August 23, 2008; Page W1
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One of the most anticipated books of the fall is "The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life." The title's publisher, Bantam, paid $7.2 million for the North American rights and expects to sell more than 1 million hardcover copies of "The Snowball," which is due out Sept. 29.
Few investors have generated as much sustained public interest as Mr. Buffett, one of the world's richest men, with a fortune estimated as high as $62 billion. R.R. Bowker's Books in Print says there are an estimated 60 titles in print about him, with more than a dozen new ones on tap this year. Now Bantam is about to find out whether there's a limit to Buffetmania.
|Warren Buffett, 2008.|
What separates "The Snowball" by Alice Schroeder, was that Mr. Buffett pledged his cooperation to the first-time author. He gave her open access to two large file rooms that included material on his investments, his correspondence and topics of personal interest, she says. She says he provided her with a letter that she was able to show to people she wanted to interview that confirmed he was cooperating with her. The author, who initially met Mr. Buffett in the late 1990s when she was covering Berkshire Hathaway Inc., as an analyst at Paine Webber, estimates she spent 2,000 hours with Mr. Buffett during the project and recorded 300 hours of interviews. Mr. Buffett is chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, an Omaha-based conglomerate with large insurance holdings.
The book's title is based on a comment that Mr. Buffett is said to have once made: "Life is like a snowball. The important thing is finding wet snow and a really long hill."
|Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images|
|Mr. Buffett in 1980|
Some publishers estimate Bantam will have to sell 600,000 to 700,000 copies to make a profit. The book's performance may well be affected by how much the 77-year-old investor cooperates in publicizing it and "how much he represents that the book is accurate," says Adrian Zackheim, publisher of the Portfolio business imprint of Pearson PLC's Penguin Group (USA). (Mr. Zackheim gave the manuscript a close look, but ultimately wasn't among the final bidders.)
It's an intriguing issue because Mr. Buffett doesn't currently have plans to promote "The Snowball." In an email, an assistant to Mr. Buffett said the investor is "not doing interviews about the book at this time."
A person familiar with the situation says Mr. Buffett was initially upset about some of the content. The issue has to do with his first marriage. Mr. Buffett's first wife, Susan, left him and moved to San Francisco in 1977. The two, however, never divorced, and with his wife's encouragement, Astrid Menks, a waitress at the French Cafe in Omaha, eventually moved in with Mr. Buffett. She later married him following Susan's death in 2004.
The matter has been discussed publicly in the past, specifically in Roger Lowenstein's 1995 "Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist," which stated that all three got along well together. Mr. Lowenstein is a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal.
|Mr. Buffett with Bill Gates in July 2008|
In an email Friday, an assistant for Mr. Buffett said Mr. Buffett said it was "not true" that he was limiting his promotional support because he was initially upset with the contents of the book.
Ms. Schroeder says Mr. Buffett understood that her book would explore this aspect of his personal life. "He said to interview anyone I wanted," she says.
What is less clear is whether Mr. Buffett expected that Ms. Schroeder would seek out and interview as many people as she did who were familiar with Susan Buffett's life. "He said he wanted to reconcile his public and private selves," says Ms. Schroeder. "He knew I was thorough."
Ms. Schroeder acknowledges that Mr. Buffett disagreed with some of what he read in the manuscript but says he didn't ask her to delete anything. She adds that she has "multiple sources for everything of any significance in my book."
In a previous email, Mr. Buffett said, "I'm fine with the book and hope it sells well. It treats me better than I deserve but I'm willing to adjust to that." An assistant to Mr. Buffett said the book will be available for sale at the company's next annual meeting in May and that "sales should be very high."
|Mr. Buffett throwing out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers baseball game against the Kansas City Royals, June, 2008|
Some publishers wonder if the absence of Mr. Buffett on the morning talk shows could be a problem. Former General Electric Co. chief Jack Welch tirelessly flogged "Straight from the Gut," his 2001 memoir, on such shows and was able to overcome the fact it was published on the day of the 9/11 attacks. Revered both on Wall Street and Main Street, Mr. Buffett is only sporadically available to the public and would be a big draw in any television and radio campaign.
"It's very curious, because Warren clearly authorized her to write this book," says Rick Wolff, publisher and editor-in-chief of Business Plus, an imprint owned by Lagardere SCA's Hachette Livre. "This is unusual. A lot of money was spent on the book."
Irwyn Applebaum, publisher of Bertelsmann AG's Bantam Dell Publishing Group, says Mr. Buffett's participation in promoting the book was never guaranteed. "He gave her access to his contacts, his friends and the opportunity to get to know him better than any other writer, which is what makes the book so outstanding," he says. "Would we love to have Warren Buffett doing interviews for the book? Who wouldn't? But we're moving ahead as planned." Ms. Schroeder has been booked to appear on NBC's "Today" show on Sept. 29.
Ms. Schroeder, a public accountant by training, was a well-regarded insurance analyst at Morgan Stanley in 2003. After obtaining Mr. Buffett's cooperation on the book, she agreed to take a leave to work on the project full-time -- she remains an advisory director -- and when news of that decision circulated on Wall Street, several publishers contacted her. A friend then suggested that she work with agent David Black, who represents such best-selling authors as Mitch Albom and Erik Larson.
|The cover of 'The Snowball' by Alice Schroeder.|
"People were beginning to slice him into tiny bits: investor, corporate manager, whatever," says Ms. Schroeder of Mr. Buffett. "I thought: This man has a unified way of looking at everything. It is one set of ideas. The right book answers the question: What events in his life formed this man and influenced him?"
In fall 2005, Mr. Black submitted a 160-page proposal to New York publishers. Two eager frontrunners emerged: Bantam's Mr. Applebaum and Gina Centrello, publisher of Bertelsmann's Random House Publishing Group. Each was asked to fly independently to Omaha to meet with Mr. Buffett. "He needed assurances from publishers he had never met that they wouldn't market the book in a way that presented him as the quasi-author or that would make untrue claims," says Ms. Schroeder, 51 years old.
Mr. Applebaum, who ultimately triumphed, declined to comment on the content of "The Snowball." And while he noted that it has become a ruthlessly competitive marketplace for new books, he added, "Some books burn brightly week after week, and that's our expectation here." Bantam declined to make a copy of the book available.
Many believe "The Snowball" will be a major hit. "It will be my biggest book of the year," says Dave Hathaway, business book buyer for Barnes & Noble Inc., the country's largest book retailer. "There's a certain amount of mystery that shrouds him. He's the last true business icon."
The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life
By Alice Schroeder
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