When Alan Greenspan signed an $8.5m book deal with Penguin last month, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve joined a select band of celebrities in the business book world who command multi-million-dollar advances.
They include legendary investor Warren Buffett - who is co-operating with Alice Schroeder on a ‘biography of ideas’, for which Random House reportedly paid $7m last October - and Jack Welch, the former head of General Electric, whose second book, Winning, earned an advance of $4m.
You might have expected the Greenspan and Buffett advances to be hailed as a sign of the rude health of the business book genre. On the contrary: they were seen as proof that publishers were having to sign up celebrities to make up for a slump in sales of more conventional business books since the stock market bubble imploded in 2000 and 2001.
On the evidence of the first Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award, however, the genre is far from moribund.
In fact, publishers and authors are striving for ways to make their books appeal beyond the boundaries of the category by improving the quality of writing and marketing the best titles to a wider audience.
That said, it will always be tough to persuade general readers to read business books for pleasure. More than 50 editors, authors and publishers attended a forum on the future of business books, organised with the help of the Financial Times at last month’s London Book Fair. Asked whether anyone had recently read a business book for pleasure, not a single audience member raised a hand.
Yet, as Donald Sull, the London Business School professor and author, pointed out during the panel debate, drama is inherent in much of modern business and finance, as managers grapple with the pressures of global competition and technological change. ‘The real question is: how do we manage to make it [business writing] so dull’ - Prof Sull asks.
The winner of the FT/Goldman Sachs book prize is expected to provide the ‘most compelling and enjoyable insight into modern business issues’.
The stress on books that are compelling and enjoyable is in part intended to spare judges a summer of tedium as they narrow a ‘long list’ of 15 or 16 titles down to six finalists. Last year, the jury said they had enjoyed the experience - all have agreed to take part again this year - but they also made clear that they had quickly discarded books that did not grip them.
As the award’s backers pointed out when the inaugural prize was announced last year, the mission was worded to ‘encourage even sharper and more entertaining writing on the subjects FT readers and Goldman Sachs clients consider important [and] to spur writers to raise their game’.
Jeff Brown, vice-president and general manager of John Wiley’s business and psychology publishing arm, says the genre is always going to include a range of titles, from the purely utilitarian to those with more literary flair. Wiley publishes ‘how to’ manuals of investment and management, most of which are unlikely ever to compete for the FT/Goldman Sachs award. They are not primarily intended to be read for pleasure, yet they sell extremely well.
But Mr Brown also seeks out books with ‘a distinctive voice’, such as The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, Pietra Rivoli’s fascinating personal take on globalisation, which was one of last year’s finalists.
As Mr Brown told the London Book Fair forum, there are ‘a bazillion would-be business gurus’ out there, but ‘if there’s nothing new, there’s no passion, there’s no feeling of drive to tell something in a compelling way’, the manuscripts are unlikely to make it to the book store.
‘The single biggest flaw [in business authors] is a lack of ambition,’ agrees Prof Sull. In his area of management and strategy, he believes the criteria for a successful business book must include rigour of research, usefulness and interest to the reader.
Many of the books worthy of consideration for the FT/Goldman Sachs prize defy neat characterisation. At least two of the shortlisted titles for last year’s award - the eventual winner, Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, and Freakonomics by Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner - fit into genres outside the business book section, not just economics, but politics, current affairs and sociology. It is no coincidence that both have received the kind of publicity usually reserved for fiction bestsellers.
That is a high standard for ‘traditional’ management books to hurdle but the fact that one - Fast Second
by Constantinos Markides
and the late Paul Geroski - made it to last year’s book award shortlist may already
be having an impact
on that part of the genre.
According to Prof Sull, the promise of £30,000 ($51,000) for the winner has proved a strong incentive to fellow academics to aim high and steer clear of the approach that simply puts doctoral theses or lectures between hard covers.
What sorts of books are likely to interest the judges in 2006? Jack Welch’s book did not make last year’s shortlist and the Buffett and Greenspan titles will not appear in time for consideration this year.
Clearly, globalisation - the rise of China and India, in particular - the impact of technology, and the emergence of new competition for the established corporate giants are the three big themes that should generate compelling business narrative. But books that manage to extract entertaining and broad lessons from a specific case could also be in the
The search is also on for a ‘distinctive voice’ that has not been heard before. “This year we not only want to find the best business books but also the next big name in business writing,” says Lionel Barber, the FT editor.
Finally, as publishers test the boundaries of the business book genre, who is to say that the most enjoyable insight into the essential drama of 21st century corporate, economic and financial life might not, one of these days, come from a novel, rather than a work of non-fiction?
The writer is the Financial Times financial editor and an organiser of the Business Book of the Year Award
RULES OF THE FINANCIAL TIMES AND GOLDMAN SACHS BOOK AWARD
To identify the book that provides the most compelling and enjoyable insight into modern business issues, including management, finance and economics.
WHO CAN ENTER?
Publishers may submit books that have appeared for the first time in English between October 31 2005 and November 1 2006.
WHAT IS THE PRIZE?
The winner will receive £30,000. Five other shortlisted authors will win £5,000 each.
WHAT IS THE SUBMISSION DEADLINE?
June 30 2006.
WHEN WILL THE SHORTLIST AND WINNER BE ANNOUNCED?
The shortlist in September; the winner in October at a gala event in New York.
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
Download an entry form or contribute to our debate about the best business book here
• Lionel Barber, editor,
• Lloyd C. Blankfein,
president and chief operating officer, The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc
• John Gapper, chief business commentator and associate editor, Financial Times
• Jeffrey Garten, Juan Trippe professor of international trade, finance and business, Yale School of Management
• Rachel Lomax, deputy governor for monetary policy, Bank of England
• Narayana Murthy, chairman and chief mentor, Infosys Technologies
• Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive, WPP