Why (Most) Business Books Suck

Whenever I go to a bookstore, I always take a look at the section with business books, and inevitably I walk away feeling discouraged or mad. I couldn’t really put my finger on why, until I read this article by political scientist Andrew Gelman and this response by his blogging colleague Henry Farrell. Gelman and Farrell have identified some of the things that really annoy me about popular-press business books, and I’m going to supplement their observations with a few of my own.

  • The writing in a lot of these books is bad. Awkwardly, painfully bad. My experience of reading books in other trend- and celebrity-driven areas like fashion is that the writing there usually isn’t Pulitzer Prize material either. But at least that writing is generally entertaining and doesn’t have an overinflated sense of its own importance.
  • While many of these books are billed as offering new or better ways to run businesses, or to be a better businessperson or leader, most of them just reinforce the way things are. As Farrell says,

When a multinational buys 20,000 copies of the latest business bestseller to distribute to its employees, it isn’t necessarily expecting them to discover new insights from the books. It is expecting them to get some sense of the corporate culture and direction of the firm, from the fact that one particular book (rather than some other possible book) has been bought and distributed. If it’s about the Internet, managers are supposed to start getting with the Internet. If it’s about the need to build closer relations with subcontractors, managers are supposed to start thinking about how to do this. If it’s about squeezing every possible penny from employees … you get the idea.[...] [B]usiness authors are less idea-crafters than hierophants, dedicated to helping senior management perpetuate the sacred mystery, or, when necessary, reinterpret it a little in congenial ways.

  • Many business book authors are stunningly unqualified to give advice about how to be successful in business. For example, hosting a business show on TV does not qualify you (or your ghostwriter) to write a business book, unless you’re someone like Jim Cramer, with actual work experience in the subject you’re writing about. And, no, “I learned from the successful businesspeople who were on my show, so I can help you succeed too” doesn’t count. Nor does being able to pose fetchingly in expensive suits. Seriously, the only business advice that many business book authors should be giving is “how to choose the right people to package and market you”.
  • There are far too many business books that offer quick and easy solutions –  5 Ways to Dominate the World, 10 Steps to Oppressing Your Dysfunctional Employees, etc. etc.- or that don’t have much more substance than a grabby catchphrase with some recycled ideas attached to it. I get that these kinds of books sell. I get that people read them because they don’t have the time to wade through longer discussions. And I get that the authors of these books write them so they can get lucrative speaking and consulting engagements. But – the world is a complicated place. Organizations are complex entities, and business problems are usually not simple problems. Addressing organizational or people issues in a few bullet points is such a superficial level of analysis that it’s usually pretty meaningless. (And, yes, I realize that I am structuring this post in bullet points.)
  • There’s a lot of excellent research by business academics that never gets looked at or mentioned in these books. And that research gets overlooked even when it offers great and accessible insights into organizations and workers – and even when it offers truly original perspectives that would help the book make a real contribution. The usual complaint in the popular press about academic articles is that those articles are written for other academics, not for regular readers. And there’s a fair amount of truth in that – academic writing can be as dire in its own wordy, convoluted way as business book writing. But that doesn’t mean that business book writers shouldn’t at least try to understand academic articles. If the findings of those articles are based on actual research, what the articles have to say is a lot more reliable and useful than “this works because I say it does”.

To end on a somewhat positive note, I want to mention a highly unusual event this past week that gave me a small glimmer of hope about business writing in general. I was watching a segment on All In With Chris Hayes about the five-year anniversary of the financial meltdown, and I nearly fell off the couch in amazement when one of Hayes’ guests, Joshua Green of Bloomberg Businessweek, said this:

The phenomenal thing is most people on Wall Street have forgotten about Dick Fuld [last CEO of Lehman Brothers], but one group of people who haven’t are management scholars, like professors who study management. And, there’s a big paper in the Journal of Management Inquiry, the current issue, on Dick Fuld’s narcissism.

The Journal of Management Inquiry probably isn’t regular reading for most business journalists – I would guess that most business journalists don’t even know it exists, or have ever read any articles in it. So I was beyond thrilled that someone appearing on a prime-time current affairs show not only talked about an article in an academic journal,  but also praised academic research for continuing to investigate significant events that the business world would like to downplay or ignore. Thank you, Joshua Green! If you write a business book, I might even read it.

10 comments

    1. Thanks for the link! As I mentioned in the post, sometimes complex discussions don’t really get the attention they deserve when they’re summarized. But this site looks like a great way to get people interested in the books – hopefully they will go on to read the entire book and get the full benefit of the author’s ideas.

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