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March 19, 2008

News & Opinion: Defending the business book genre.

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 2:18 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

It seems just a bit ironic that the last page in April's Fast Company is a grueling review and warning of the business section of your local bookstore. Especially considering more than a handful of business book authors--including the Heath brothers, Dan Roam, Amy Sutherland*, Tim Ferriss, Robert Scoble, Fred Krupp--contributed to or were mentioned in the issue. The last page is Elizabeth Spiers' (founding editor of Gawker and Dealbreaker) article "Library of the Living Dead." She starts out by contradicting all that our parents and teachers have taught us for years:
...reading does not necessarily make you smarter. Sometimes it doesn't even require you to think. I would send you a copy of Nicole Richie's novel, The Truth About Diamonds, as demonstrable proof, but there's a clause in my contract prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. Instead I'll point you to the modern era's second-worst literary promulgator of intelligence reduction: your local bookstore's business section.
Next comes the critique of the business genre's cliches, "12-step-ification," and seemingly empty promises (four-hour workweeks, loads of money and personal growth); all of which, Elizabeth would say, don't amount to much or anything at all really. Rather "they [business books] create the illusion of progress simply by adding another layer of busyness." Ouch. Really, a comparison of Nicole Richie's writings to that of business authors? Okay, I'll be the first to admit that many books lack in substance and rightly deserve such criticism. The first set of titles used to back up this point are Jim Cramer's Stay Mad for Life and Donald Trump's Think Big and Kick Ass both of which, she points out, have different formulas for success and both of which are currently on the best seller list. To Elizabeth's point, the best seller list is certainly not where I'd start in my search of a business book. (And my apologies here to Surowiecki because I do partially adhere to the Wisdom of Crowds philosophy, just not in best sellers.) In business books, like in music, the top titles not always the best of the best, rather they're what the masses are buying. Take music. Though I haven't done any strict calculations or research, I'd imagine that only a small portion of the music covered by Rolling Stone appears on top 10 lists. Nonetheless, ask nearly anyone who follows music closely and they probably subscribe to Rolling Stone. I doubt the same crowd would consider Leona Lewis (currently toping iTunes best seller list as of 4pm CST yesterday) to be one of the greatest. Good or bad, best seller lists operate in a catch-22 manner or more simply, inertia. Once a book is on the best seller lists (through a number of clever PR pitches, handing books out to each member of a packed audience, and special Amazon giveaways), people start talking about the book. That leads to more people buying the book, which leads to bookstore restocking. Which leads to more people buying the book and better placement on the best seller lists, ultimately starting the process all over again. That's not to say every best seller fits in this category. There are a number of best selling business books worth reading, many of which have been featured in Fast Company and whose authors have regular bylines there. Case in point: The Wal-Mart Effect and Made to Stick. Yet, if a best seller list is your only reading guide, you'll miss a number of really great titles. Books that are provocative and will compel you to think or act differently. Which brings me to another of Elizabeth's points:
Business books let us amble zombielike through our careers freeing us from responsibility for the quality of our own decision making. Better to delegate that responsibility to other people--Jack Welch, perhaps. It's a fresh spin on the old saw that no one ever got fired for buying IBM: No one ever will get canned for leaning on something with a Ken Blanchard blurb on the front cover.
Yes, we should stand on our own feet and rely on our own critical analysis. It'd be foolhardy for me to take Jack Welch's lessons and replicate them exactly here at 8cr. Not every lesson, as Elizabeth explains, works for every situation. I imagine it's for that very reason that 11,000 business books are published every year. There are at least 11,000 different ways to present a problem and solution; certainly not every one merits our time in reading nor application. But we learn through exposure to and experience with both the good and bad, the smart and the not-so-smart. And certainly, being exposed to Welch's ideas makes me a better prepared, better informed business woman. Experience via a $24.95 hardcover is not a bad way to arrive at new ideas and solutions. Elizabeth's last point is that if we cannot become more skeptical of and less dependent on business books, we should simply move business best sellers to the self-help section. I would argue that at least half of business titles are self-help (the other part being books on new ideas or trends, a la The Long Tail); and I mean this in the best of lights. Self-help has long been stereotyped as the answer for the spineless or those who need a more regular pat on the back. Yet, many business books are meant to help us help ourselves--help us manage better, help us start up a company, help us communicate better, etc. That is the very definition of self-help. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Self-help doesn't have to be preachy (yes, you will find these preachy, self-help books on the best seller lists). If I'm a horrible manager, I'm going to pick up Growing Great Employees to learn how to improve my skills. If I'm not sure where to start when evaluating customer satisfaction, I might start with The Ultimate Question. If the question is whether every best seller is worth reading, I'd respond without a doubt, no. If that were true, we (as a company) would not exist in the blogosphere. If the question is whether business books are worth reading, they are. Not every single one of them is worth reading. And finding the right one is not always easy. To stand on my pulpit here, that's what we endeavor to help with--finding the right business book for you. Please, don't be afraid of the business book aisle, many a title is worth a gander. [Stepping off the pulpit.] - - - - - - - - * Amy's an animal trainer -- a whale trainer, in fact. The Heath brothers apply her lessons to the training of bosses. Hence, for the purposes of this post, she's listed as a business book author.