One of the most acute business bloggers, Ethan “Effern” Johnson, who writes The Vision Thing, has written an entire series of essays with titles riffed off “All of Your Business Books Are Meaningless,” exposing most of the offerings in the genre as vapid gruel.
He suggests they are (a) predictable, or (b) slipstreaming fads, or (c) completely obvious, or (d) some combination of the all three.
He also mourns their short shelf life, implying that if the advice was really useful, it wouldnt be obviously stale after 10 years. Or at least it should outlive pet gerbils.
His general assertion is almost right. Eighty-five percent of business books are bunk. The exceptions, therefore, are choice and worth noting.
Rarer than the business book that is actually useful is the business book author who can crank out more than one useful title.
Ive got a great example of one such author, but first I want to suggest why Efferns observation is true in the general case.
Business books are what periodical publishers call “dream books.” Take Architectural Digest, that eye-candy showcase for elite design and architecture.
Circulation: around 800,000. Number of readers who will ever own a building designed by one of the architects who appear on its pages: Maybe 20,000, probably fewer.
Number of readers who will own or commission a building designed using any of the eye-candy in the magazine: Maybe 80,000, probably fewer.
The readers know this. They just like to dream. Publications such as Sunset and Popular Mechanics are sort of modified dream books.
People buy them mostly to dream about ultra-lights or vaulted ceiling makeovers or ornate garden designs or fanciful recipes, but many will actually execute some of the simpler building or cooking projects.
Business books are in the same vein.
Publishers know a majority of the copies sold will be read, partially digested, spit out, filter-feeder style, with the reader going on to the next one, most likely with the exhortations erased from the brain like scrawl on a zip pad.
The reader doesnt really want to have to do anything in response to reading the book.
They want to feel elevated and informed, inspired that things can be better, that people have the power to make things better, which is a worthy emotion (and even more worthy action to pursue).
Business books that are, in contrast, like a Chiltons guide, are more useful, but theyre a double whammy.