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Self-Published Books, Digital Platforms, and Other Paths for Advisors to Build Their Brands

Barry Ritholtz, and wealth manager turned author, Julie Jason, leverage a love for writing.

Given the hyper-competitive landscape for financial advisors, it’s imperative that they distinguish and promote themselves using every tool available, be it social media, podcasts, columns, and books.

Before the Internet democratized marketing, books reigned supreme. However, an aspiring author needed a respected literary agent, and solid book proposal, to have a speck of a chance at landing a book deal.

And unless the would-be author had a knock-out idea, most literary agents sniffed at proposals by financial types, viewing them as being part of a tawdry “how to get rich” literary industrial complex, notes Wendy Lawton, a literary agent at Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Books and Such Literary Agency, and co-author of The Inside Scoop: Two Agents Dish on Getting Published.

If an author was fortunate enough to write a buzz-worthy book, the expert became “the go-to person for that whole idea,” Lawton says. “Once you become the go-to person, you become a whole industry around that idea, doing seminars, selling books. It opens up many possibilities.” 

While the traditional route still offers tremendous potential, the odds of making a splash are incredibly slim. And in recent years, publishers have offered smaller advances to non-celebrity authors. 

In 2017, for the first time, more than one million self-published books were published. Given this deluge, does it still make sense for financial advisors to self-publish, especially in the digital age? It depends on an advisor’s unique situation. However, despite a relative loss of cachet, self-publishing can confer long-lasting benefits.

Self-published books, which hover like helicopter parents in reception areas, are mostly used as a promotional tool, given to clients, and potential clients, to demonstrate expertise. 

Authors, however, are essentially on their own, as there is little, if any, publicity beyond self-promotion. Most self-publishers and vanity presses “don’t do a very good job of marketing,” says Lawton. “Marketing is the hardest thing; it’s the key to discoverability."

Julie Jason, founder of Jackson Grant, a Stamford, CT.-based wealth advisory firm, has written several books including Retiring Successfully, and The AARP Retirement Survival Guide. Those provided a platform for Jason to speak at conferences, and get her name out. But Jason didn’t write because of promotional objectives. Rather, writing was an outgrowth of her own professional curiosity.

In 1994, one of Jason’s clients was a general counsel at a Big Six accounting firm who wasn’t participating in his company’s 401(k) plan, which matched funds. After she searched the library for a book that covered 401(k)s and couldn’t find any, she literally wrote the book herself. 

First, Jason studied three financial books that she admired, and analyzed their structure. After a friend recommended a literary agent, Jason wrote a book proposal that elicited offers from three publishers, including Simon & Schuster, which offered her the largest advance. It published You and Your 401(k) in 1996. 

A Newsweek feature story about the book generated buzz and additional publicity. Jason was off and running. “I didn’t think of my job as selling a book. I had a voice, something to say, and I did it,” Jason says matter-of-factly. The success of that book led to her follow-up, The 401(k) Plan Handbook (Prentice Hall).  

Immersed in the rhythm of writing, Jason sought steadier readership. She reached out to the publisher of her local newspaper, The Stamford Advocate in 1998. Since then, Jason has written over a thousand weekly columns for the publication.

But Jason has pointed advice for those seeking to build their wealth management firms. “Would I recommend that financial professionals write? Absolutely not,” she proclaims.  Instead she recommends public speaking and telling clients what their practice specializes in.

For some financial pros, however, writing forged a path to success. Long before social media trailblazer Barry Ritholtz opened Ritholtz Wealth Management in 2013, a New York City-based registered investment advisory firm, he wrote articles for his college newspaper The Stony Brook Press, offering a clue that writing was in his DNA.

While working at the trading desk at A. J. Michaels in the early 1990s, Ritholtz taped notes to his computer screen with information on stock upgrades and downgrades, which colleagues asked him to circulate around the office. That scribbling led to blogging on Yahoo GeoCites in 1998.  

Then he penned articles for TheStreet.com while a market strategist at Prime Charter. Like Jason, Ritholtz didn’t pursue promotional goals, at least at the outset. He simply loved to write. Ritholtz was drawn to commentary and narrative, and often had a sixth sense for predicting financial trends before they happened.

In a phone interview, Ritholtz described his motivation for writing: “I get frustrated when I see people write things that are incorrect.” Clearly, Ritholtz is a frustrated man.

After doing numerous cable TV interviews, Ritholtz’s reputation rose further, leading to a column for The Washington Post. He then became a Bloomberg.com contributor, wrote commentary for Business Week, and authored Bailout Nation (John Wiley & Sons).

A prescient 2007 column warning of falling stock prices helped Ritholtz attract a following. People soon wanted to invest with him, which he resisted initially. 

Ritholtz and Josh Brown, co-founder, CEO, and public face of Ritholtz Wealth Management, launched the firm in 2013 with about $93 million. Today, the firm oversees $1.1 billion in assets. And Ritholtz and Brown have well more than a million Twitter followers combined.

Ritholtz acknowledges that all the writing, podcasts and media interviews help attract clients. “People know who you are, and if you are trustworthy, that’s important.”

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