Student Financial Blogger to Publish Book
Zac Bissonnette ’11 (legal studies) is not your typical college student. An editor for AOL’s WalletPop.com and BloggingStocks.com, and blogger for TheDailyBeast.com, this 20-year-old has a new entry on his already impressive resume: a book deal. Publishers Weekly announced last month that the publishing company Portfolio beat out other bidders at auction for his first book.
“It will be about how students and their parents can make better decisions choosing colleges.” Bissonnette explains. More specifically, his book will address the real-world value of a public versus private university education and explores how taking on ever-increasing amounts of student debt is affecting students and their parents. “My ambition is to change the way people think about and pay for college, and to introduce a level of rationality and cost-benefit analysis that historically has been absent,” Bissonnette elaborates. “College is the second largest investment that most people will ever make—the other one being the primary residence—and it’s made by 17-year-olds in an environment steeped in peer pressure and marketing. There is a lack of awareness about the long-term problems created by student loans. So, I want to blow the lid off of that and be the guy who gets people to think about college rationally, based on economics and data, instead of emotions and old wives’ tales.”
How exactly does a sophomore manage to get a book deal? According to Bissonnette, it’s all about being aggressive and ambitious. “You have to be willing to put yourself out there,” Bissonnette says. He exemplified this a year ago by sending an e-mail to Andrew Tobias, the well-respected financial writer as well as treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and one of Bissonnette’s role models. “I told him how much I admired his work and sent him an article I wrote,” he says.
Bissonnette’s assertiveness paid off. Last July, Tobias invited him to attend a benefit lunch for Barack Obama in New York. At the event, Bissonnette met another guest, literary agent David Kuhn of Kuhn Projects LLC. He used to work for Tina Brown, founder of TheDailyBeast.com in November 2008, when she was editor at The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Talk. Grabbing the opportunity, Bissonnette pitched the idea for his book. Kuhn liked what he heard.
“He struck me immediately as unusually curious, talented and ahead of his years, a financial and business writer full of original ideas,” said Kuhn. Kuhn thought that they would be able to develop the idea further and sell it to a publisher. A few months later, they did just that when Portfolio, an imprint within Penguin Group, won the bid for the book. It is scheduled for publication next year.
However, you don’t just land a book deal without experience and knowledge. Even at the tender age of twenty, Bissonnette can claim both. His interest in investing and finance began by playing the stock market game in sixth grade. At 16, he started blogging about finance and business. The fact that he was still in high school did not stop him from expressing his opinion. “I felt like I had something to say,” he says.
It wasn’t long before people started to take notice. “Someone at AOL saw the blog and hired me to freelance for BloggingStocks.com in my senior year. Later I became an editor with that site, and also with the new personal finance site, WalletPop.com,” he says. (When did your position at the Daily Beast begin?) A recent editorial for the DailyBeast landed him on CNN’s American Morning…and then came the book deal.
“I came to UMass Amherst because it was affordable,” Bissonnette notes. “I pay for college myself with no parental assistance and a couple of scholarships [one being the Adams Scholarship that awards tuition waivers to students who score in the top 25% in their school district and earn a 10 on the MCAS.] A lot of people are surprised when they learn I’m a legal studies major. Because I am so focused on writing about financial matters, they assume I’d choose journalism or finance. But I think that when you look at the current financial crisis, many of those bad decisions at leading financial institutions were made by finance majors and MBAs. I think a big part of the problem really was a lack of diversity in terms of mental models that people have brought to business. It’s important to have a more varied background in looking at problems—critical thinking skills are key.”
Bissonnette’s work represents a major time commitment, especially when one considers that he’s taking a full course load. He says, “My work takes at least 60 hours a week—often more, so there isn’t any extra time for things like internships and extracurriculars. I wish I had more time, but that’s life—and it isn’t as though I’m not doing things beyond academics.”
Bissonnette has been very satisfied with UMass Amherst. “It offers resources that provide tremendous value to ambitious, motivated students. Professors are extremely accessible and more than happy to help students with class work and, more importantly, to develop passions and networking. In this economy, UMass Amherst provides an extremely compelling value proposition, although that will be less true if student fees are increased to help meet budget cuts. The National Report Card on Higher Education recently gave the state of Massachusetts an F on affordability, and in this economy raising fees shouldn’t be an option.”
Expanded from an article Niina Heikkinen '11 (journalism and animal science) that appeared in the 1/26/09 Daily Collegian.
February 2, 2009