Integrity is everything

Over the past few months, we’ve been more swamped by misinformation than ever before. As if current events weren’t confusing and anxiety-causing enough, we’re also awash in unfounded rumours, inaccurate hot takes, conspiracy theories, and dangerously unscientific medical ‘advice’. 

It seems that anyone with a Twitter account can expound their theory that lemons cure Covid, protests are backed by the Illuminati, or 5G is slowly turning us into hamsters. Social media is the natural spawning point for misinformation: it is too fast, too unmoderated, and too irresponsible. 

By contrast, we have the book.

No one can ever accuse publishing of being too quick to respond to current events. The creation of a book is a slow and stately process. Nor is a book an unmoderated channel: it passes through hand after hand; ‘gatekeeper after gatekeeper’. And, in stark contrast to the hand-washing routine of the major social media platforms, a publisher takes responsibility for the books they produce. 

These factors - the time, the judgement, and the responsibility - set books apart from other forms of media. Accordingly, one of the great virtues of the book is the authority it conveys. Unlike a Facebook post (or even the occasional online column), writing a book is understood as an expression of expertise. It is the tangible proof of one’s “10,000 hours”; something that an author can point to and say, quite literally, I wrote the book on it. 

For publishers, this remains one of the sector’s unique selling points - a marketable benefit when it comes to recruiting prominent voices to pen profitable books. Politicians, vloggers, reality stars, and business titans are drawn to publishing by the authority the book conveys: the money is undoubtedly handy, but they could rake it in more efficiently elsewhere, and with far less effort involved. There’s a prestige to being an author, an additional gravitas that comes with printed expertise.

For readers, reading a book is how we learn; how knowledge is safely carried from author to reader, across generations. Every part of our educational and cultural system assures us that books are inherently authoritative. Books are how we learn things; the right things. We understand that books, unlike social media, cannot contain misinformation.

But is that true?

Just in recent years, we’ve seen books on mental health that actively discourage psychiatry, diet handbooks that cause eating disorders, and political histories that are thinly veiled anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. These are the equal of any bizarre post on Facebook, yet unlike Aunt Bea’s Paintshopped memes, this misinformation comes in book form, given all the authority and credibility thereof.

These seem like extreme cases, but they’re only a few, easily-Googled examples. Nor are any of these books self-published, an industry that comes with its own lack of policing and oversight. These are all titles for mainstream audiences from major publishers. There are also the ‘business as usual’ challenges of plagiarism, inaccuracies, and deadly mistakes

The publisher made the choice to acquire the book, and from that moment, their fates are inextricably linked. The publisher markets the book; they sell it to retailers; they design the cover for maximum attention and tidy up the layout to make sure the contents can be consumed with the least possible effort. The publisher is responsible for disseminating the book, and the information within it. 

Scarily, the book is often just the beginning. The platform for future dissemination. Off the back of the authority given - and the publicity provided - the author does the festival circuit, the radio show, the Guardian feature... They are now a reputable voice on mental health, nutrition, or religious authority. Why question them? They wrote the book on it. 

Everyone relies on publishing to provide the critical scrutiny. But are we providing it?

For each individual book, publishers need to factor in the resources they need to ensure this doesn’t happen as par. It is unfair to expect a single non-fiction editor, or even team, to be an expert on everything from mental health to football to mushrooms. Nor is a full peer review process necessary for every YouTuber’s diet book, but building in the time and money for meaningful oversight would only help the final product - and ultimately avoid costly mistakes. The balance of artistic quality and commercial efficiency is the strain at the heart of publishing, but inaccuracy comes with risks beyond any mere typo.

The second problem is systemic. The authority a book conveys is one of its major selling points - to both authors and readers. If this authority is consistently undermined, it cheapens the value of the book as a trustworthy vehicle for conveying ideas. Why read the book when it is no more trustworthy (and far more inaccessible than) YouTube? Books are already the most effort-intensive way of learning about a subject, and, with the loss of credibility, there goes their last competitive advantage.

The mainstream media, in the rush to please, has already run aground on the discovery that misinformation can undermine public trust. Publishing can’t afford to be the next in line. That means publishing - not necessarily less - but better. Making the publisher brand stand for something again: not just an empty logo on the spine of a book, but a promise of accuracy and quality.