Last week marked the first official “book” release of the Wharton Digital Press, a venture that’s been taking shape since its formation was announced this past April. For the launch, Wharton professor Michael Useem has written a new management eBook called The Leader’s Checklist. It’s a compact volume that WDP executive editor Shannon Berning explains is “fully inline with what we intend to publish: highly relevant, timely, accessible, conceptually solid, and empirically based.” Add to that list: portable, and available on every platform imaginable.
WDP replaces the now-defunct Wharton School Press, which—despite being founded in 2004—was print-centric and still “a very traditional model,” says Berning. It may have provided the school with its own Wharton-branded imprint, she says, but it was also anchored in a market segment where “sales have declined, and it really became a question: is that the area of publishing that the Wharton school would want to be involved in?”
The folks behind WDP decided the answer was no, and they set out to create a new entity that would, as Berning put it, “really respond to the way people read today.” A title like Leader’s Checklist, she says, really exemplifies the flexibility of the format.
At only 15,000 words, “it’s very short, and highly readable,” says Berning, “and it addresses 15 mission-critical principles that a leader can apply in almost any situation.” Useem cites recent examples of both successful and unsuccessful ventures, drawing lessons from seemingly disparate events like last year’s rescue of 33 trapped Chilean miners, or the 2008 collapse of AIG on Wall Street.
Management success, says Useem, is “a topic that’s very close to my heart.” It’s also his first eBook, and he used the writing process as an opportunity to learn about electronic publishing from the inside. “Like everybody else, I’ve read about, and I’ve thought about it,” he says, “and then I concluded the only way to really appreciate how it works in a more tangible sense is to do it.” (In fact, “learn by doing” is a theme of The Leader’s Checklist).
Useem’s book is a first for WDP, but it has a recent precedent outside of academia in the non-fiction market, where the new site Byliner.com has begun selling original pieces of long-form journalism à la carte—beginning with John Krakauer’s carefully reported rebuttal of Greg Mortenson’s popular memoir, Three Cups of Tea. For the publishing world, the story-behind-the-story of Krakauer’s piece was the discovery a of market for modestly priced ($2.99) but substantial pieces of timely, well-produced journalism. After reading Krakauer’s work, Useem says he realized the same format might work for academic writing.
Krakauer’s piece, says Useem, “is not long enough to be a stand-alone book. But for a magazine it’s a very, very long article.” By aiming at the sweet spot between the two, Krakauer was able to produce a timely piece that was edited, fact-checked, and packaged in a matter of weeks, instead of years.
“I was really impressed that Krakauer was able to use this new medium to great effect, and that really affected my own thinking about the power of the eBook to change the rules of the game.”