Business Book Doorstops


Over the past 30+ years your correspondent has received and bought a vast mountain of business books. I’ve even read a few of them. That is not intended as a facetious comment but an honest summary of my reality. In close to 35 years the number of business books I have found insightful and that have had a meaningful impact on my thinking and my approach to business is amazingly small. This realization was crystallized recently as I began to go through said hoard of business books in order to identify the vital few I would hang onto and (with great hope) the many I would part with by donating them etc.

As I plowed through the shockingly large stacks of books (they are also surprisingly heavy) and came each on the proverbial “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” I noticed some patterns. Here is what I have concluded from this exercise and what I think of business books:

  1. Be wary of business books that have a number in the title, as in the “Five Faces of Genius” or the “12 Elements of Great Managing.” This is not to say that such a book is automatically doomed but rather one should wonder how hard the author(s) have force-fit a theory into a framework with a nice number of elements. The numbers 5, 7 and 10 came up quite a bit in my pile. Often a cool geometric graphic is employed to illustrate the x points of the book; Pythagoras would be proud. So, while one should not dismiss the business book with the prominent number in its title or the geometric graphic, we should try to determine, through book reviews or leafing through the book, whether there is some sense that the substance of the book is greater than clever marketing and packaging.
  2. Be critical of business books that are hundreds of pages in length. Many of these books have a few good ideas but are padded out to make them appear more substantial and to lend an air of gravitas and scholarship. The thriving industry of business book “executive summaries” is symptomatic of the bloated word count of most business books. For example Business Book Summaries or Actionable Books. The latter boasts “957 business book summaries with personality. Insights you can apply in five minutes.” Again, a thick business book is not an automatic red card but given that time is in precious supply, a business book needs to justify and earn its reader’s time and energy. Indeed, I predict that the vast majority of people read one or two chapters of the typical business book, often gravitating to the chapter that seems to get to the point of the book. Finding the chapter with the cool geometric graphic is often useful in this exercise. I exclude textbooks from this criticism; while there are well-written and poorly written textbooks, their purpose and construction makes brevity less vital. On the other hand, I have had a good return (insights) on investment (time) from business-oriented articles either in things like the Harvard Business Review, the New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist and others. This further reinforces the notion that most business writing is rally about one big idea and the challenge is to communicate this in a brief article, blog or short video. A book of 285 pages is rarely justified.
  3. Be cautious of books with titles that contain these words or phrases. Again, the presence of this kinds of things is not an immediate red card but usually signals that the publisher is trying very hard to follow a formula.
    • “Instant,” “Simple” or “in just 5 minutes/hours/days” etc. Most human endeavors may seem simple (as in evident) but take a lot of effort and hard work to do well.
    • 2.0 as in (I’m making these titles up so any resemblance to an actual book is purely coincidental) “Leadership 2.0” or “Teamwork 2.0” or “Change Management 2.0”
    • “Millennial” – enough said.
    • “Secrets of…” – ditto.
    • Animal imagery or symbols like tigers, monkeys, tortoises, elephants etc.
    • “The Code…”
    • “Edge”
    • “Design” and “Thinking” – design is an important idea but most of the books with this theme tend to the superficial end of the spectrum and are using this phrase because it sounds cool.

By the way, in the photo above are some books by relatively major (for the world of business books) authors. In many cases it was not as if these were “bad books” but most suffered from issues of excessive length. A few, however, I thought fell into the category of working really hard on a gimmick, a schtick (you’ll have to guess which ones).

Next up, the books I found in my pile that have had a big impact on my business thinking and work.

One Comment on “Business Book Doorstops”

  1. […] the last post I offered an opinion on some of the characteristics about business books I find annoying or that I […]

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