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It is difficult enough to get seven internationally known and opinionated business people and journalists together in one room at the same time. Getting them to read 17 heavyweight business books of the year over a busy summer and then to agree on the best six in a single meeting seemed at best optimistic when the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs launched their business book award in April.
But last week, in a panelled conference roomat Goldman Sachs the headquarters of in downtown Manhattan, it took just over two hours of intense and intriguing debate between these panellists to produce a shortlist for the £30,000 ($54,000) prize.
How was the outcome achieved and what was the jury looking for?
The process got under way weeks before the shortlist meeting. From around 150 official submissions to the prize, and hundreds of other eligible titles, FT staff had already whittled down the list of potential winners down to 17, in search of the book that this year has provided “the most compelling and enjoyable insight into modern business issues”.
That confidential “long list” included the full range of business literature – from analyses of management strategy to investigations of corporate scandals.
When Andrew Gowers, the FT’s editor and chairman of the judges, launched the prize, he said there was “an urgent need for an annual guide to the very best in a crowded field”.
He called last week’s meeting to order with a resolutely practical suggestion that the jury should “start at the bottom”. As a relatively unconfrontational way for the judges to loosen up and take the measure of their fellow panellists, the approach worked well. A straw poll of the panellists, taken by email before the meeting, had revealed a consensus on at least three titles that could be removed from contention with little discussion. The long list, in theory at least, consisted of the best business books published since November 2004, but Some of the early judgments were uncompromising: “trite and turgid”, “a magpie of a book”, “did not break any new ground at all”.
Within about half an hour, five of the 17 had already been scrapped and Mr Gowers invited the judges to give an overall assessment of the titles under consideration.
Lloyd Blankfein, president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs, sponsor of the award, pointed out that the long list could be divided into three broad categories – management books, “story” books and “macro” books. But the division was far from neat. But the division was far from neat and some judges made clear that assessing the titles’ relative merits was going to be tough: “In a sense, we’re asking people to compare apples and oranges,” said Mr Gowers.
Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, the advertising group, said he had received the packages of long-listed books with a mounting sense of apprehension: “I took the books away on holiday and thought it was going to be drudge work – but I enjoyed it.”
“They’re all good books,” agreed N.R. Narayana Murthy, chairman and chief mentor at Infosys Technologies, the Indian information technology company, laid out some benchmarks for selecting the finalists: “Would you remember [these books] three years from now? Have they brought out some kind of discontinuity in how we think about the world? Is there something [in the book] that makes you do anything in a different way?”
John Gapper, the FT’s chief business commentator, said he was “looking for something really outstanding, really well-written, with really interesting ideas on a really important subject” – a work that would stand alongside provocative business books of recent years, from Liar’s Poker to The Wisdom of Crowds.
“The books that tell a story and, in telling the story, reveal something else are the books that will have the most impact,” suggested Jeffrey Garten, professor
at the Yale School of
In the early stages of the meeting, some of the judges were clearly tempted to back titles on important topics of strategy or economics, while others focused mainly on the quality of the arguments in each volume and, a key consideration, whether they actually enjoyed the book. Prof Garten summed this up with his comment on one of the rejected titles: “This is a deeply important issue – but it isn’t a book I would read on the beach or even in an airplane.”
With five books down, Sir Martin made the case for two of the strongest contenders. “I think there are two fundamental issues that we should all focus on: one is technological development and the other is geographical development. Two books did it for me: The Search [John Battelle’s account of Google’s rise] and China Inc [by Ted Fishman].”
Rachel Lomax, deputy governor of the Bank of England, said China Inc did a good job of “popularising what’s important about China”.
But there were other books on the long list that dramatised the changes wrought by globalisation. Mr Blankfein preferred Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat, for instance: “When I put it down, I wanted to take my kids out of school and put them into school in China or India. I had a gut reaction to the book.” Rachel Lomax, deputy governor of the Bank of England, singled out The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, Pietra Rivoli’s investigation book on the stresses of world trade, which she described as “unpretentious and deceptively simple”, adding: “It brings together history and economics in an enjoyable way.”
This was the core of the long list and, after 45 minutes of discussion, Mr Gowers, recognising that the panel’s opinions were more evenly balanced on these titles, stopped calling for books to be eliminated. Instead, the panel began adding books to an ever deeper “holding tank” of works that would need additional debate.
One was Fast Second by Constantinos Markides and the late Paul Geroski – an analysis of corporate strategy that Prof Garten said had “a ring of real wisdom”. It was the last survivor from a host of strategy books that were submitted for the prize.Mr Gapper said the book had presented its thesis about the ability of smart companies to succeed without radical innovation in “a fresh and interesting way”, but others Some wondered, however, whether the book had matched the high standard or durability set by some of the great works on management, such as Jim Collins’ Good to Great or Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma.
Divisions had also begun to emerge over Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. All agreed that the investigation of
Mr Levitt’s ground-breaking work in economics was thought-provoking. But was this really a business book?
Ms Lomax, herself an economist, said she admired its “demonstration that economics is not a set of theories and principles, it’s a way of thinking about the world, a habit of mind”. Mr Blankfein, while conceding that it was not “on all fours a business book”, said it had “business applicability”. “Parts of it were a business book because they told you about executives and business structures,” adds Gapper. “Other parts weren’t.”
Halfway through the morning, and with the judges in need of a coffee break, the chairman asked each to recommend a Top Four from the remaining titles. Despite the judgesdifferences of opinion, by mid-morning three titles had garnered surfaced from the holding tank with the backing of most panellists – The Travels of a T-Shirt, The World is Flat and Freakonomics. That left five books competing for the remaining three places on the short list: China Inc, The Search, Fast Second and two of the best “business yarns” of the year – DisneyWar by James Stewart and Kurt Eichenwald’s Conspiracy of Fools.
A welcome coffee break allows the panellists a moment of reflection. The non-Americans on the jury get a chance to seek out, via mobile and BlackBerry, the latest score from the decisive England-Australia cricket match, while the Americans look on perplexed.
The panel was, however, bullish about being able to wrap up the short list in the following 90 minutes. Lunch, planned to take place at the end of the meeting, was cancelled.Reconvening at 10.30am, Mr Gowers proposes that the lunch planned for the end of the meeting should be cancelled. It is a reflection of the bullish mood of the panel: the short list can be wrapped up in the next 90 minutes. First,however the judges had to decide whether to separate two investigative books, DisneyWar, an account of machinations at the court of Michael Eisner, and Conspiracy of Fools, the latest probe investigation into the Enron scandal.
Mr Gowers said that in all the investigative works he had considered for the shortlist, he had been looking for evidence that “the guy has gone around wearing out shoe leather to get the story”. They needed to be “stories that tell more than just the story”, added Prof Garten. There seems little doubt thatConspiracy and DisneyWar met these tests, the judges agreed.
Mr Murthy says the Enron scandal’s “lesson that the top people need to ask the right questions is an important one”. But there were concerns about Conspiracy.It was not the first book on Enron to appear Some judges preferred earlier works on Enron, which were ineligible for this year’s prize. More to the point, if only one “business yarn” were to make the shortlist, then the feeling was that it should be DisneyWar, James Stewart’s exhaustive probe into Disney. – in Ms Lomax’s words a “tremendous insight into the changing nature of the media business”.
With Fast Second and DisneyWar looking strong contenders for two of the three remaining places, the final part of the jury’s deliberations came down to a struggle between Sir Martin’s two vital business themes – technology and expansion in Asia – as described in The Search, about Google and its rivals, and China Inc.
Mr Murthy was enthusiastic about The Search, which he called a “wonderful book” about an important new phenomenon. Business was now “all about accessing information quickly and effectively”, he said, and transparency was “one of the keys to running our corporations”. and running our governments.” Mr Gowers agreed, calling the book “completely compelling”. Gradually, China Inc was edged out. Two and a half hours after the jury started to confer, the shortlist was complete.
THE FINAL RECKONING
The judging panel may have finished reading but if last week’s passionate discussion to determine the shortlist is anything to go by, the debate over which book deserves to be outright winner of the inaugural £30,000 prize has only just started.
The judges will next meet face to face at the Financial Times’ London offices on November 21 with the task of selecting a winner. No matter how divided they are at the beginning of that discussion, and there were strong advocates for each of the finalists at last week’s gathering, they will not be able to defer their decision. The prize has to be presented that evening at an invitation-only gala dinner at the Saatchi Gallery on London’s South Bank.
That event will also fire the starting gun for the 2006 prize. Books published in the 12 months from October 31 2005 will be eligible for next year’s award and the hope of the judges and organisers is that authors and publishers will provide a similarly strong field.
THE JUDGES Lloyd C. Blankfein, president and COO, Goldman Sachs Group; John Gapper, chief business commentator, Financial Times; Jeffrey Garten, Juan Trippe professor of international trade, finance and business, Yale School of Management; Andrew Gowers, editor, Financial Times; Rachel Lomax, deputy governor for monetary policy, Bank of England; N. R. Narayana Murthy, chairman and chief mentor, Infosys Technologies; Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive, WPP