Jean Chatzky visited our offices in June 2004 at the invitation of PW publisher Joe Tessitore. Chatzky, an author and the financial editor of the Today Show, brought along literary agent Richard Pine, independent publicist Heidi Krupp and Allison Sweet, publicist for Chatzky's publisher, Portfolio, the business imprint of Penguin Group (USA).Chatzky and her team briefed us on her new book,Pay It Down! The book can help millions of Americans, they said, for its simple, workable solutions to the crisis of personal debt in America. They are determined to make the book a major success. We realized that here was an opportunity to study how an author does—or doesn't—break out.
The Agent: Richard Pine
The snug lobby of Arthur Pine Associates offers comfort and substance rather than glitz, we note a few days after Chatzky's visit. There's a small teal sofa, copies of Daily Variety and plenty of books by the agency's clients past and present. We spot a James Hall, a Wayne Dyer and an Andrew Weil. There's James Patterson, handled by the agency for more than 20 years. And there's Arthur Agaston of The South Beach Diet. Arthur Pine founded the agency in 1968. He died four years ago. Richard, his son, who first worked for the firm in his teens, now runs it.
Pine's phone rings as we greet him in his workaday office. He's very lean and dressed casually in a white shirt, blue jeans and sneakers. We see James Siegel's thriller Derailed on a shelf and ask about the upcoming film. Pine explains that the call was to tell him that Jennifer Aniston is a lock for the female lead.
We ask Pine how Chatzky became his client. He smiles. When Pine smiles, his eyes glitter. "It was interesting because we were friends. She called and asked if she could see me. She talked to me about where she didn't feel she was connecting. We had a number of conversations and decided to work together."
There's a reassuring stillness about Pine, the literary agent as Yoda. Pine's guidance has led Chatzky to two contracts with Portfolio—on last year's You Don't Have to Be Rich, whose sales underwhelmed expectations, and on Pay It Down! As important, it has led to the creation of the team.
"She's got me, [attorney] Richard Heller, and we brought in Heidi Krupp of Krupp Kommunications. With Jean we're the four-headed monster. I guess I am the one who with Jean will make final decisions, and also come up with what the picture ought to be and assemble the team.
"The exciting thing about this book is that it's a cause. Jean called me, saying, 'Richard, we are approaching a crisis. I've got to write a book about it.' I asked, 'What's that?' She said, 'Personal debt.' "
Pay It Down! is remarkable for its brevity and small trim size, but mostly for its solid content: an inspiring, detailed guide to how the average American family (with $8,000 in consumer debt and 16 credit cards) can pay off its debt in three years by saving $10 a day and applying that money to debt reduction.
The Author: Jean Chatzky
The Chatzky residence is an impressive white brick house with five pillars, on a road looping through some of the most expensive real estate in Westchester County. The grounds are a postcard of success, smudged only by the hint of frugality in the worn Honda Accord parked on the circular drive.
The author and a big golden Lab greet us at the door, days after we've visited Pine. Chatzky is an attractive, elfin brunette between youth and middle age. She leads us upstairs, through a room where her husband, an affable guy who's the local own mayor, is preparing their daughter for some karaoke.
Chatzky's office is small and white. She sits at her desk, we in a sidechair. She explains that she needs to check tomorrow's Today show segment, and logs on.
"You're a fast typist."
Chatzky talks as she types. "My mother insisted I take typing in high school."
Chatzky's parents influenced her in many ways. Born in Detroit, she was, she says, "raised all over the Midwest." The family followed her father through careers in telecommunications and as a television station manager; her mother took jobs as a teacher and school librarian. Solidly middle-class, her parents taught Chatzky the place of money. "I was really into saving back then," she recalls. "I was babysitting at 11. When I was 13, we were going to DisneyWorld. I had been saving for souvenirs. I had this bank that was like a Pringles can. I had calculated that I would have $40 or $50 in there, which was a ton of money. I opened it up, and somebody working in our house had managed to steal the money, with tweezers or something through the little opening on top. I was devastated. My parents replaced it."
Upon graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Chatzky got a job at Working Woman magazine and, she says, "lived in Brooklyn in a walkup for $300 a month." Stints followed as a freelancer, a cooking school student, an equity researcher at Dean Witter, a fact checker at Forbes. Then in the early '90s, Chatzky was hired for the startup of Smart Money. There she focused her writing upon personal finance. "I wrote about money through the window of people's lives."
She stayed at Smart Money for five years before moving to Money. "I've been at Money for seven years. My title is editor at large, but I don't edit. I just write. Money put me on the back page and saw the value of having me on television."
In conversation, Chatzky is bright and earnest. She speaks with the care of a television commentator and looks like one in a smart pink blouse, floral print skirt and small gold earrings. Yet her sincerity and enthusiasm and close family reveal her as the working suburban mom she also is.
"Why are you successful on TV?" we ask.
"Money has the potential to be a very threatening subject. I don't look, and I don't sound, like your father's broker. I may be saying the same words, but it's easier to listen to and maybe to absorb coming from me." (Weeks later, we catch the executive producer of Today, Tom Touchet, by phone as he is rushing to Athens for the Olympics. The show is currently running a Pay It Down! series in which Chatzky is working with couples to reduce their debts. "She's invaluable," Touchet says about Chatzky. "She gives practical, simple information and advice. It's wonderful for our audience.")
While at Money, Chatzky was approached by Wiley to write her first book. The Rich & Famous Money Book grew from profiles she had done about the finances of celebrities like Dennis Rodman and David Brenner. On a friend's recommendation she hired Robert Shephard of San Francisco as her agent. "He's a very smart, talented guy," Chatzky says. "But working with somebody that far away was difficult." She adds that the book "didn't do very well at all. I don't think it served a need."
Talking Money (2001) was Chatzky's second book. "It's a guide to personal finance from A to Z in easy language," she explains. "Shephard was the agent. Publisher was Warner. It did okay. It didn't blow any doors down.
"Between book numbers two and three, I got to know Richard, on the train. Richard was in the same college fraternity as my husband's brother. I sat next to him one night, and I was reading the galleys for Talking Money and— 'It wasn't how I would have done it,' was how he put it.
"Richard Pine is coordinating it all. He's the person with whom I dream up things, and then we try to make them happen. Richard has really good instincts and a ton of integrity. And I needed to work with somebody who could think bigger than I could. Heidi Krupp and Rich Heller add to that. Rich Heller is my attorney. He thinks three steps ahead of me."
The Attorney: Richard Heller
We reach Heller by phone at his Manhattan offices. Heller likens his relationship to Chatzky to being her "chief of staff. We bring the team together with an agenda, and we set certain standards and look at what we're trying to achieve over the next six months or year or three years.
"Being that chief of staff," he cautions, "also means that sometimes I have to be Switzerland. There are literary agents, there are talent agents, there are publicists, there are sometimes merchandising and licensing agents, there are certainly speakers bureaus, there are business managers. My job is to make sure that everybody's working in the same direction."
We ask what projects he's exploring with Chatzky. Heller cites "new opportunities in television. Where her goal is to be able to develop her own programs, either as a host or an executive producer. We have looked at radio, too.
"We all believe that she is well positioned to be a top authoritative voice on personal finance for the public. And as you know, personal finance concerns how you live your life."
The Publicist: Heidi Krupp
Hired on Pine's recommendation, Krupp is working with Portfolio on the promotion for Pay It Down!—the first time Chatzky has used an outside publicist. "I'm overseeing the entire PR campaign," Krupp tells us in a phone call. "I met Jean a few years ago and we had lunch. Then about two years ago I met Richard and we worked together on this fun project, The South Beach Diet."
Like everyone on the team, Krupp believes that Pay It Down! will be Chatzky's breakout title. "This is her tipping point. It's news you can use, it's single topic. She has all her media platforms in place, and everybody has the same message. It's very strategic and very smart."
The Author: Jean Chatzky
At her house, Chatzky recalls an article she read about an English professor whose study concluded that "Money can buy happiness. And it would take $1.5 million. I knew that was wrong. Folks at the magazine backed me, and we hired Roper to do a study of 1,500 Americans and came away with the habits that separate people who are happy with their money from those who aren't."
Those findings appeared in her third book, her first with Portfolio, You Don't Have to Be Rich. Portfolio is bringing out a paperback edition this fall with a new title: The Ten Commandments of Financial Happiness. "The book sold well," Chatzky says, "though not a blockbuster. It wasn't tangible enough. It didn't solve one important problem for people; it tried to solve a lot of different problems. And happiness is such a big ball of wax.
"We need to share this information, because until we start getting it off our chests, we're not going to make progress as a society. There are so many corporations out there that have all this money to study ways to get us to part with our money, and to get inside our heads and make us spend. We need people on our side to help us fight back."
The Imprint: Portfolio: Adrian Zackheim, Will Weisser, Allison Sweet
Launched by Penguin Group (USA) in fall 2002, Portfolio releases about 20 books a year. Perhaps its best known success is Seth Godin's Purple Cow. The imprint resides in Soho's stylish Saatchi & Saatchi building, which features a vast marble lobby that's three stories high and eerily empty except for some wall art and a security desk deep within. The view from publisher Adrian Zackheim's functional office is as full as the lobby is barren, offering a stunning overlook of the Hudson and the Statue of Liberty. It's the same day that we visit Pine. Zackheim looks ready for work in a white short-sleeve shirt and glasses tied in back. Also in the room are Will Weisser, Portfolio's associate publisher and marketing director, and Allison Sweet.
Zackheim leads. "When Richard Pine said that Jean wanted to do a book about debt reduction, and that the Today show wanted to make it a major focal point, and that Money would be on board and probably USA Today Weekend, it was a no-brainer. It's a book that you can understand right away. She has the great platforms, and she's such a winning person. She obviously is motivated to help people improve their lives. There's a kind of generosity about Jean that comes across in everything she does."
"What's the first printing?" we ask.
Weiser answers. "I think it's in the range of 60 or 65. Which is about where we were on the last one."
"We're coordinating all of Jean's ventures at once with the same message, all hitting at the same time," offers Sweet. "You're not going to be able to turn around without seeing Jean and debt. The book goes on sale the Thursday before Labor Day. The week of Labor Day, things are going to be brewing. The week after that, which is the week of the 12th, Jean will be everywhere."
The Agent: Richard Pine
During our chat with Pine, he tells us that he and Chatzky first went with Portfolio "because Adrian completely understood her potential and was putting his money where his mouth is. What I and Jean have been wanting to do is to move her from being strictly a journalist to being someone who is more of a teacher, an inspirer and an adviser. With You Don't Have to Be Rich, the personal finance side combined with the emotional side. There are all these people who are passionate about her as a television personality. What we've got to do is to take that passion and turn that into more of a general 'I want to be taught by this woman.' "
He collects his thoughts. "The culture has to be ready to absorb what you put out there, even if you put it out there perfectly. Our bet is that the culture is going to see this woman's seriousness. Hopefully there will be a very significant number who say, 'You know something? She's right.' "
"What," we ask, "is the key to her appeal?"
"I think to the generation older than her, she is your friend's brainy daughter who knows about money. Here's this nice, open person who is generous with her time, her thoughts. Her peers see her as the friend who knows about money. The percentage who know about money, really know, is minuscule. So the value of a teacher is extraordinarily high."
To help reach those whom Chatzky might teach, Pine has turned to the Web. He and three of his major clients—Andrew Weil, Arthur Agaston and Chatzky—have partnered with the same Web hosting firm, Waterfront Media.
The Web Masters: Watefront Media
We speak with two principles of Waterfront at the PW offices in early August. One, wiry and intense, introduces himself as Ben Wolin, CEO and cofounder of the company. The other, stockier with confined energy, is cofounder Mike Keriakos, who heads business development, sales and marketing.
"We run the official Jean Chatzky Web site," Wolin says. "Richard brought her to us. We offer a combination of great free content and tools that Jean has created with us and a paid subscription product. The most important part of the site is a mailing list of about 300,000 people who receive a free financial tip from Jean. This is the most direct relationship with Jean Chatzky fans out there. The number one reason Jean is working with us is that we can help jump-start any project. We will aggressively promote Jean's new book. And we will partner to sell it with Amazon or Barnes & Noble."
Waterfront works like a traditional publisher in that it licenses Jean's work as does, say, Portfolio. "All our relationships with our partners are royalty relationships," Wolin explains. "Jean gets a percentage of sales. For us, it's a combination of advertising, book sales and subscription revenue."
Keriakos jumps in. "On average, 3% to 5% of the people who are receiving the content became paid customers over time."
The site includes live chats with Chatzky, q&as, message boards and more, most notably "Debt Buddies." That, explains Wolin, is "a way of connecting people who are going through the same thing together. One of the best things about self-help and Jean's material is that it's great to do with another person, or a community—and finding people is one thing the Web is very good at."
The Online Community: Brian Hoyt of AOL
Chatzky's other dominant online presence is at AOL, where she has been the Money Coach since November 2003. In this largest of Net communities, she interacts with members via a message board and also writes a column and keeps a journal. "We're doing some pretty cool stuff in the last quarter of 2004, to focus on Pay It Down!" spokesperson Brian Hoyt tells us by phone. "We've created a number of video examples that will stream through the Money Coach page, with Jean on cam. And there will be excerpts of her book also available online."
The Author: Jean Chatzky
As Chatzky readies to go to dinner with us, we look out behind the house. There's a broad, well-manicured expanse of lawn with a large inground swimming pool. This is good, we think; we wouldn't take financial advice from a pauper.
We drive into town and take seats at a bustling, homestyle Italian restaurant filled with couples and families. Over spicy pasta, we ask Chatzky the aim of her book.
"I think this book is the right idea at the right time," she says. "We are at a terrible crossroads for a lot of people where debt is concerned. We've got too much of it and the era of cheap money is over. I think the only way to enable mass America to get out of debt is give them an easy-to-follow plan. And that's what this is."
The book's cover shows a brunette holding out a crisp $10 bill, her face hidden by the money. But that's not Chatzky behind the bill. It's Allison Sweet. This is Chatzky's first book not to feature her face on the front of the jacket (she's on the back). We ask about this.
"I love that I'm not on this cover, because this is not about me. It's about people who can come up with $10 a day to get out of debt."
"How will you help the book succeed?"
"I'm going city to city. We have the cover of USA Weekend. We have stories in Money magazine. I'll do the Today show, of course. We'll continue with the people there until we get their credit scores high enough so that I can refinance their mortgage at a decent rate. That's where they're going to see the payoff."
"Where do you find the people?"
"They write me. I did a segment with Matt Lauer where we announced that we were going to help somebody get out of debt. I got 5,000 e-mails in 24 hours."
The Publisher: Susan Petersen Kennedy
The office of the president of Penguin Group (USA) is, like Adrian Zackheim's, in the Saatchi & Saatchi building. But Kennedy's space is guarded by an assistant who sits in a small, smart lobby dotted with orange armchairs. Kennedy's office itself is impeccably decorated in shades of green. There's a large desk, a seating area, a luxurious spray of flowers on a ledge, a dramatic Tibetan thangka on one wall and many bookshelves. The titles on the shelves come from various houses. Kennedy explains that she keeps rivals' work around to remind her that it's a crowded industry.
Kennedy is the last person we speak to regarding Chatzky. We mention that it took some dancing to get an interview with her. "I don't talk to the press," Kennedy says with a smile. She explains that it was only through the recommendation of Marilyn Ducksworth, who heads corporate communications at the house, that she agreed to meet.
"What does Jean Chatzky mean to the Penguin Group?" we ask.
"I think she epitomizes a certain strain of our publishing beautifully. Her agenda is a positive force in the world—that you can do something about what appears to be a hopeless personal situation. And here's how you go about doing it.
"You can see that the book is there now," she says. "That she's really delivered the goods. And she's a wonderful communicator. So at this point, to some extent it's in the hands of what I think of as the bookselling gods."
Kennedy, we note, looks every bit the publishing president, with her commanding presence, in her perfectly tailored charcoal suit, in this elegant office.
Because Kennedy shies from the press, we take the opportunity to ask how it's going for her. "It's going very, very well for me. We're doing fabulous books, which is really important to me. I mean, that really is personally really important to me. I have a terrific team. [She lowers her voice playfully.] And this is why I never talk to the press, because they don't care that I think that."
As we leave, Kennedy holds us back. "I feel like we must give you a book." She looks around, then picks one up from her coffee table. It's the galley for a novel Viking will publish in January 2005.
The Author: Jean Chatzky
We're ending our meal with Chatzky, and wondering if she might write a sequel to Pay It Down!
"Perhaps," she says. "Or a show. Or there's the Pay It Down! Guide to Getting Out of Student Loan Debt. And the Pay It Down! Guide to Owning Your House in Ten Years."
"How does it feel to be the center of all this attention?" we ask over loud voices and Italian music.
"A little strange. I felt great when a woman came up to me in Boston and said, 'I just got divorced. You're the only one I could listen to. I did what you said. Now I have $30,000 in the bank.' That made my year."
When the check arrives, Chatzky assures us that, as this is a cash-only restaurant and we may not have known that, she has brought enough money to cover dinner. (We pay.) Outside, she stretches up and kisses us good-bye on the cheek.
Can Jean Chatzky, working with Richard Pine and the team, leverage herself onto national lists for the first time? Will Pay It Down! fulfill its promise of helping turn around Americans' debt? As team members told us, the message is simple; the need is compelling; the platforms are thrumming. Perhaps the rest, as Susan Petersen Kennedy said, is in the hands of the bookselling gods.