Despite a looming recession and full-blown mortgage catastrophe, many personal finance and investing books are still urging consumers to get rich quick. New York Times op-ed columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman says that, just ahead, is “the scariest financial crisis we've ever seen.” As OPEC continues to raise the price of oil and the housing market implodes, no one can say with any certainty when or if the market will correct itself.
So why hasn't the steadily declining economy generated a slew of slump-appropriate books? Instead of addressing the public's growing fears, authors and publishers remain optimistic that their titles will produce the next crop of millionaires. For the cautious reader simply looking to salvage his investments during these tumultuous times, few in the publishing industry seem ready to help him chart a course.
Echoing many of his colleagues, Dutton publisher Brian Tart admits that his books don't try to predict the economy. “Our personal finance books are relevant through depressions and recessions,” he says. “They deal with savings and long-term investments.” Tart believes that there are several things investors can do regardless of what happens with the market. For example, next month's Get Real, Get Rich: Conquer the 7 Lies Blocking You from Success by Farrah Gray promises readers, says the publisher, a “financially rewarding life—whether or not his readers were born lucky, have zero debt, or are Bill Gates—style geniuses.”
Tart sees Gray's success—he became a self-made millionaire at 14 despite growing up impoverished on the South Side of Chicago—as a perennial model for readers to follow rather than a cluster of time-sensitive predictions or instructions. “Plenty of people make a fortune even when the economy goes down,” Tart says. “Most money managers and personal finance gurus rightfully don't try to tell their readers to try and predict these ups and downs.”
Financial Times Press executive editor Jim Boyd also believes that investors can prosper during this economic downturn. “People within the markets see a lot of what's happening as psychology and not fundamentals. A lot of the volatility is largely sentiment.” Boyd does concede that the problems with housing and credit are very troubling, but he remains optimistic. A forthcoming FT title that addresses the personal investor, Living Rich by Spending Smart: How to Get More of What You Really Want (Feb.), explores how readers can save money without feeling deprived. According to the publisher, author Gregory Karp “offers hundreds of simple and specific ways... to use substantial savings to accumulate wealth and cut debt.”
Boyd believes the insights found in finance and investing books need to “have legs” and be somewhat immune to market volatility. He looks for titles that are more practical and focused from authors who've been successful at tackling the market themselves. “There are a lot of people out there who make 60K a year who have accumulated more money than doctors and lawyers making four times that amount because of how they spent their money.”
Of course, a principal reason that books in this category can't always accurately project the market's condition is the lag time from author to agent, editor, bookstore. Publishers purchase books from five months to two years before they reach the shelves, which according to some publishers is well before signs of market transformation become apparent. “This crisis did not become manifest until really very recently,” says Krugman at the Times. “A lot of us thought there might be a problem coming, but this didn't happen until late in the summer. It would require a very prophetic book to have taken account of the collapse of investments related to housing, and the ramifications.”
If books are acquired so far in advance, what can publishers do to assure readers that the information remains relevant, other than to say that the advice is evergreen? HarperCollins publisher Steve Ross has created his own blueprint for success in the personal finance category: “We try to monitor the curve and see the degree to which past and present is prologue to the future.” Ross remembers the late 1990s tech boom, when wild theories were gaining credibility. He asserts that during times of prosperity readers are willing to accept more esoteric advice. But Ross retains a more nuts-and-bolts approach. Jonathan Pond's Grow Your Money! 101 Easy Tips to Plan, Save, and Invest, he says, “has universal applicability. Most of these tips will help you hold onto and grow your money even when the market is not growing. There is nothing esoteric, just common-sense information. The book is 100% about what is in your control.”
Krugman has noticed a sudden trend in the publication of more “personal” personal finance and investing books as opposed to books about business strategy—“the ones with samurais on the covers,” he jokes. “There's a kind of inward turning rather than the In Search of Excellence genre, and less of the 'You Too Can Be Jack Welch' variety.”
Other publishers elect to avoid market-sensitive books altogether. Why risk acquiring a title that may be of no use when it hits stores? Bob Bender, senior editor at Simon & Schuster, knows that a bad market usually means poor book sales anyway, regardless of the message: “No one can perfectly time a book's release to suit the economy.” He therefore makes an effort to publish books of perennial interest—and, like most of his colleagues, relies heavily on an author's platform. Jim Cramer, host of CNBC's Mad Money, is the author of the just published Stay Mad for Life, a book likely to be successful because of the author's public persona rather than its timeliness. (Cramer's book marks its second appearance on this week's bestseller list.) Although S&S notes the book's “timeless principles,” it's Cramer's name that will count at the cash registers.
Ahead of the Curve
Some publishers do make the risky attempt at anticipating the market's direction. “Every day we wake up wondering if our financial institutions will be able to weather the latest storm,” says Joan O'Neill, executive publisher of Wiley finance and personal investment books. “Consumers are looking for experts who can best advise them during these tumultuous times.” Financial analyst Peter Schiff has filled the bill for Wiley: Crash Proof: How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse, out earlier this year, has earned extensive media coverage and critical praise. O'Neill thinks that editors need to be more selective when choosing what to publish. There's “a lot of clutter out there,” she says, and wonders why more books haven't addressed the current market.
One editor who clearly has anticipated the poor economy is Rick Wolff, editorial director of Grand Central's Business Plus division. He, too, finds it curious that there aren't more books dealing with the looming recession and what readers can do to survive. “The economy runs in cycles,” he observes. “There have been signs that everyone can pick up on—the price of oil going through the roof, the housing market's bubble bursting. Things began to crash around us.”
Possibly in direct relation to these signs, Business Plus will publish in January Fast Profits in Hard Times: 10 Secret Strategies to Make You Rich in an Up or Down Economy by Jordan E. Goodman. According to the publisher, the book “reveals 10 simple-to-implement investment venues that can make it easy for you to earn high returns even when the economy is down.” Props to Business Plus: though this book might have been published—and titled similarly—if we were still in the midst of the late-'90s boom, its realistic approach to a fluctuating market will surely earn credibility with readers.
Business Plus is also responsible for Rich Dad's Increase Your Financial IQ: Getting Smarter with Your Money (Mar.) by Robert T. Kiyosaki, whose Rich Dad, Poor Dad titles have been mainstays on several national bestseller lists. (His 18 books combined have sold more than 26 million copies.) Asked how his books could be both timely and enduring, Wolff replies, “Sometimes you just get lucky.”
If All Else Fails
If the current selection of get-rich-quick, doom-and-gloom and good-for-all-markets books doesn't help readers navigate the current economic crisis, there's a brand-new breed of finance literature to assist wannabe millionaires. As if there wasn't enough to ponder in such a tumultuous market, readers are being urged to make a ton of money while doing really hip things.
Broadway Books' Go Green, Live Rich: 50 Simple Ways to Save the Earth and Get Rich Trying (Apr.) by David Bach and Hillary Rosner attempts to help readers save the planet while saving money. Piggy-backing on Al Gore—inspired eco-consciousness, the book advises how to make all facets of life environment friendly.
Once the planet is pollution-free, readers should pick up Jack “The Father of Modern Fitness” LaLanne and Matthew J. Rettick's Fiscal Fitness (Career Press, Mar.). The book is a wacky exercise/investing combination that attempts to show readers the connection between financial and physical health. What's the point of having a clean atmosphere if your body mass index is out of control?
About the new challenges publishers face in the personal finance and investing category, Michael Pye, senior acquisitions editor at Career Press, says, “There has been a lot of repetition of the same material.” Fiscal Fitness and Go Green, Live Rich are sure to break new barriers as far as investing literature is concerned, but will these texts take our economy from bust to boom?
Obviously no one knows what the solution will be. Authors and editors make educated guesses and readers serve as test subjects. Some investors will make a huge profit from the knowledge gained in these books, while others will have lost a lot more than a cover price. If Krugman is right, we are in for a long bumpy ride down a steep hill. However, lest investors be overly discouraged, there are still those out there who don't view this market downturn as overly distressing. “Even if the economy goes in the tank for six months to two years, things will eventually turn around,” says Dutton's Tart. “This will not be 1929.”
Like all these publishers, we can only hope.