Quest for a tome that alters people's thinking

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From the third floor of a refurbished warehouse in Milwaukee, Jack Covert has a unique perspective on the business book publishing market. "The real quality stuff continues to sell but not much is sticking to the walls," says the president and founder of 800-CEO-READ, which supplies books in bulk to corporate buyers.

This is a far cry from the 1990s, when business books of all kinds - marketing, leadership, strategy, memoir, narrative - were remarkably adhesive. Publishers responded by distributing hundreds of titles - not only by renowned gurus but by unknown authors too.

"From 1995 to 1999, you could have published blank pages, charged $24.99 and still sold 50,000 copies," says Tim Moore, editor-in-chief at Prentice Hall Business, an imprint of Pearson, the media group that owns the Financial Times.

Today, publishers have to be more cautious. Although precise figures are hard to come by, business book sales are down substantially from the peak. Sales in some genres - general management and strategy titles - have, by some estimates, fallen by 30 per cent.

"The market has forced us to be more discerning," says Roger Scholl, editorial director at Currency, a business book imprint owned by Random House.

Some publishers have responded by pulling out of the business book market altogether. Others have reduced the number of titles they publish. All admit to being more risk-averse.

"There has been a flight to the tried and true," says Steve Piersanti, president of Berrett-Koehler, an independent publisher based in San Francisco.

The Amazon.com business bestsellers list is dominated by "brand name" authors: Jim Collins (Built to Last and Good To Great), Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point and Blink), Larry Bossidy (Execution and Confronting Reality), Marcus Buckingham (First, Break All the Rules and The One Thing You Need To Know).

These authors boast not only name recognition but also what is known in the book trade as a "platform". Messrs Collins and Buckingham are among the most highly-paid speakers on the US business conference circuit. Mr Gladwell is a columnist on the New Yorker magazine.

Top spot is taken by Jack Welch, arguably the most successful US chief executive of his generation and a household name thanks to his affair and subsequent marriage to Suzy Welch (née Wetlaufer), his co-author of Winning and former Harvard Business Review editor.

"We like authors that can do speaking tours and sell books at the back of the room. Books that sell only in the three months after launch are a problem for us," says Rick Wolff, executive editor at Warner Business, which published Mr Welch's first book - Jack: Straight from the Gut.

"It is all part of being selective," says Jeff Brown, general manager at Wiley, which publishes about 300 business titles annually. "You look at the ways in which an author has made themselves visible and where their authority comes from."

Of course, it takes more than an effective platform to create a bestseller.

"Any editor first wants to fall in love with the book," says Dominick Anfuso, editorial director of Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, the publisher owned by Viacom, another giant of US media. "That said, an author's promotability is a serious consideration - sometimes a major one, sometimes a minor one. Very few books make it by word of mouth alone."

The good news for authors without a platform is that the business book market continues to confound analysis from time to time. Conspiracy of Fools, a retelling of the Enron story by Kurt Eichenwald, a New York Times reporter, is riding high in the bestseller lists, despite the disappointing sales performance of several earlier Enron-related books. Also selling well is Confessions of an Economic Hitman, a tale of financial exploitation in developing economies by John Perkins, a little-known author.

But while these surprise hits fall into the broad "business" category, neither deals with the management of organisations. The few recent winners in this lacklustre genre have been by big-name authors. Up-and-coming business school professors and management consultants are struggling to find an audience.

"People will still buy books in this category, but it has to be from a credible source," says Adrian Zackheim, publisher at Portfolio, another of Pearson's business book imprints.

Readers appear to be more interested in turning to management classics than devoting time to the work of arrivistes. Publishers report a steady demand for titles such as Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline, now in its 15th year in print, and Spencer Johnson and Ken Blanchard's One Minute Manager, published in 1981 and one of the first management books to achieve blockbuster status.

As for the future, most publishers point to business ethics and leadership as important themes in the management genre. Globalisation and the rise of China as an economic superpower are also expected to remain compelling topics.

Back in Milwaukee, Mr Covert also notes the popularity of management books that on the surface have little to do with management. The Tipping Point is the best-known recent example. Others include A Whole New Mind, in which Daniel Pink argues that right-brain empathy in future will be more important than left-brain analytical ability, and The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki, another New Yorker columnist.

"The new business book is not about how to run a company," says Mr Covert. "It is about how to look at the world differently."

How's that for an unusual perspective?

A GUIDE TO THE GOOD, GREAT AND PROFITABLE

Business narrative

The business narrative achieved blockbuster status with Barbarians At The Gate (1990), Bryan Burrough and John Helyar’s tale of greed and loathing on Wall Street. Two accounts of corporate conflict are currently selling well: Kurt Eichenwald’s Conspiracy of Fools and James Stewart’s DisneyWar

Memoir

A perennial favourite – but only by the biggest business names. Alfred Sloan’s My Years At General Motors (1964) remains one of the best business books ever written. Lee Iacocca’s autobiography (1984) was another high point for the genre

CEO books

A genre established in 1970 by Robert Townsend, the former CEO of Avis, with Up The Organisation: How To Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits. Hottest CEO book of the moment: Winning, by former General Electric boss Jack Welch. Best recent example: Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, by Larry Bossidy, formerly of Allied Signal

Parables/fables

Simple stories used to convey simplistic ideas. First used in the early 1980s by Spencer Johnson and Ken Blanchard in The One-Minute Manager. The genre’s originators remain its masters. Seven years after it was published, Johnson and Blanchard’s Who Moved My Cheese? remains in Amazon.com’s top 20 business books

General management

Everything from leadership to marketing to strategy. Good To Great, by former business school Prof Jim Collins, is the business publishing hit of the current decade, with 3m sold and counting

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