Business titles buck digital trend

2 years ago   •   4 min read

By Frank Dillon

Despite the surge in digital media, there are now some 11,000 business book titles produced every year in a genre that knows no bounds it seems.

Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s 1982 best-seller In Search of Excellence was billed at the time as a classic ‘how to’ manual for business success. A study of 43 of America’s top performing companies identified characteristics for success that became part of the business vernacular. These included mantras such as: have a bias for action, stay close to the customer and stick to the knitting.

Unfortunately, Peters and Waterman didn’t get it quite right. Careful scrutiny of the financial results of the 43 organisations a couple of years after publication revealed that many were seriously under-performing the market.

Time hasn’t been kind either. The list included firms such as Kodak, Amdahl and Western Union and a raft of others who have since either disappeared or have been quietly subsumed into more successful operations.

The book was a runaway success, however.

It sold three million copies within four years and unleashed a new genre of publishing. With a few rare exceptions, previous business books were bland academic style texts. Peters and Waterman created the airport shop business title.

It’s a big business now with some estimates suggesting that up to 11,000 business titles are published every year, not to mention the vanity self-published ones. The vast majority of these titles achieve very modest sales and few authors become rich on the proceeds – at least not directly.

Business books, for the most part, are intensely dull. Take that from someone who scans literally hundreds of them every year to find the decent ones.

Memoir mistakes

The CEO memoir books are the worst. Most are self-congratulatory and gloss over the mistakes and less flattering aspects of these characters. It’s to his credit that Michael O’ Leary, arguably the most successful Irish business leader of this generation, has resisted the urge to tell us in print how he made it.

Richard Branson, by contrast, has multiple volumes to his name.

The margin between success and failure is a fine line. Success is often dependent on luck, opportunity or context. What works in one market – at one particular time – may not work at all in another. Certain insights may be derived from these narratives but they are not templates for success.

The colourful Felix Dennis is a case in point. His How to Get Rich book is an entertaining read about breaking the mould in magazine publishing in London in the 1960s and 70s. It colourfully charts how he earned and blew a fortune in the process. However, his formula for success certainly wouldn’t work now.

If business books are getting more shelf-space these days, that’s because the category has expanded. Business has cannibalised the ‘self-help’ genre with a myriad of titles on how to be a better manager or how to be more confident at work. Large dollops of pop psychology, check-lists and online resources seem to be the order of the day here.

There’s a fair amount of waffle in these titles but some are genuinely useful. James Reed, boss of the eponymous recruitment firm, reached No 16 on the Amazon sales ranking with Why you? – a book that tells you all you need to know about interview techniques.  The success of this has led to other spin-off titles in the same genre.

There’s also a popular category of books now that major on neuroscience to explain why people buy stuff and the clever tricks those in the know – generally big multinationals – use to trick us.

The financial crash contributed to a wider public interest in finance and economics and Tim Harford (The Undercover Economist), Michael Lewis and our own David McWilliams have been among those who have benefitted from this while the likes of Dan Pink, Malcolm Gladwell and Nassim Taleb have captured the public imagination with their observations on mega trends and changing landscapes.

Different voices

The Anglo-American axis has long dominated this category but authors such as Ram Charan and C.K. Phahalad have come to the fore in recent years with well-regarded books that highlight the growing importance of the East in global business.

While management books rarely make authors rich directly, having a well-regarded business book published is a seriously good career move for the likes of an aspiring business consultant or academic.

Leveraged properly, it unleashes the prospect of lucrative corporate work, including consulting and speaking engagements. The US is the Premiership with soccer star appearance money on offer. Fees of $50,000 and more are common on the corporate conference circuit there now for a keynote.

The very discipline of crafting a few well-honed observations together with a liberal sprinkling of smart case studies into a compelling package of 150 pages or so of text provides all the raw material an author needs for a compelling conference presentation. Some have perfected the art to the point of rock star or stand-up comedian level.

Take Magnus Lindkvist, Swedish futurologist and self-styled ‘trendspotter’ who is currently one of the hottest tickets on the corporate conference circuit.  Lindkvist’s three books, including titles such Everything we know is wrong, take a contrary view of world of management. He’s hilariously irreverent, has delegates rolling with laughter and is thus a sure-fire graveyard shift winner for conference organisers.

The rise of digital does not appear to signal the end of traditional books with smart authors and their publishers using social media tools to promote their profiles and increase sales. Amazon has created a new platform for new and second-hand titles while e-readers have created a new distribution channel.

For all the dross, there are still good business books being published, charting and making sense of the huge changes taking place in our world. In an era when other media such as newspapers are struggling to maintain attention and relevance, the long immersive experience of reading a business book still remains popular it seems.

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