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 Welch.

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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