E-publishing: A Q&A with Dan Gross

April 20, 2009

Dan Gross’s e-book on the financial crisis is now out in paperback, just a couple of months after its release. (By contrast, his last hardback book still isn’t available in paperback, a good two years after it came out.) Bob Thompson gives the backstory in the Washington Post: how Dumb Money was commissioned as an e-book, and how come it came out in print so quickly. I asked Dan a few more questions as a followup, via email.

Felix Salmon: I see the paperback is being published by Free Press, which also published the e-book. Did they get an option to do the paper-and-ink version when they acquired the e-book rights?

Dan Gross: Yes, I think so. But the intent, on their end, at the beginning, was to see what would happen if they did this as an e-book exclusive.

FS: Bob Thompson says that “Success for an e-book exclusive, at least for now, means doing well enough that your publisher decides to sell physical books.” Would you agree? On a purely financial level, are you going to make more money from the paperback than you did from the e-book?

DG: No, I don’t necessarily agree with that. For both publishers and authors, there are lots of ways of defining success for a book — whether it makes money for the publisher, whether it makes money for the author (i.e. generates enough royalties to pay back the advance and then some), whether it establishes the author as an expert on a certain topic that can be monetized in other ways (speaking, consulting, new business), whether it makes an impact on the debate, whether it generates positive buzz for the publisher and author. To a degree, in many instances, the number of copies sold at Barnes & Noble is almost secondary to how I regard the success of any book I do. From my perspective, even if it hadn’t come out in paperback, I would have regarded Dumb Money as a sucess. It’s too soon to answer the money question, since all the royalties go into a single pot. Also, to a degree, everybody who has been writing books in the last few years *has* been doing e-books. Many books are offered in Audio form (delivered digitally) and for devices like the Kindle and Sony Reader.

FS: Other than the length, were there any differences between writing an e-book and writing a normal book? You’ve been writing for Slate for many years, did you want to put in lots of links? Or have e-books not reached that point yet? Insofar as there’s a difference between how you write for Slate and how you wrote when you were working on Pop!, where did this project lie on that spectrum?

DG: As far as writing the book, no big difference — aside from the fact that you don’t have to do an index for e-books. And, yes, I did want to put in a lot of links. A lot of the data and material was taken from my Slate columns over the years, and there are times when you think it would be nice to just linke to a table of, say, subprime mortgage origination numbers, or a chart of Toll Brothers’ stock, rather than spelling it out. You can convey a lot more information in a less boring manner with a link. But I don’t think e-books (at least not the format I was doing) are set up for links like that. That said, I do write a little differently online than when I do when I write in print — whether it’s Slate vs. Newsweek or an e-book vs. a hardcover. It’s not that you use less rigor — if anything, your need to get your numbers, facts, and quotes 100% correct is greater online than in print since so many knowledgeable people can pick it apart so easily. But rather you design your writing process for speed and immediacy, you develop a tendency to let go easier, you worry less about word count, and maybe a little less about rounding out chapters with cute endings. More declarative, less discursive.

FS: Do you know of any reviewers who read (or even received) the e-book, as opposed to the print galleys that we financial-journalism types were sent when the e-book first came out?

DG: This is one of the interesting tensions. The publisher printed up galleys when the manuscript was done, and those were the only hard copies anticipated at first. Why? Because the reviewing community still likes to see hard copies. Speaking as someone who reviews book, I sympathize. I find it easier to read longer works in paper than online, and I like to mark-up, underline, fold down corners of pages, and jot notes in the margin. We were also reluctant to send around a PDF of the whole manuscript because of concerns about leakage. Obviously, somebody can take a galley and scan it, and then post the whole thing online. But that doesn’t seem to happen too often. You could imagine, however, the PDF of a book making it’s away online with relative ease.

FS: Have you ever read an e-book? Have you ever reviewed one?

DG: I haven’t reviewed any. I read my own book on the iPhone, and I have read books in PDF form, which I suppose is a form of an electronic book.

FS:  Have you edited or changed the e-book in any way for the paperback version? Insofar as you have, have those changes also been made to the e-book version? How easy is it to edit the e-book now that it has already been released?

DG: The paperback is basically the same as the e-book. In theory, it would have been nice to make some changes, especially to the conclusion and to bring it closer to the present. But you’re still working against the old publishing clock if you do that. It takes several weeks to get the book manufactured, get it into the distribution chain, and onto the stores of bookshelves. So any tinkering would have delayed that process. As it was, about six weeks passed between the time it was available for sale as an e-book and the time it was available as a paperback. INot knowing much about the technical side of things, I would imagine it would be relatively easy to edit the e-book

FS:  Would you do it again?

DG: Absolutely.

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