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Knopf Publishes History Book Which Confuses Woodstock, NY, With Town in Illinois

4080028612_122c120f8d_oThere’s a meme circulating the publishing industry to the effect that the major publishers have been lowering their standards as they slash costs. I know editors and authors who believe it, and after reading a recent history book from Knopf I believe that meme as well.

The local newspaper in Woodstock, NY reports that they’ve found a few problems with Knopf’s recently published history book on the Catskills region of New York state.

The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America reportedly describes the 500-year history of this region in southeastern NY state, but local experts dispute its  accuracy. According to the Woodstock Times, several of the photos used in the book did not match up with the paper’s recollection of the local geography, and it gets worse from there:

In an effort to describe Woodstock “in the early 1950s” the reader is informed that, “manufacturing was represented by the Woodstock Typewriter Company on North Seminary Avenue, where it had existed since 1913. On Clay Street, Woodstock Tie and Die Casting, the town’s largest employer, was home to twenty-two hundred workers producing auto parts for Ford and Chrysler.” Okay, let’s pause there and absorb that information. First, neither manufacturing company every existed here. Second, no street in Woodstock (our Woodstock) ever bore such names. And, finally, unless they were well hidden in some mountain hollow somewhere, I think we would have notice “twenty-two hundred workers” laboring to produce auto parts for two major auto companies. It goes on. “A Montgomery Ward and a Woolworth’s anchored a small but solvent district in Town Square, along with ‘five food stores, two long-established banks, four meat markets…two bakeries, A Sears Roebuck order office, two hardware stores, three drug stores and Wes Pribla’s fur shop,’ according to the Woodstock Independent.” Sorry, none of this is true.

And that’s just the beginning of the problems. A reviewer on Amazon confirmed that that the company and street names quoted above did not exist in the town of Woodstock, NY, adding "Maverick and Byrdcliffe are not so far out of town, by any means. As for Holsteins – there weren’t nearly as many here as suggested in the book."

I was able to confirm some of the reports in Google Books, and in doing so I also confirmed the clue which may explain how this mistake happened.

A newspaper by the name of the Woodstock Independent is cited as a source, and that detail is interesting because there is no such paper in Woodstock.

Well, there’s no such paper in Woodstock, NY, I should say, because this newspaper actually operates in Woodstock, Illinois. And sure enough, a quick search of that paper’s archives turned up Pribla’s fur shop on the “Square in Woodstock.”

The Woodstock Times contacted Knopf and informed the publishers of the errors, but there’s still no explanation as to how the errors slipped through the editing process. The book was penned by journalist Stephen M. Silverman and filmmaker Raphael D. Silver and presumably edited at some point, but it looks like someone took the easy route and merely confirmed the source of the facts rather than confirming the accuracy of said facts with a second source like a local historian, a town map, or Google.

Given the lack of attention to detail, it’s a wonder that the book doesn’t mention local resident Snoopy the dog.

This is the type of newbie mistake that could lead you to write about the Nazi occupation of Paris, Texas, during WWII, or the rioting in the capital of Georgia during the Greek financial crisis. It’s a common problem in both journalism and book publishing, which is exactly why one needs to confirm details with an independent source.

Someone at Knopf is about to learn that lesson in a very public and very painful way.

image by sashafatcat

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Reader March 21, 2016 um 9:05 pm

One reason the Big Five inform us that authors should go to them and not publish independently is that the Big Five will EDIT what the author has written.
Not this time.

Will O’Neil March 22, 2016 um 12:51 am

Even in the 1980s, working with some of the most respected publishing houses, my experience was that the editing was very uneven. There was no question that editors did catch problems and make improvements, but an author was a fool to count on it, even then. It does seem to me that that the problem has grown worse over the past three decades, and even in books from highly respected academic publishers I see things that should never have gotten past careful scrutiny by people who understood the subject. Ultimately, if you as an author want to publish a high-quality book it is up to you.

The WWW has made fact-checking easier than it’s ever been. I can recall spending days and a lot of shoe-leather tracking down facts I could check today in less than five minutes without ever leaving my computer. If you’re writing about a subject that is at all specialized the odds are that you have friends who can help much more effectively with getting the facts right than any professional writer. And if they are at all literate they can help with clarity and style issues as well. I’ve found that a sort of "mini-crowdsourcing" works very well for me.

Richard Adin March 22, 2016 um 4:38 am

First, Nate, thanks for this article. The book was on my list of books to buy; now I won’t bother.

Second, I can vouch for the errors as errors. I spent much of my youth in Woodstock, NY (I lived nearby in Kingston, NY), which was the 1950s and 1960s, and the described Woodstock was definitely not Woodstock, NY. My Woodstock was the center of the universe for folk and experimental music with residents like John Sebastian, Paul Butterfield, and Bob Dylan, and it remains a small albeit major music place — but not a major manufacturing center.

Finally, I am not surprised that these errors appeared in the book. These are not copyediting errors because copyeditors are rarely paid to do fact checking. Of course, the book might also not have been well-copyedited, but in today’s publishing world, publishers do not pay editors for fact checking; they consider fact accuracy to be the responsibility of the author. And if the copyediting was also poor, that shouldn’t be too surprising. Chances are very good that the editing was done offshore (i.e., outside the United States by an editor whose primary/first language is a language other than American English — think offshored help centers but for editing) where the very first consideration is low price, not high quality. I AM NOT implying that all American editors are good or that all non-American editors are bad. That is most definitely not true. What I am saying is that the first criterion for hiring an editor today is (most times) how little can the editor be paid. The second criterion is how many noncopyediting tasks can the poorly paid editor be required to perform for that low price. And the third criterion is how short an editing schedule can be imposed on the poorly paid but task-overwhelmed editor. Whatever can’t be required of the editor is required of the author, which almost always means fact checking is the author’s responsibility.

Of course, a knowledgeable editor would query the author, but that is not the same as fact-checking, especially as unknowledgeable compositors often strike "excessive" queries as too many changes at the proof stage costs money, and many authors ignore editor queries.

Nate Hoffelder March 22, 2016 um 7:20 am

Rich, Knopf says they’ll fix these issues in the second printing. (but will they fix the other errors?)

And I do understand that fact-checking isn’t a copyeditor’s job, but it has to be someone job. How could any publisher risk their brand like this?

fjtorres March 22, 2016 um 9:22 am

How? By being more concerned with buyers than readers, by focusing more on moving "widgets" than the actual content of the product, and by putting out product by the thousands so no single product is important enough to them that doing it right matters to the decision makers.
When a corporate publisher puts out 17,000 titles in a year getting one or two or a hundred fiascoes is just part of the game and budgeted for. It is cheaper than getting it right for every title.

It is always about the bottom line.

Error embarassment | Making Book March 22, 2016 um 10:58 am

[…] of details about the Illinois burg as if it were in New York’s green and pleasant land. The Digital Reader, having examined the files of The Woodstock Independent (a much-used source in the book, but […]

Nate Hoffelder March 22, 2016 um 11:46 am

Richard Hollick defended Knopf earlier today and put the blame on the authors:

That notwithstanding, it is of course rather unlikely that any poor editor working away lickety-split on their latest Knopf freelance job could be expected to realize that the descriptions were not of businesses or even streets in the right Woodstock. We all know that there’s no way anyone at a book publisher’s is going to go in for fact-checking, and call the local chamber of commerce. We just don’t have the budget for such things. No, we rely on the authors to get it right. To them the embarrassment appropriately belongs.

I get the sense that the authors are also freelancers. Neither seems to be an expert on the area, nor are the historians, so I wonder if they were paid a fixed fee for the book.

Richard Adin March 23, 2016 um 4:31 am

Felix, you have it exactly right. I remember the days before the consolidation of publishers. Editors competed to work for Random House when it was run by Bennett Cerf because the emphasis was on quality and if a book needed another year of development, it got it.

I also remember working for family-owned specialty publishers. Again, quality was important. If editing required more time, the schedule was adjusted. In addition, every so often the pay for the services rose.

Then came the wave of consolidation. Family-owned presses were bought out and merged into the international corporate culture. Instead of editorial decisions being made by editors, all decisions were made by bean counters. Publication schedules became the gods to be worshipped and never changed. Freelance wages stagnated (today’s fee that publishers pay is exactly what was paid in 1995 with a great deal of pressure to reduce it) and the definition of copyediting changed — less emphasis on editing and greater emphasis on mechanical aspects. Most importantly, schedules became shorter and sacrosanct; publishers needed the books published to meet quarterly goals (once the book was shipped to the wholesaler or retailer, it was counted as sold).

The bottom line rules, even at academic presses, these days.

Richard Adin March 23, 2016 um 4:34 am

Nate, they will only fix those errors that have been especially identified. They will not go through the book page by page looking for and fixing errors. So if no one has pointed out that Woodstock, Canada was not the site of the Woodstock Music Festival, the error will remain.

Becki March 28, 2016 um 10:32 am

Working at a public library, I’ve had lots of experiences with books released (with good reviews!) that have terrible mistakes in them. The worst was when I ordered an expensive encyclopedia about the state, and found numerous errors in the sections covering my county. I contacted the publisher about these errors, giving the exact page numbers, errors, suggested corrections, etc. When the second edition came out, I contacted another library that purchased it to find out if the corrections had been made. They hadn’t. In fact, other errors had been added to community histories in my county. So I will no longer purchase from that publisher!!!

Angry March 31, 2016 um 1:39 pm

"in a very public and painful way"? Sure. Some freelancer with no credentials bid low and got this job, not the production people inside Knopf, wouldn’t you say? As an editorial freelancer who’s caught countless substantial factual mistakes like this, I don’t see any end to the downward spiral, where people even for the bigshots do crappy work for a pittance. This jig is up.

Knopf Publishes History Book Which Confuses Woodstock, NY, With Town in Illinois – Smart Writing Tips April 16, 2016 um 10:13 am

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