to be corrected in a book. Sometimes they're minor, but sometimes they're doozies.”