Tuesday, November 15, 2011

'Killing Lincoln' and How Errors Can Sneak Into a Textbook

That pompous schmuck Bill O'Reilly and his co-author Martin Dugard are currently being raked over the journalistic coals for substantive errors in their bestselling book, Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever.
Civil War experts, including a book reviewer from the official magazine of the Civil War Society, have cited at least ten errors in the book. According to an article on Salon.com, assassination author Edward Steers Jr. cites these errors and more from the book:
  • A farm where John Wilkes Booth hid after the killing was not 500 acres, as the book noted, but 217 acres.
  • The book refers to John Ford's chief carpenter as John J. Clifford. In fact, his name was Gifford.
  • Lewis Powell, the man assigned to kill secretary of state William Seward, did not speak with "an Alabama drawl," as the book notes. Powell was from Florida.

These errors to the nonhistorian might seem petty, but suppose there were similar errors in a healthcare textbook? As a healthcare expert, what would you say?

You'd probably say the same thing that Mr. Steers said about O'Reilly's book: "If all of the above sounds like nitpicking, consider this. If the authors made mistakes in names, places, and events, what else did they get wrong? How can the reader rely on anything that appears in Killing Lincoln?"

The answer is complicated.

Every book has errors

Consider this: There are errors in every book published. Every, single one.

Don't take my word for it. Ask yourself, when was the last time you read a book that didn't have at least one misspelling or punctuation error, or an odd line break where there shouldn't be one, or any other error, factual or otherwise?

I'm guessing that you've never seen such a book, and neither have I.

The same is true for textbooks. Every acquisitions editor at every healthcare publisher has published books with errors in them. From the wonderful Rhonda Dearborn at Delmar, to the fabulous Joan Gill at Pearson, to the marvelous Katey Bircher at Jones & Bartlett, we have all published books with errors.

And we all absolutely and unequivocally hate it.

Our authors hate it even more. They work so very hard to create the very best possible book, and then, after the book publishes, they find this error or that and ask, "How did that happen?"

Here's how

That Pompous Schmuck's book aside, errors can creep into a book in nearly innumerable ways, from poor copyediting to a poor author, from reviewing the same content over and over again to not looking at it enough, from technical glitches to printer error.

We publishers put into place as many safeguards as we can to prevent errors from reaching the reader, and they work nearly all the time. But then, sometimes, for inexplicable reasons, one particular book will be beset with problems and will inevitably hit the shelves with more than the usual number of errors.

I suspect that's partly what happened to That Pompous Schmuck's book. I suspect — and that's all it is, a suspicion — that part of the reason there are so many factual errors was that the fact-checking team at the publishing house (Henry Holt, a division of MacMillan) fell a bit short of its goal. It happens.

Mostly, though, I think the errors, at least the ones I've seen, were the result of the author's lack of competent research, and that's a whole 'nuther ball game. The publisher can try as it might, but it can't overcome a bad author.

So in this case, let's blame — say it with me, now — That Pompous Schmuck!