Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures writes on his blog today:
I’m not a fan of business books. I find that you get most of the value from them in the opening chapter and then it is a lot of repetition from then on.
In the comments, which he hosts as a Twitter thread, there are more comments in agreement about the lack of depth in many business books.
I have heard this complaint for as long as I have worked in business book publishing. Sometimes, the message is stronger. I remember Elizabeth Spiers lambasting the category in Fast Company in 2008, saying:
Business books let us amble zombielike through our careers, freeing us from responsibility for the quality of our own decision making. Better to delegate that responsibility to other people — Jack Welch, perhaps. It’s a fresh spin on the old saw that no one ever got fired for buying IBM: No one will ever get canned for leaning on something with a Ken Blanchard blurb on the front cover.
My responses were more impassioned in the past. Breathless, I wrote a letter to the editor at Fast Company, which was published the following month, where I said, in part:
Ms. Spiers overall indictment of the entire business book category is an easy mark and one that could be applied to any genre of media. Her elitism about what constitutes good reading compounds the problem further. While I can appreciate her hyperbole as a method to communicate some criticism about the genre, a more subtle treatment of the subject would, I believe, be more effective.
I like to believe my responses are more tempered now 🙂
And the reason they are is because I think there is something different playing out in these complaints.
Your love or hate of business books is driven by your “felt need.” Felt need is the term we use at Bard Press for rational and emotional components that go into your decision to buy a book (or anything for that matter). Another version of this is the Jobs-To-Be-Done framework, where you look more fully at the needs that are being satisfied by the product you are selling (or designing).
The reality is that different people hire authors, or more accurately authorities, to do different jobs and with that framing, let’s walk through some of the options:
- Even with the vocal dissatisfaction, lots of people hire the book. The book is the full length commentary on the idea. You can read/acquire the idea at your own pace. It’s portable. You can share it. There is defined scope of what you will find within its covers. It can serve as “the t-shirt” for the kind of person you are when you are seen reading it or it sitting on your bookshelf.
- Lots of people just want the idea—give me a set-up and deliver the punchline. A book is a cumbersome way to fulfill that felt need. Fred Wilson is in this camp and his solution is listening to the podcast interview with the author. Watching a TED talk is another route to delivering the essence. Fred thinks those interviews and talks cannibalize sales. I disagree. Those formats exist to satisfy a different felt need. They act more like periodical media, whose JTBD is to be interesting and keep people informed of the latest ideas circulating in the world. Some viewers, after a talk or interview, find they have more interest, a stronger felt need, and buy the book.
- Book summaries arise in these sorts of discussions. The promise of the book summary is that you can get the same utility of reading a book in less time. This is another category that exists because of a felt need and companies like getAbstract, Executive Book Summaries, and Blinkist prove people have that felt need. This is also a product category where customers often complain, saying they don’t get enough of the book when they read the summary. I have always wondered if a whole new market would open if the original authors wrote their own book summaries.
- A stronger felt need for the author and the idea can lead to all sorts of other engagements – courses, communities, coaching, speaking, and consulting. These are all higher felt need products where the customer wants even more detail and interaction to support and satisfy a particular problem.
There is a spectrum of demand with different felt needs. As an author, be sure you are taking time to understand the jobs that customers want to hire you for and develop the right offerings at the right price points (sometime free) to satisfy that demand.