Financial crisis commission's report to bring book advance, cut of profit

The panel's Bill Thomas:
The panel's Bill Thomas: "Intangibles" led to selecting Little, Brown. (Courtesy Of The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission - Courtesy Of The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission)
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By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2010

The government commission tasked with writing a public report to expose the causes of the financial crisis is keeping the structure of its own publishing deal private.

On Aug. 3, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a presidential body, announced that it had chosen Little, Brown and Co. to publish its final report about the meltdown -- an anticipated and authoritative account pieced together by well-known journalist Matt Cooper. It did not mention, however, that the deal had unusual terms for the publication of a public document, including an agreement by Little, Brown to pay an advance to the government and the stipulation that a portion of the proceeds from sales be paid into U.S. Treasury coffers. The commission's chairman, Phil Angelides, said the details of the deal will be divulged once the contract with Little, Brown is finalized.

"Our primary goal was to make sure that it was a great report and accessible to people not just in distribution but in content and form," said Angelides, who, with vice chairman and former congressman Bill Thomas, interviewed several publishers before selecting Little, Brown. "And to the extent that we thought we could do well by the taxpayers, that would be a good thing."

"FCIC is all about transparency," said Will Lippincott of the literary agency Lippincott Massie McQuilkin, who is one of the agents the government hired to sell the book. "But until the contract is complete, it's not a done deal."

Government commissions hooking up with commercial publishers to boost distribution is nothing new. The Warren Commission Report, the Starr Report and the 9/11 Commission Report all did exactly that. But this time the process is raising questions about whether a public report about the exploitation of the commodities market isn't itself being overly commodified. The commission retained literary agents, who will likely receive a percentage of the deal for their efforts, and then auctioned off the manuscript to publishers.

"The government usually does not ask for royalties on public domain documents," said Drake McFeely, president of W.W. Norton, which published the 9/11 Commission Report. This transaction appears to be modeled on the moneymaking kind, McFeely noted: "The FCIC deal was handled very much like a traditional book deal."

The bidding for the report is all the more remarkable considering that downloading such information is no longer so arduous. The book and e-book will hit shelves simultaneously with the report's release in a free and downloadable form on government Web sites on Dec. 15.

Geoff Shandler is the editor at Little, Brown who won the bidding for the report -- and who edited George Soros and worked on the published version of the Starr Report when he was with PublicAffairs Books. He apparently calculated that there would be a market for an authoritative and official history of the crisis, even though consumers could get a version online. (Little, Brown referred all inquiries to the FCIC.)

The book-buying public has already invested in behind-the-scenes accounts of the collapse, such as "The Big Short," written by Michael Lewis, the best-selling financial writer and, incidentally, Cooper's former colleague at now defunct Portfolio magazine. And Little, Brown's bet on that market includes a souped-up e-book version.

'Intangible' benefits

Thomas, the commission's vice chairman, didn't see the deal in dollars and cents but instead noted the value of "intangibles," such as the commission's comfort level with the publisher.

"If you went with the tangibles, we had several opportunities to choose quality publishers who were interested in the product," said Thomas, noting that the deal came down to relationships. "And we felt very comfortable with them. If you have the luxury to choose between several, it winds up coming down to intangibles."

Thomas's fellow commission leader pointed to the multimedia opportunities that Little, Brown offered. "We are looking at a book as well as an enhanced e-version that will link to the documents and video," Angelides said.

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