Daniel Gross's 'Dumb Money' Is a Lesson in How E-Books Might Prosper

(PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: Chris Meighan - The Washington Post)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Here's a publishing riddle for you, not to mention a sign of the times:

Daniel Gross has had a book out for almost two months now, but you couldn't buy it in your local bookstore until this week.

How can that be?

Well, if you guessed that "Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation" came out first as an e-book, give yourself points for having your head out of the non-digital sand.

E-book exclusives -- as opposed to e-books published as spinoffs of a printed version -- remain rare, because the market is still too small to sustain them. But Gross's book offers a revealing window on how such exclusives could reshape "p-book" publishing. The decision to bring "Dumb Money" out in paperback, for example, was made only after the e-book's appeal had been established.

Perhaps the most revealing thing about the "Dumb Money" story, in fact, is that everyone involved -- author, agent and publisher -- saw it as an experiment, the kind of small-scale trial run that a late-adopting industry needs to do a lot more of.

It started with the biggest bankruptcy case in U.S. history.

On Sept. 15, the giant financial services firm Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11. Not long afterward, Gross, who had been tracking the economic implosion as a financial columnist at Newsweek and Slate, sent an e-mail to his agent, Sloan Harris of International Creative Management.

"Literally at the same time, he called me," Gross recalls. They agreed that "we should do something."

But what? Gross didn't want to write a standard boardroom narrative. It's not what he's good at, he says, and he's watched too many writers spend years writing books that didn't sell.

"If I could do something quickly, get out before all the people who are doing doorstoppers," he thought, "then I will have had my say, got a book out, everyone will have to account for me or ignore me -- and I'll move on."

Harris knew publishers were looking to experiment with e-books, and he suggested an e-book exclusive. The need for speed was an obvious factor, but the agent had another reason as well:

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