What do you mean by “great books”? demands American publisher Steve Piersanti. “Well, a book that has impact,” I venture, “and I guess it has to be a bestseller.”

I am trying to understand what makes a “great” business book. Heaven knows I get sent enough bad ones. As an occasional reviewer, I’m on the publicity list of what seems like every publisher in the Americas. My desk is piled high. The space under my desk is crammed, as is the adjacent cubicle. Every so often, without warning, a pile of business books topples over with a loud thump.

Why not just get rid of them? Easier said than done. It seems criminal to throw away books, even the ones with “leadership” or “discipline” in the title. Yet second-hand bookstores won’t take them. Apparently there’s no demand, even at bargain-basement prices, which makes you wonder why they get printed in the first place. Surely publishers would make more money if they put out books people really wanted to buy?

The quest for understanding has brought me to the San Francisco offices of Piersanti’s publishing house, Berrett-Koehler. We are sitting on black leather sofas in a very small meeting room on the sixth floor of a slightly shabby office building. It is a long way in every sense from the glitz and glamour of New York publishing. But, when it comes to business books, Piersanti is something of an oracle. Berrett-Koehler’s list includes management guru Henry Mintzberg and consultant Ken Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager. Piersanti has been in the industry longer than most, having started his career in the late 1970s as a copywriter at Jossey-Bass, the San Francisco-based publisher that is now part of Wiley. He rose through the ranks to become president before quitting in 1991 to start his own business. Berrett-Koehler remains a small outfit, publishing about 30 new titles a year, mostly business books. Its modest digs attest to the fact that it can’t afford too many flops.

Piersanti points out that the odds of a publisher coming up with a bestselling business book - let alone one that might be considered “great” - are very, very long. In the US, the world’s biggest publishing market, 100-150 non-fiction books (a category covering everything from travel guides to supply- chain management) sell more than 100,000 hardcover copies each year. In a bad year, only two or three of these will be business books. In a good year, perhaps 10.

This is not much of a payback for an industry that publishes hundreds of new business titles each year. And bear in mind that, from a publisher’s perspective, it costs as much to take a lame duck to market as it does a glittering swan. Hit or miss, the concept needs to be refined by author, agent and publisher. The writing process needs to be managed. Copy must be edited, a design created, pages printed and bound, and finished books distributed to retailers who, needless to say, take a substantial cut of the cover price.

Roughly how many business titles are published? That depends on your definition. In addition to the management category (leadership, strategy and so on), there are narratives (The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron); fables (Who Moved My Cheese?); memoirs (Jack: Straight From the Gut); self-help (How to Find a Job After 50) and technical guides (Quantitative Risk Management: Concepts, Techniques and Tools).

There are also books that blur the line between science and business. This has been a hot category in recent years with books such as The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell’s investigation of the power of epidemiology, becoming obligatory red-eye reading for ambitious executives.

A ballpark estimate is that there are about 200,000 business books in print. Even the biggest book superstores have shelf space for only 1,000-1,500. With so many titles clamouring for readers’ attention, one of the biggest challenges for publishers and authors is getting their books noticed. Large publishing houses have an advantage, with bigger promotional budgets and more muscle when it comes to wrestling with retailers.

It helps if the author has what is known in the trade as a “platform” - a newspaper column, a radio show, a consulting company or notoriety that will help raise their profile. The word from Manhattan is that the big New York houses are reluctant even to look at a manuscript from a new author unless he or she has a platform. You can understand the risk-aversion.

More and more, business book publishing is about creating multibook franchises. At the populist end of the spectrum, Wiley has its hugely successful “For Dummies” series. In personal finance, Warner Business Books has the “Rich Dad” franchise including, at the last count, Rich Dad Poor Dad, Rich Dad’s Cashflow Quadrant, Rich Dad’s Guide To Investing, Rich Dad’s Rich Kid Smart Kid, Rich Dad’s Retire Young Retire Rich, Rich Dad’s Prophecy, Rich Dad’s Success Stories, Rich Dad’s Guide To Becoming Rich Without Cutting Up Your Credit Cards, Rich Dad’s Who Took My Money and Rich Dad’s Before You Quit Your Job.

Even quasi-academic publishers are starting to think in the same way. Thus Harvard Business School Publishing turned Clayton Christensen, a professor at the business school, into a franchise by following The Innovator’s Dilemma with The Innovator’s Solution and, between books, staging a large number of conferences and seminars. As well as being a commanding stage presence, Christensen has a lot to say about the relationship between technological change and corporate strategy. Thanks to the efforts of his publisher, he is also a franchise.

So what is a publisher to do if he comes across a great manuscript from an unknown author without obvious platform or franchise potential? Many Berrett-Koehler authors fall into this category. As a small business - and one that, unusually, rarely pays advances - it is never going to be in the bidding for books such as Warren Buffett’s authorised “biography of ideas”, scheduled to appear in 2008, and which attracted a $7m advance.

Although some well-known authors come to Piersanti because of his reputation, most of his books are written by relative unknowns. Turning their ideas into marketable products takes a lot of work. “What works as a workshop doesn’t usually work as a book,” says Piersanti.

All publishers are big on imitation. It does not take long for a successful formula to be followed by a host of imitators. Thus The One Minute Manager, published in 1981, spawned a whole genre of business books using fable-style storytelling to talk about the management of organisations. Perhaps the most imitated business book of all time is In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters’ and Robert Waterman’s tribute to successful US companies. As well as selling by the truckload after its publication in 1982, In Search of Excellence has become the Model-T Ford of the genre. Its basic architecture - a “big thought” followed by eight management principles, supported by a beguiling blend of data and anecdote - remains the dominant structure for books on management.

Jim Collins’s Good to Great, the biggest selling and most influential management book of the new millennium, follows the Peters and Waterman formula almost exactly. The big thought - very few companies make the transition from good to really outstanding financial performance - is followed by seven principles, including:

- Level 5 Leadership: practised by those who are more interested in what they can build and contribute than in what they can get out of a job.

- The Hedgehog Concept: an ancient Greek parable about the difference between foxes, which know many small things, and hedgehogs, which know one big thing. Good-to-great leaders are hedgehogs.

- The Flywheel: getting a huge, heavy flywheel to turn requires quiet discipline over long periods. It is the same with companies, which explains why one-off change programmes rarely succeed.

This listing of principles is not to suggest that Jim Collins is guilty of plagiarism. The questions he asks in Good to Great, and his research methodology, are very different to In Search of Excellence. And, hey, he offers seven principles, not eight.

Piersanti stops short of arguing that business books have to follow this structure in order to be successful. But he admits to working frequently with authors to shape their ideas into something that fits the broad template. The book-buying public knows what it likes. As he says: “People have less and less patience with books that take too long to get to the point.”

Judging by the books that land on - or under - my desk each week, other publishers are thinking the same way. Among the latest crop are The Prepared Mind of a Leader: Eight Skills Leaders Use to Innovate, Make Decisions and Solve Problems and The Feiner Points of Leadership: The 50 Basic Laws That Will Make People Want to Perform Better for You, and one of Berrett-Koehler’s perennial bestsellers, Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time.

The bullet-point architecture has become so dominant that we take it for granted. It is easy to forget that business books have not always resembled PowerPoint presentations. While In Search of Excellence was the first genuine business blockbuster, a handful of business-related books in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s did reach the bestseller list. William Whyte’s The Organisation Man (1956) and Robert Townsend’s Up the Organisation (1970) sold well without treating their readers like first-year MBA students.

Peter Drucker, the most influential management writer of the past century - he can take credit for establishing management as a subject worthy of serious discussion - also wrote in a more organic style than most of today’s pretenders. Observations and insights flowed from one to the next rather than being assembled like children’s building blocks. A product of the pre-Peters and Waterman era - he grew up in Vienna in the early years of the 20th century - it probably never occurred to him to make his books accessible beyond authorial attention to prose style and clarity.

Colleagues of Drucker, who died last weekend aged 95, worked with the eminence grise in recent years to repackage his thinking for the Good to Great generation. The Daily Drucker, published last year, offers 366 pearls of wisdom harvested from several decades of top quality management writing, each with an “action point”. Next up: The Effective Executive in Action, a workbook-style presentation of the main ideas in a 1966 Drucker classic.

The good news is that from time to time books still break the mould and, very occasionally, create a whole new genre. Freakonomics, co-written by up-and-coming academic economist Steven Levitt, has not only racked up strong sales since it was published earlier this year but also helped make the “dismal science” almost hip. Look out for imitators over the next year or two. Freakonomics has also led to a regular New York Times column and radio spots for the co-author - a rare instance in modern publishing of a platform being built on the back of a book, not the other way round.

But does Freakonomics have the potential to change how we see the world, Piersanti’s other acid test for a truly great business book? In small ways, perhaps. By applying economic principles to everyday issues, Levitt demonstrates among other things why back-yard swimming pools are more dangerous than guns, and the link between abortion law and violent crime.

Of the current crop of bestsellers, however, only The World is Flat, by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, seems likely to have a meaningful impact on the business Zeitgeist. The book’s title has already become shorthand for the bundle of socio-economic forces driving globalisation, just as a few years ago Tipping Point became shorthand for the spread of everything from ideas to influenza. Only time will tell whether The World is Flat is itself a tipping point in the globalisation debate - or just another business book.

And here is the rub: with the benefit of hindsight, only a tiny handful of business books can change anything very much at all. Even bestsellers that seemed influential at the time soon fade from the collective memory. Great business books, like great racehorses, come along just once or twice in a decade, at most.

Piersanti nominates In Search of Excellence - and not only because it shaped ideas of what a management book should look like. Published at a time when the US economy seemed in danger of being swamped by competition from Japan, McKinsey consultants Peters and Waterman dared to say that the answer lay not in copying Japanese management methods but in learning from US companies that had turned back the tide. It captured the imagination of a worried nation as well as a profit-hungry publishing industry.

Notwithstanding its traditionalist structure, Good to Great also gets the nod. Anecdotal evidence suggests more chief executives have read it than any other business book of recent years. Often it is the only business book they have read since graduate school.

For impact on the practice of management, if not blockbuster sales, one or two Druckers should be on any list of “great” business books. It is a cliche, but true, that the biggest challenge for any management writer is finding something to say that Drucker has not already said better.

No business bookshelf is complete without Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy, which, notwithstanding a catatonic prose style, changed the way companies thought about strategy. Then there is Re-engineering the Corporation, by Michael Hammer and James Champy, which for better or worse launched the business process re-engineering wave of the early 1990s. The aftershocks are still being felt.

As Piersanti cheerfully concedes, however, greatness is a high standard to aspire to. Of course, every publisher dreams of being offered the next Good to Great. But back in the real world, a business book that sells 100,000 hardcover copies and hangs around for a few weeks on the bestseller list is considered a triumph. Fifty-thousand hardcover copies and a few speaking engagements for the author is a very good result. Even 25,000 copies is nothing to be ashamed of. In business books, as in business, the gulf between good and great is vast.

On the way out of Berrett-Koehler’s offices, my host presses a few of the company’s own bestsellers into my arms. I carry them back to my desk and put them on the pile labelled “Must get round to reading some time”. It is a very large pile indeed.

Simon London is the FT’s management editor.


by Alfred Sloan, 1963

Sloan was not GM’s founder but he did turn the world’s largest carmaker into the model of how a decentralised, multidivisional company should be run. Peter Drucker’s Concept of the Corporation, published in 1947, offered an outsider’s perspective on what made the place tick but, for a firsthand account, Sloan is your man. Every celebrity CEO memoir published since (think Lee Iacocca, Harold Geneen and Jack Welch) has lived in its shadow. Every big multidivisional company is either copying Sloan’s ideas or reacting against them.

by Peter Drucker, 1969

Drucker stands way above most other writers because (a) he was first to say a lot of what we now take for granted and (b) he always looked at management in a wider social and political context. Sandwiched between the classic Practice of Management (1954) and the prophetic Managing In Turbulent Times (1980), The Age of Discontinuity broke new ground by pointing out that governments around the world had passed the peak of their power. The future lay in a “new pluralism”, wrote Drucker, with private enterprise playing an increasingly important role.

by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, 1982

The book that launched the business publishing boom of the 1980s and 1990s. Peters and Waterman inspired a host of imitators with their mix of hard research, easy anecdote and storytelling. Before In Search of Excellence, most business books were either dry academic tomes or exposes. Later debunking of the research and conclusions means that In Search of Excellence is not without flaws. But as a piece of history, it is still worth reading.

by Peter Senge, 1990

The book that put “learning organisations” into the lexicon of modern management. Senge was not the first to point out that individual and collective learning are central to the enduring success of any organisation, but he popularised the idea with this idiosyncratic blend of psychology, systems dynamics and Zen-inspired philosophy. Idealistic? Yes. Hard to put into practice? Absolutely. Influential? More than you might think.

by Jim Collins, 2001

Four years after its launch, this analysis of how good companies become great remains on Amazon.com’s list of business bestsellers. The emphasis on low-key leadership, corporate values and a selective approach to technology chimed with the post-bubble atmosphere of 2001-2002. It continues to reverberate.

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