Peter Sander

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Meet a local author whose 15 books include rankings of U.S. cities—and who thinks Sacramento has some room for improvement.

“I call myself a writing professional rather than a professional writer,” Peter Sander says, holding aloft a slice of pizza as though it’s about to be introduced as a visual aid during a presentation. In addition to being the author of 15 reliably selling books, Sander is, after all, a business and government expert who ended his 21-year career in logistics, marketing and project management at Hewlett-Packard only five years ago. Presenting is in his DNA.

And while his comment, made over a three-hour lunch at Roseville’s Macaroni Grill, may sound like whimsical juxtaposition, it actually exemplifies his commitment to precision (as do the extensive woodwork and remodeling he’s done at the home he’s owned in the Hidden Valley section of Granite Bay since 1988). Sander sees himself as neither a generalist nor a journalist—a professional who, under contract, could churn out copy on virtually any topic. Instead, he’s someone with expertise and experience—not always the same thing—in specific areas and happens to be among the handful of professionals who know how to explain their know-how in print. And he does this on some very tight deadlines: Sander’s shortest due date to produce a book has been two months; his most luxurious has been six months.

Although most of his books have dealt with financial subjects—including Value Investing for Dummies, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Day Trading Like a Pro and The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Living on a Budget—Sander’s most recent emphasis has been on researching, compiling and co-writing huge softcover tomes that assess the livability of U.S. cities. Best Places To Raise Your Family, published this year, lists the most affordable communities in the country that also enjoy gratifying standards of living, offer educational opportunities, meet health and safety considerations, and provide appealing lifestyles. You won’t find Sacramento on the list; but Folsom ranks well as a runner-up in the “Best for Lifestyle” category and in the “Author’s Choice” awards for best schools, best for water sports and best “for just plain fun.”

Meanwhile, the second edition of his Cities Ranked & Rated will be published by Wiley Publishing, Inc. in February. In the first edition, which came out in 2004, Sacramento ranked in the top 25 percent of what Sander and his co-author, Bert Sperling, called “Principal U.S. Metropolitan Areas.” Sander is understandably coy about how the capital will fare in the sequel. “That information gets embargoed by the publisher,” he says. But he hints that the area’s growth and gridlock, increased crime rate and commute times, and air quality issues might knock several points off its overall score.

“Sacramento has a very healthy notion of how cultural and entertainment amenities add to the region,” he says. “And it has a better art environment than other cities of its size.” Sander also praises the city for turning what many years ago was a liability—the onetime derelict’s haven of Old Sacramento—into a major tourist attraction.

“On the other hand,” he says, “developers are given an awfully free hand in this region. There are so many governmental jurisdictions to deal with that you don’t get consistent growth patterns. Developers can call the shots a lot of the time because no single entity has emerged to run the show.”

Sander also thinks that the region “hasn’t done a very good job of promoting itself as business-friendly. It hasn’t attracted enough of the companies that produce local jobs, endow the arts and whose very presence can help lure other companies.”

He’s gesturing with another pizza slice as he says that Sacramento’s economy “is too dependent on state government and real estate construction. People may look at our relatively low unemployment rate and think, ‘Well, that’s a pretty solvent place.’ But most of that solvency has been attained on borrowed money. There’s not enough new wealth here.”

• For someone who runs from being characterized as a professional writer, Peter Sander certainly looks and lives the part. At a little more than 5 feet 7 inches tall, he’s trimly muscular. With his cropped-close charcoal hair and gray beard, he looks like a more compact version of the late great actor George C. Scott, particularly when he played a character in the film Islands in the Stream who was a fictionalized version of Ernest Hemingway, on whose book the movie was based.

As Hemingway did, Sander seems to do everything he can to counter the image of a writer’s life being sedentary. Three times a week, he and a group of pals from his H-P days play Ultimate Frisbee, a nonstop, non-contact sport that combines the rigors of rugby with the civility of badminton.

On the day of this interview, he’s moving slowly, however. He has just returned from celebrating his 50th birthday by hiking to the top of Half Dome, the 8,800-foot testament to panoramic views and cardio distress in Yosemite. “We had a 30-miles-per-hour crosswind when we got to the top,” he says, “and all of us were also watching the sky pretty carefully. Half Dome is known as one of the world’s great natural lightning rods, and we really didn’t want to end the hike on a bad note.”

Sander’s vigorous lifestyle has less to do with his harboring a self-image as a macho man of letters than pure pragmatism. “To do what I do—write books quickly, assignments that are more like project management than literary exercises—requires physical fitness,” he says. “Exercise clears my mind, lets me work just long enough each day to accomplish something and helps me keep up with my family.”

Sander has been married since 1993 to Jennifer Basye Sander, an author and book “packager”—she comes up with ideas for nonfiction books then finds the authors and publishers to make them happen. The couple has two young sons: Julian, 11, who’s currently writing and illustrating his own book, Turkeyzilla; and Jonathan, 7, whose nickname is Pips, in homage to a character in the film FernGully. Not surprisingly, the entire Sander household has collaborated on a book, The Gross News, which, as its title suggests, is “a compilation of news stories about gross topics, the kinds that boys love since the stories involve boogers, flies in bowls of soup and that sort of thing,” Sander explains.

 

Sander says that the most rewarding thing about what he does for a living is that it enables him to work at home. “I’m able to take the kids to the bus stop in the morning and pick them up at night,” he says. “And it gives them the opportunity to see what their parents actually do to pay the bills. I don’t think very many kids get to see their folks work.”

Sander’s parents, who died three decades ago, were commercial artists. Their creative lives, combined with an abiding curiosity about the world around them, doubtless fueled their only child’s fascination with the nation’s cities. “When I was a kid,” he says, “my parents never took me to Disneyland. We always took road trips and different routes than the usual, wherever we were going. By the time I was a senior in high school, I’d already been in 38 states.

“The conversations in the car always began, ‘Say, what if we lived here?’ Years later, when I took business trips for H-P, I’d fly out on Friday to get the cheapest weekend fare, then rent a car and drive around to explore everything around the town I was going to be meeting in the following week.”

After Sander’s parents divorced, his mother married a man who wrote books on communications. “Mom helped him do the research, and by the time I was in college, I was part of the team,” he recalls. “I guess the seed was planted then. Seeing a book come out and seeing my mom’s name in it—well, I thought that was pretty cool.”

And apparently inspirational. Today, he says, “I still find it great to walk into a Borders and see my products on the shelves. Don’t forget, in the 21 years I worked for H-P, I never really saw all the things I did reach the marketplace. Nothing had my name, my fingerprints, on it. That’s how I can survive today, at least psychically, on half of the money I made when I worked there.

“It’s also nice to be recognized for my expertise,” he continues—then abruptly stops. “That just isn’t going to sound good in your article, is it?” he says. “I don’t mean that I’m some sort of guru because of these books. I just mean that it’s nice to have people seek you out for what you actually know and who you actually are.” He frowns. “No, that still sounds arrogant,” he says. It doesn’t, of course, but it provides a sneak peek into the author’s compulsion to communicate precisely.

Sander says he originally wanted to be a city manager. He holds a bachelor’s degree in urban affairs and administration from Miami University of Ohio and an MBA in logistics management from Indiana University. His lifestyle books offer him the opportunity to take dispassionate looks at scores of municipalities and make some educated guesses—backed by research and statistical analysis—of what’s right and wrong with them.

“I think when an area is ruled by a ‘uni-gov’”—a single government entity, rather than a plethora of counties, cities, townships and special districts—“it has a better opportunity to coordinate its planning and its vision,” he says. “Indianapolis and Denver have figured this out. San Francisco, too, to some extent. But it’s pretty much limited by all of the surrounding cities in the Bay Area and not always able to do things as independently as it may want.”

The audience for Sander’s city books is more varied than one might expect for what are, essentially, very impressive term papers. He says that his readers tend to be people wishing to change jobs, real estate agents and journalists who need an accessible reference source (especially when they’re covering stories that occur in cities other than their own). He says his city-ranking books are purchased as graduation or wedding presents: “It helps people answer that question, ‘Where do you want to be in 10 years?’”

“There are a lot of facts [available] about any place, and people can find most of them on the Internet,” he says. “What I do, and where I add value, is to figure out how the puzzle pieces fit together. Does a place really ‘work’ for those who live there?”

Sander says that when he reviews a city as a place to live, “I don’t look at just ‘great’ or ‘cheap’—I look at value: what you get for the price you pay to live there. Whether you can enjoy life and prosper financially. Saratoga and Mill Valley are great places to live—sure, they’re nice, but unaffordable for most. By the same token, Texarkana, Texas, and Joplin, Mo., are cheap. But none of these places find their way to the top of my lists.”

Sander finds himself at the top of other people’s lists, however. He is sought out as a consultant, especially by officials whose cities he’s deconstructed or outright dissed in his books but who recognize the accuracy of his analyses. He also ghostwrites personal-finance articles for a major online columnist every two weeks and does seminars on niche marketing, an outgrowth of his 2003 book Niche and Grow Rich (Entrepreneur Press).

He is nevertheless careful to clarify that the life of a freelance author, even one who has several books in print and contracts for several others in hand, is hardly posh. “Most people expect that I cruise the seven seas on a yacht named Royalty Statement,” Sander writes in an e-mail two days after this interview. “No. Most of my royalty checks are small, if anything. My topics—personal finance and location reference—change constantly, so the ‘game’ is [in writing] revised editions. But I also hope, if I ever stop doing this, to build a set of royalty streams one day: like a set of rental properties.”

If he does, at least he’ll have a head start on choosing the best locations.

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