[Paleopsych] Ecnomist: Business books: How 51 Gorillas Can Make You Seriously Rich

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Mon Aug 30 15:02:58 UTC 2004

Business books: How 51 Gorillas Can Make You Seriously Rich

    Or, why so many business books are awful

    IF YOU want to profit from your pen, first write a bestselling
    business book. In few other literary genres are the spin-offs so
    lucrative. If you speak well enough to make a conference of dozing
    middle managers sit up, your fortune is made. You can, says Mark
    French of Leading Authorities, a top speaking agency, make a
    seven-figure income from speechifying alone.

    Given this strong motivation to succeed, it is astonishing how bad
    most business books are. Many appear to be little more than expanded
    PowerPoint presentations, with bullet points and sidebars setting out
    unrelated examples or unconnected thoughts. Some read like an extended
    paragraph from a consultant's report (and, indeed, many consultancies
    encourage their stars to write books around a single idea and lots of
    examples from the clientele). Few business books are written by a
    single author; lots require a whole support team of researchers. And
    all too many have meaningless diagrams.

    The formula seems to be: keep the sentences short, the wisdom homespun
    and the typography aggressive; offer lots of anecdotes, relevant or
    not; and put an animal in the title--gorillas, fish and purple cows
    are in vogue this year. Or copy Stephen Covey (author of the hugely
    successful "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People") and include a
    number. Here, though, inflation is setting in: this autumn sees the
    publication of "The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation" by
    Ronald Alsop. And Michael Feiner has written a book offering "the 50
    basic laws that will make people want to perform better for you".

    The fundamental problem is that a successful business book needs a
    bright idea, and they, in the nature of business, come along
    infrequently. The dotcom boom brought some, the spurs to Clayton
    Christensen's "The Innovator's Dilemma" or Rosabeth Moss Kanter's
    "Evolve!" (accompanied by a CD of the guru herself rapping her
    message). Since then, new books have tended to focus on three areas:
    corporate governance; leadership; and how to make money out of bits of
    the business that were forgotten in the boom.

    The first category has produced the most meticulous work, with books
    such as "The Recurrent Crisis in Corporate Governance" by Paul
    MacAvoy, an academic, and Ira Millstein, a lawyer. Inevitably, many
    books have raked over the lessons of Enron, WorldCom and other
    failures, trying to explain what went wrong.

    Some of the leadership books are written (or ghost-written) by the
    likes of Rudy Giuliani or Jack Welch, to describe the secrets of their
    success. Others explain the mysterious qualities that successful
    leaders display. Warren Bennis's "Geeks & Geezers", for example,
    compares different formative experiences on the way to the top. Of
    course, the most perceptive leadership literature was written 400
    years ago by William Shakespeare; and some of today's most readable
    books discuss the techniques of past heroes, such as Alexander the
    Great. They will teach you history, even if they do not make you Jack

    The sheer number of business books means that the diamonds shine
    rarely in a mound of dross. Counting everything from property
    management to personal finance, there are perhaps 3,000 business
    titles published each year in the United States, easily the largest
    market. One industry insider estimates, on the basis of figures from
    Nielsen Bookscan and a hunch about Amazon's sales, which Bookscan
    excludes, that a total of 8m-10m books that could broadly be defined
    as "business" are sold in America each year. They are almost all
    written by North Americans: Charles Handy, the Irish author of "The
    Age of Unreason", is one of the few non-Americans who has managed to
    break into this market.

    Including Amazon's figures, the top 50 business books sold around 4m
    copies in the first seven months of this year. But many sell fewer
    than 1,000 in their first year, and the fall-off in sales is almost
    always dramatic. "The shelf-life of maximum relevance is measured in
    months," says Adrian Zackheim, who made his name publishing Jim
    Collins's "Good to Great", one of the rare business books that has
    topped bestseller lists for years.

    It is hard to believe that many managers run their businesses
    differently as a result of their reading. Occasionally, however, a
    truly great business book will articulate an idea that helps them to
    explain what it is that they are trying to do. It creates
    phrases--such as "core competence" or "emotional intelligence"--that
    fit the moment. But a few lines of "Henry IV, Part II" might well
    serve the same function, and give more pleasure too.

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