Business books

Books_1 Piers Fawkes conducted an experiment recently.  He asked 65 people to review a business book for him. 

He had 9 books on offer.  Only 1 book went home.  Piers has 8 orphaned books no one wants.  And so close to Christmas. 

Piers asks, "Why are these books so long? […]  Anyone FINISHED a good business book recently?"

Good question. 

Business books start small.  They begin as an idea, that comes to the author as a moment of illumination.  The publisher asks for a "larger treatment," and then a weighty manuscript.  To qualify as a "book," still more depth and detail are added.   By the time the idea reaches publication it is the literary equivalent of a NFL lineman.  It is bulked out and beefed up.

The wheel turns.  Publishers offer blurbs.  Reviewers give summaries. Readers work out tags.  The idea slims down to its original sylph-like state.  The book is gone.  Now the idea moves through the world on a couple of puffs of air: "Blue Oceans!"  "Tipping Point!"  "Excellence."

In effect, the book was a delivery vehicle, a way of launching the idea. Having done its job, it falls away. 

Now, we understand what is going on here.  The book form is one of the ways we sort.  There are after all thousands upon thousands of new business ideas out there.  The publishing system acts as a selection process.  Unless and until an idea becomes a book, it cannot enter the publishing universe, the distribution chain, and the bookstore.  Books edit.  Many are called.  Few are chosen.  We are well served.

The system is not perfect.  There are lots of bad business books out there.  There are self appointed gurus, junk scientists, self aggrandizing pretenders who manage to find their way into print.  But without bookness as our barrier, we would be positively inundated by bad ideas. 

The trouble is the extraction process.  The present system means that many key ideas come to us in a formidable husk.  We no longer have time, presence of mind or attention span, to remove the husk and release the business idea. 

Naturally we still want someone to "vet" business ideas.  A selection process is still called for.  What we don’t need is all those words, paper, print..the hard work of hard copy. 

What does a new selection process look like?  How about a hostile take over of the publishing world?  In the manner of all raiders, our strategy is to identify the true sources of value creation and to sell off the rest.  And chances are, the real value creation is the editor’s choice.  What must survive the old regime are the extraordinary powers of judgment that let someone winnow the heavens, find the best business ideas, give them their most compelling form, and bring them to completion.  In effect, we are saying, dump the publishers, elevate the editors.

So what would this vetting process look like?  Who will appoint themselves.  How will they review?  How will they identify the best and the brightest efforts?   What is the business model?  How do we pay editors, if we are no longer have books to bring in revenue? 

The selection problem here is much worse than it was before.  The editor once had hundreds of manuscript ideas to consider.  Now he or she will have thousands upon thousands of ideas to review. 

Once ideas are selected, it might make sense to put them out to a larger community for review and development.  Bloggers could help out here.  As ideas came back, the editor might want to combine them with another ideas and put them out again.  The Victorians were good at creating scholarly accretions in this way.  (I think the Oxford English Dictionary and the anthropology of Lewis Henry Morgan qualify.)   In effect, the line between editor and author begins to blur.  But then great writers are always great editors.  The line between authors and readers would also blur.  But this is, in a sense, precisely what we see happening to the relationship between all consumers and producers.

How would we pay?  Certain editors would win a reputation and we would happily trade value to get at the extraordinary value they create.  The "best practice" people could charge a very considerable fortune. 

We’ll work it out.  The business books now on the shelf, we may think of these as historical remainders even when brand new.


Fawkes, Piers.  2006.  Finished Business Books. November 21, 2006. here.

4 thoughts on “Business books

  1. jon leach

    I really agree with your analysis. I used to just read the covers/flysheets of business books – they normally had all you needed.

    Spiral Dynamics by Beck and Cowan is a classic for this; they even put the key diagram on the flysheet flaps(?).

    If you went into a book shop just steal the flysheet (what are they called?!?!) but not the book, would this be theft?

    Amazon summaries/reviews are a more legal way of achieving the same thing.

  2. Richard Davidson-Houston

    Change This [ ] does a good job of getting to the essence of people’s “manifestos” and ranking them on popularity. It’s a start towards what you’re talking about. I get a lot of value from their service. And I often go on to read the whole book if I find an idea that appeals (yes, I read them right to the end!).

  3. Adam Richardson

    Who was it who said that if I had more time I would have written you a shorter letter? I quite agree that many of these books could be quite a bit shorter without losing much. I’ve given up on quite a few business books over the last couple of years half to 2/3 the way through, or skipped over chapters after the first few pages, as there was just too much redunacy, repetition, and redundant examples over and over.

    In any case, that’s one thing I appreciated about Flock and Flow was that it was long enough to effectively make the point, but didn’t belabor it needlessly for another 50-100 pages.


  4. steve

    Grant proposes the kernel of a signalling model: Editors know which ideas are good ones, but the audience doesn’t; spending money publishing and distributing a book is a signal of the editor’s belief that the idea is worth the audience’s time, a signal that wouldn’t be worth investing in for an idea known to be bad; in equilibrium, bad ideas won’t get published as much as good ones.

    I’m not sure this is the best story to explain the puzzle proposed. If the idea can be easily extracted from the book while leafing through it in the store, then no one needs to buy it at all. Burying the idea in a husk that requires extraction effort may force people to purchase the book, which could explain why this is done. It’s a form of IP management, making sure you get paid for your idea.

    Besides this simple competing explanation, the signalling equilibrium story requires what is known as a “sorting condition”–something that prevents editors from faking out readers by publishing bad ideas. After all, if readers think “the idea must be good if it was published” then publishers would have an incentive to publish bad stuff too, which would break down the putative equilibrium. Maybe we could assume that better ideas get word-of-mouth-induced purchases and bad ideas don’t, and then assume that the cost of publishing a book exceeds revenues in the absence of word-of-mouth recommendations. In that case, bad books aren’t worth publishing and good books are. Throw in some errors in editors’ taste and you might be able to explain the range of quality on offer in the book market. I’d hate to think that there’s even worse crap written but not being published, though.

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