Think you're the next hotshot author just waiting to be discovered? Finding your way through the publishing maze to success takes more than a great idea. Just ask Little Rock financial planner Larry Waschka, the author of the bestselling Idiot's Guide to Getting Rich (MacMillan).
"I had no idea what I was getting into," says Waschka, who caught MacMillan's eye after doing a radio show on one of his favorite subjects: the financial secrets of millionaires. He accepted the challenge and signed a book contract, but that was the easy part. Waschka found himself writing night and day, sometimes in his boxers, to get the 300-page book turned around on deadline-a speedy month and a half.
Waschka's payoff? Far from typical. The book has sold more than 150,000 copies in the past three years-extraordinary sales volume, especially for a personal finance book. And author Waschka has grossed a cool six figures for his time and energy.
What can budding authors expect as they ramp up to hawk first books these days? An invigorating challenge on a number of fronts. "Personal finance is a crowded field. It's hard to come up with something that's unique or novel," says David Pugh, acquisitions editor at John Wiley & Sons in New York City. "The books that really sell are the ones with the photo of the planner on the cover. They drive sales and credibility. Finding a topic or approach that comes across quickly on a cover is tough."
But that doesn't mean it's impossible. New books are being developed and published every day. And the advent of e-publishing (which allows readers to order books in digital form without the publisher or author incurring the $20 plus in printing and mailing expenses of paper books) can make publishing a less expensive endeavor, especially for specialty or esoteric books. Because of the savings, per-book royalties also are much higher, which is great news for authors.
What can you expect to earn for your time and money? You won't get rich. The publishers of professional books for planners routinely pay advances of between $2,000 and $5,000, while consumer book publishers usually pay advances of $5,000 to $15,000. On top of that, you'll have the potential to begin earning royalties on book sales once your advance is paid off. Royalties average $1 to $2 per consumer book and $4 to $5 for trade books.
Before visions of dollar signs start dancing in your head, remember that few authors ever earn more than their advance, and advances can be downright paltry. Most contracts are designed so that authors must sell 10,000 books or more before they start earning royalties on each book sold.
"I think people should expect to sell between 10,000 and 15,000 books," Pugh says. "Actually, 15,000 books is good, 25,000 very good. We had a book make the bestseller list with 100,000 in sales." Most publishers aren't going to kill themselves to get you on TV or do much of anything to market or promote your book unless you're a big seller already. Suze Orman is an example of someone who fits into this category. The California-based author and advisor, who can unload 20,000 copies during an afternoon chat on QVC, sold more than 2.2 million copies of her runaway success The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom (Crown).
Of course, you have to be able to deliver a cogent and readable book. The core competencies for authors are fairly straightforward. You should have a true and marketable expertise, the skill to effectively develop and organize 125-plus pages of information, and the talent to turn a fair phrase. "You want to make a name for yourself in the planning world first and, if you're writing a consumer book, develop a name and a hook that carries over to consumers," says Pugh.
You should also be really good at marketing and have access to your desired market-whether that's other planners or actual consumers. Are you someone who regularly gives seminars, does radio or TV or writes columns?
Without sheer luck, your own ability to market yourself and your book will be crucial to your success. "You have to be able to develop your own reputation," says planner and e-publisher Peter W. Johnson, the founder of advisorworks.com and advisorworkspublishing.com (the latter is still under construction). Johnson, who comes from Upland, Calif., says several e-books he's acquired the electronic rights to have landed in Amazon's top 10 bestselling e-books list in the past two years. One of them is another Upland, Calif., advisor, Nancy Langdon Jones, who self-published So You Want to Be a Financial Planner, before signing an e-publishing agreement with Johnson. The e-publisher has contracts with both Amazon and Yahoo and sells books on advisorworks.com as well. Jones' book hit Amazon's No. 4 e-book spot, while another of advisorworks.com's books, Wealth on Any Income, by financial coach and UCLA professor Rennie Gabriel, reached No. 1.
"Right now, I think e-publishing is seen as a test market, but there are so many advantages," Johnson says. Digital books can be published on a shoestring budget, which can create significant profits even for specialized books such as Jones'. You also eliminate the problem of returns, which can erase as much as 50% of a paper book's sales.
E-books can contain links, multimedia, rare photos and artwork, and interactive tools. They're also searchable and updateable, and you can fit 40 to 50 books into a pocket PC, Johnson adds. Some books also include advertisements, though Johnson's do not-yet.
The real upside is the amount authors earn-a whopping 25% to 50% of the cover price as opposed to a measly $1 to $4 per book from print sales. Jones couldn't be happier. If Waschka's story is one of proverbial luck and the beauty of being in the right place at the right time, Jones' story is one of pluck. Think of her as the Horatio Alger of the publishing world.
After 23 years as a planner, speaker and professional chat room leader (her favorite topic is how to start a planning business), she wrote a thoughtful book proposal and distributed it to as many publishers as she could find. No bites. Not even a nibble.
Jones was undeterred.
She decided to write her book, So You Want to Be a Financial Planner, anyway and self publish it. That means a good bit more than it implies. She had to apply for an ISPN number, get a bar code and set up a retail Web site (Nancysbooks.com), as well as the ability to take VISA and American Express credit cards. Then the real chore began.
The unveiling of the book was set to take place in September 2001 at the Financial Planning Association's Success Forum. The conference was cancelled following the terrorist attacks of September 11. There is some irony in the fact that Jones' cover is a pre-9/11 photo of the New York City skyline, the World Trade Center in obvious view.
This did not derail sales. Somehow, junior planners desperate for information on how to launch a profitable business found the book anyway. Jones took to printing each copy herself at Kinko's, at a cost of more than $20 apiece. She reduced that cost to $10 a copy by using a commercial print shop that now also does fulfillment. "I used to mail each copy myself," Jones says.
In response to the success of the book, Jones has embarked anew on the seminar circuit. More than 70 junior planners turned out at a recent California FPA chapter meeting to hear Jones discuss the many facets of getting started. She's launching a series of three-day workshops beginning this fall, with the first one scheduled to start October 31 at CalTech. Twenty-five planners are expected to attend the $2,000 workshop. "I think when planners do things right, they can really enhance their business," says John Wiley's Pugh.
That was a real driving force for Ross Levin, who published The Wealth Management Index: The Financial Advisor's System for Assessing & Managing Your Client's Plans & Goals (Irwin Professional Publishing). The book, which has sold more than 6,000 copies since 1996, details Levin's standardized operating procedures.
"This is not a way to get rich," says Levin. "When I did my deal, I got $4,000 up front and $4 a copy. That's pretty standard when you're doing a book for the profession."
But Levin's motivation was not really money anyway. He was contacted by a publisher after finishing up fairly high-profile terms as president and chairman of the International Association for Financial Planning. "My reason for sharing concepts was to create a lasting legacy for the profession. It was also a way to continue to get recognition, which I knew I'd lose after my term at the IAFP was over," Levin says.
Levin, who hopes to write one consumer book before hanging up his keyboard, says he would be a much tougher contract negotiator today. First, the renowned advisor would ask his new publisher for a marketing plan that spells out how they would create a buzz about his book. "I might have been one of their authors, but they didn't do anything to promote the book," the Edina, Minn.-based Levin says of his first book. "I was fortunate that the book was popular in the industry, so it was worthwhile."
Spelling out clearly who gets the rights to the book, especially when sales slow, also is important. "I keep trying unsuccessfully to get the rights, so I think I'd include a requirement for performance next time," Levin says.
Last but not least, he'd negotiate for more comp copies of his own book and a better price for any he wanted to purchase going forward. He only got 33 free copies of his first book and winds up buying his own book from Amazon when he wants to give clients copies.
Authors and editors also recommend trying to negotiate electronic rights up front, which will allow you to sell digital copies of your work through e-publishers like advisorworks.com.
Another reality to consider: Since writing a book is so much work, you have to prepare for hours, sometimes weeks, away from your practice. "I had to completely back out of my office, and that required my staff to sign on to the project, too," says Waschka. "If you don't have a team, forget about it. Don't even think about it. I'd write until I was tired, wake up and write again."
Stewart Welch, a Birmingham, Ala.-based advisor and veteran of consumer books (his third, J.K. Lasser's New Rules of Estate Planning and Tax, was published by John Wiley in January), echoes those sentiments. "It can be stressful. You'd better have a bigger reason than profitability when you take on a book project. Mine was I wanted to reach a bigger audience and make inroads to a nationwide client base, since our firm was poised to take them on," Welch says.
Welch, who is also the author of J.K. Lasser's Estate Planning for Baby Boomers and Retirees (MacMillan) and The 10 Minute Guide to Personal Finance for Newlyweds (MacMillan), says that at the beginning, writing a book can be overwhelming. "You're running a company, working 60-hour workweeks, and then you add a book project on top of that."
But the upside is self-satisfaction at a job well done and prestige, both in the planning community and among clients. The days when million-dollar clients would come in and sign on the dotted line are gone, says Welch. Today, prospective clients routinely have three to five appointments with different planners before they decide who to hire. "When they're meeting with us, I walk back and write a personal note in my book and hand it to them. I think it helps distinguish us. It shows there is more to you and your firm than the guy down the street."
Washington Editor Tracey Longo is the author of three books. Her most recent is Getting Started in Financial Information (John Wiley).