-- Warren Buffett is back in the news with stakes in General Electric and Goldman Sachs, and advice to buy U.S. stocks. But as Buffett has generated headlines through the years, one factoid has gone largely unnoticed: He keeps an army of book writers busy and the publishing industry hungry for more.
There are 47 books in print, according to Books In Print, that have Buffett's name in the title. Borders Books CEO George Jones says no other living person, aside from U.S. presidents or other major world political figures, is named in so many titles, except the Dalai Lama.
To publishers, the 78-year-old Buffett has been hot for more than 15 years, and is gaining momentum. New books released just this month: Pilgrimage to Warren Buffett's Omaha: A Hedge Fund Manager's Dispatches from Inside the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting by Jeff Matthews and Warren Buffett and the Interpretation of Financial Statements: The Search for the Company with a Durable Competitive Advantage by Mary Buffett and David Clark. Janet Tavakoli's, Dear Mr. Buffett: What An Investor Learns 1,269 Miles From Wall Street, is racing to be the first Buffett book of 2009.
The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, which was released Sept. 29 to fanfare and fortuitous timing, has ambitions of becoming the best-selling Warren Buffett book of all time. It has 700,000 copies out and ranks near or at the top of most non-fiction best-seller lists.
Snowball's list price is $35, not cheap, but owning the 47-book, 14,178-page Buffett library would cost more than $1,000, and that's if buying the less-expensive paperback versions when available.
Buffett sees it all as simple capitalism at work. "A market system ensures that anything will find a publisher if it can be written easily and will sell some minimum number of copies," he says in an e-mail. "I just wish I had received a royalty on them all." Then the man worth $50 billion adds parenthetically, "That is tongue in cheek."
Buffett has a rare combination of financial genius and Midwestern approachability that offers "the charisma of movie stars" and the genuineness of "your favorite uncle," says Peter Knapp, marketing director of business and finance books for Wiley.
He has hit the sweet spot, and some authors say they have been pressured by publishers to get Buffett's name or photo onto a book jacket.
Invoking his name for the sake of sales
One of the first authors to write a Warren Buffett book was Luki Vail, except that hers really had nothing to do with the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. The book was first published in 1992 and republished in 1996 as While Waiting to Win the Lottery! The Baby Boomers' Money Manual.
Two years later Robert Hagstrom was out with The Warren Buffett Way, and sales of that book were headed for 1 million copies when someone at Vail's publisher found a reference to Buffett embedded deep inside her personal finance book. It was a one-paragraph anecdote squirreled away in Chapter 25 that had nothing to do with investing. But it was enough to get Vail's 1996 edition renamed without major revision: Invest Like Warren Buffett, Live Like Jimmy Buffett: A Money Manual for Those Who Haven't Won the Lottery.
"Nobody can invest like Warren Buffett. Warren's Warren," says Vail, now a semiretired financial planner in Carlsbad, Calif.
Even with two Buffetts in the title, it never sold well, Vail says, not even when Jimmy Buffett (the laid-back singer friend of Warren Buffett, who is no relation) stocked it at his Margaritaville store in Key West, Fla. It's out of print and not among the 47.
When Randy Cepuch submitted Nose Under the Tent: Adventures at Shareholder Meetings, his publisher, Thunder's Mouth Press, persevered on a name change to A Weekend with Warren Buffett: And Other Shareholder Meeting Adventures. Cepuch yielded because the first chapter is about Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting, although subsequent chapters are about meetings at other companies, including Citigroup, Google and Gannett, parent company of USA TODAY.
Before changing the name, Cepuch got Buffett's permission. Cepuch balked when Thunder's Mouth Press wanted a photo of Buffett on the cover. Cepuch says he insisted on "more generic artwork."
A 10.2-pound Warren Buffett book
Snowball, the decade-long work by former insurance industry analyst Alice Schroeder, is meaty at 976 pages and ships at 3.6 pounds. But the length record is still held by Of Permanent Value: The Story of Warren Buffett, which Andrew Kilpatrick revises every year or two. It weighs in at 10.2 pounds, 330 chapters, 1,874 pages and 1,400 photos. The $60 book is two volumes and nearly 400 pages longer than War and Peace. It's so cumbersome that travelers at Eppley International Airport in Omaha — home of Berkshire Hathaway — often have it shipped home, says Jim Ross, manager of the Hudson Booksellers store inside the terminal.
The 47-book library does not double-count revised editions, or any book republished in paperback, nor audio, large-print or e-books. It does not count foreign-language editions, although Buffett is such an international sensation that translations begin as soon as the English version is edited. The Tao of Warren Buffett: Warren Buffett's Words of Wisdom has been published in Chinese, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic and 13 other languages, says author Mary Buffett, who divorced Warren Buffett's son Peter in 1993 and has co-authored five books that have the name of her former father-in-law in the title.
Warren Buffett's personal favorite? The Essays of Warren Buffett, by Warren Buffett, which he says is "a coherent rearrangement of ideas from my annual report letters" as edited by Larry Cunningham.
There seems to be a Buffett book for everyone. Even for those more interested in the Dalai Lama than the Oracle of Omaha, there's Warren Buffett and Tao Te Ching: A Modern Investor and an Age-Old Philosophy. Author Yingpei Zhang of San Antonio says he has no reason to believe that Buffett has read the ancient text by Lao Tzu but decided that great minds think alike. Buffett must have independently found an Eastern-like path toward riches by mastering "desirelessness and inactivity, thrift and non-competition," Zhang says.
That may be a way of saying: Buy companies at a bargain and hold them for the long term. Indeed, the new Snowball book is named for a Zen-like Buffett quote: "Life is like a snowball. The important thing is finding wet snow and a really long hill."
Zhang has sold about 100 copies of his self-published book. Others have done better. Publishers are reluctant to "fess up their sales figures," Knapp says, but Warren Buffett Speaks: Wit and Wisdom from the World's Greatest Investor by Janet Lowe has sold about 200,000 copies, as has Roger Lowenstein's 1995 Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist, which was long considered to be the best Buffett biography written. Schroeder says Lowenstein's was the only book she relied on when writing Snowball because he interviewed people who have since died.
"Buffett's a star in a very arcane area of disciplined investing that average people don't understand," Lowenstein says. "He articulates it in a way that they do understand. He's the Ann Landers of investing."
The No. 1 Buffett book that Snowball aims to beat is Hagstrom's The Warren Buffett Way, which is at 1 million copies and still selling. Mary Buffett estimates total sales of her books at more than 1.5 million worldwide, including 1 million total for her two Buffettology books.
Bantam Dell Publishing, never confirms book advances, but they paid more than $7 million to publish Snowball, according to The Wall Street Journal. Bantam is calling Schroeder's book the first one written with Buffett's cooperation.
"I don't think you will find any other authors who have interviewed him," says Schroeder, who has 300 hours of recorded interviews and spent many other hours observing him working.
Buffett says it's a "good book," but he tires of people referring to Snowball as "your book," and he often has to explain that Schroeder was responsible for the content. "I cooperated with Alice, but I was not a collaborator," Buffett says.
Other authors say that their books were not written in a vacuum. Mary Buffett says that she had access for 12 years as a member of the family spending summer vacations in Omaha and at family Thanksgiving and Christmas reunions in California. She describes her relationship with Warren Buffett as "friendly," although he has never included any of her books to be sold at Berkshire Hathaway annual meetings.
" I couldn't tell you exactly why or why not," says Philip Black, owner of The Bookworm in Omaha, who each year gives Buffett a list of books available. Buffett approves about 25 to be offered to 25,000 shareholders at the convention center in Omaha.
Buffett has been known to drop authors a line
Authors say that Buffett seems tickled when he receives manuscripts and writes gracious notes of encouragement and suggestions. Cepuch says Buffett saved him from embarrassment when he corrected a corporate homonym from Coke to Koch.
"I talk to Buffett on a regular basis," says Lowe. "He's been very kind and generous and willingly signs copies of my book for those who ask."
Lowe says she once got a note from Susan Buffett, Warren Buffett's first wife, who died in 2004. "She said my book most accurately reflected the Warren that she knew," Lowe says.
Kilpatrick self-publishes and sells about 2,000 copies a year, about 200 to 300 of those at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. He says he has read every word of other Buffett books, many of them two or three times. He often gets calls from publishers, but conversations are short because he refuses to trim his 1,874-page "labor of love."
Once a publisher wanted Warren Buffett as the first two words in the book title. Kilpatrick insisted on Of Permanent Value, a deal breaker, he says.
"From a sales standpoint, that's probably a mistake," but Kilpatrick says he gets intrinsic value each time he revises Of Permanent Value: The Story of Warren Buffett and sends a fresh copy off to Buffett in Omaha.
Kilpatrick gets a short note back from Buffett, usually saying something like: "Too skimpy."