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Death, taxis and technology: titles in the running for this year’s Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year give a new twist to the old maxim about certainty.
The 17 books on the 2017 longlist include analyses of the implications of world-changing innovations, from the iPhone to drones; a lively account of the rise of Uber; and a sobering history of the role war, plague and catastrophe have played in shaping our economies.
Among longlisted authors are Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft; Thomas Friedman, who won the inaugural award 12 years ago with The World is Flat; and Nobel prizewinner Jean Tirole. The £30,000 award will go to the book that provides the “most compelling and enjoyable” insight into modern business issues, including management, finance and economics.
The panel of judges, led by Lionel Barber, FT editor, will announce a shortlist of up to six books on September 19. They will name the winner on November 6. Last year’s winner was Sebastian Mallaby for his biography of Alan Greenspan, The Man Who Knew.
Books on finance and economics occupy a large section of this year’s prize bookshelf. But it is the promise and threat of technological advance that, as in previous years, stand out as a dominant theme. One question for the judges is how durable they think the authors’ analyses of 2017’s shifting technological landscape will prove to be. The jury is expected to give preference to those books “whose insights and influence are most likely to stand the test of time”.
That is a question, too, for Friedman, whose bestseller on globalisation was the first Business Book of the Year in 2005. Thank You For Being Late, his latest, extends the thesis, linking personal stories to an analysis of the state of business, innovation, economics and world politics. Reviewing the book for the FT, Gillian Tett said it injected “a badly needed dose of optimism into the modern debate”.
Nadella’s Hit Refresh (written with Greg Shaw and Jill Tracie Nichols) is an upbeat, first-hand account of his effort to devise a successful second act for Microsoft — almost unprecedented in the world of big technology — after the software company missed the mobile revolution. In the book, due out next month, Mr Nadella tells the revival story alongside his own personal history, offering insights into the mysteries of cricket, coding and corporate culture.
Brian Merchant’s The One Device dives deep into the making of Apple’s iPhone, on its 10th anniversary, aiming to replicate the success of previous winners, such as Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots (2015) and The Everything Store (2013) by Brad Stone, about Amazon. Mr Stone’s The Upstarts, about Airbnb and Uber, narrowly missed this year’s longlist.
The controversial transportation company does feature in the longlist, however, with the inclusion of Wild Ride, Adam Lashinsky’s lively analysis of Uber’s rise, which includes a memorable interview with Uber founder Travis Kalanick (“Am I an asshole? I’d love to know”), before he stepped down as chief executive in June. Self-driving cars — one of the technologies being explored by Uber — feature in Vivek Wadhwa’s The Driver in the Driverless Car (written with Alex Salkever). Clive Cookson, FT science editor, called it “a succinct and provocative examination of the social and ethical implications of breakthroughs”.
Ellen Pao’s Reset (out next month) tackles the red-hot topic of diversity in Silicon Valley — or lack of it — recounting her experience as venture capitalist and chief executive of Reddit, the social platform. She sued VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for discrimination, lost the case, but won widespread public support.
A sceptical view of the implications of technology comes in Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things, which examines the “monopoly platforms” built by Facebook, Google, Amazon and others and how they have “cornered culture”. From among the record 435 submissions this year, Taplin, a former tour manager for Bob Dylan, was one of several authors who tackled the question of technology’s impact on society.
Near-misses for the longlist included: Franklin Foer’s soon to be published critique of the tech sector World Without Mind; Machine, Platform, Crowd (the latest from 2014 shortlisted authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee); and The Fuzzy and the Techie by Scott Hartley. Mr Hartley’s book on the relevance of the liberal arts in a tech-led world was born from a proposal that made the final of last year’s Bracken Bower Prize for budding younger authors.
The unexpected symbiosis of the apparently separate worlds of the humanities and finance is the subject of another longlisted title, The Wisdom of Finance by Mihir Desai, which uses literature, history, movies and philosophy to shed light on dry financial theories. Similarly illuminating for investors is A Man for All Markets, by Edward Thorp, a mathematician who applied his skills, from Las Vegas to Wall Street, from the blackjack tables to the world of hedge funds. Andrew Lo’s Adaptive Markets, a critique of the “efficient markets hypothesis” that John Authers called “dazzling in both its erudition and its charm”, also makes the category of longlisted books that are likely to be as compelling for investors as executives.
Two books on the longlist also suggest what happens when finance turns sour. Sheelah Kolhatkar’s Black Edgedescribes how Steven Cohen’s former hedge fund, SAC Capital, built its Wall Street dominance before facing insider trading charges. David Enrich’s The Spider Network offers a comprehensive account of the Libor rate-rigging scandal. The FT’s Ben McLannahan said its description of how socially awkward Tom Hayes ended up in jail, while former bosses and associates escaped prosecution, was “jaw-dropping”.
Also in the running for the award is Janesville, by journalist Amy Goldstein, which explores the deeper social — and political — impact of business decisions on ordinary working people. She digs into what happened to people in a small Wisconsin city when General Motors stopped producing cars, overturning the residents’ lives.
With the exception of Nadella’s Hit Refresh, books about management and leadership fared poorly this year, though Fast/Forward by Julian Birkinshaw and Jonas Ridderstrale, and Freek Vermeulen’s forthcoming Breaking Bad Habits, about what happens when best practice goes bad, came close.
Instead, a clutch of economics books rounds out the longlist. They include Economics for the Common Good, by French winner of the Nobel economics prize Jean Tirole, due out in October in English. It makes the case for economics as a positive force on the everyday existence of people and businesses.
Stephen King’s Grave New World underlines that globalisation is under unprecedented threat, while Kate Raworth, in Doughnut Economics, makes the case for a new economic model that pays more attention to human and environmental pressures.
The last word, however, goes to Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler, a sobering history of inequality. Scheidel emphasises the unavoidable importance of violent events — from plague to revolution — in redressing the economic balance. “All of us who prize greater economic equality would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions, it was only ever brought forth in sorrow,” he warns in his conclusion. “Be careful what you wish for.”
Additional research by Rabaab Ashraf
Meet the judges
The book award judging panel is well placed to assess this year’s longlist. It has reinforced its membership by adding the head of one of Silicon Valley’s best-known software groups and a former governor of the US Federal Reserve.
Mitchell Baker (above) is executive chair of Mozilla, which created the Firefox web browser. Ms Baker chairs both the Mozilla Foundation, which is structured as a California non-profit corporation, and its wholly owned subsidiary the Mozilla Corporation. Mozilla’s 10 principles include the fundamental declaration that “the internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible”. As the head of a global collective of employees and volunteers, Ms Baker is one of the highest-profile advocates for the open web and open-source initiatives.
Randall Kroszner (above) is the second new member of this year’s panel. Prof Kroszner is an economics professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. During the period of 2006 to 2009, up to, and immediately after, the financial crisis, he was a governor of the Federal Reserve, the US central bank. His roles included representing the Fed on the Financial Stability Board, an international group of policymakers and regulators. He is co-author with Robert Shiller of Reforming US Financial Markets (2011), about how to prevent another financial meltdown.
They join Lionel Barber, FT editor and chair of judges, and a group of returning panellists: Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser at Allianz, and a former winner with When Markets Collide (2008); Herminia Ibarra, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, whose latest book is Act Like a Leader (2015); Rik Kirkland, partner and director of publishing at McKinsey; Dambisa Moyo, board member at Barclays and Chevron, and author, most recently, of Winner Take All (2012); and Shriti Vadera, chairman of Santander UK and a former UK government minister.