People like to complain about business books. I am not sure if it happens more in this genre than other publishing segments. I certainly notice more given both my personal interest in the category and my professional pursuit as a book publisher. It might be that people just like to complain. 🙂
The most common is the tl;dr complaint. People will lament that an author spent 300 pages talking about one idea. “They could have done just as much in 30 pages,” they’ll say. In the extreme version, the critic will proclaim the book never needed to be written in the first place.
The way I have come to recast these kinds of complaints is around a different question:
“How much does the reader need?”
This is a key product development question when you are creating a book. I often warn authors that they will not be there in person when the customer is reading their book. The book needs to function on its own in conveying the idea, helping the reader see a problem in a new light, and giving helpful solutions.
This question of what is needed, though, can have a lot of elasticity given the range of readers who will experience a book. The desire for shorter books tends to grow with the length of one’s career. A growing amount of experience with books, classes and real world interactions gives a reader a base of knowledge that requires less context building. Someone just starting out, only a few years out of school, needs much more explanation of the problem and the solution.
Most books are built to be a course. The intrinsic form of a book lends itself to doing this kind of teaching. Give an author 275 pages and six hours of a reader’s time and you can cover substantial ground on a topic. The detail brings a richness to an idea. New, potentially confusing sections can easily be reread at the reader’s own pace. Atomic Habits is a course. The very strength of that approach is what generates the ire.
Now, some books are built to be a speech. These are the so-called airplane reads. The books are packaged in a smaller trim size to communicate the smaller scope. The reader gets twenty to thirty thousand words spread out over 150-ish pages. The problem is big and the solutions are painted with big brushstrokes. Touching anecdotes fill the pages. These titles dial up inspiration over utility. Make Your Bed fits this approach well.
What many critics want is the speech rather than the course. I get it! Several executive summary services exist and are highly successful for exactly this reason. TED is wildly popular for the distillation of course books into (live) speeches. A good author interview in podcast or “print” acts like a speech with the opportunity to extract the more interesting and timely angles over course-length treatment of the same book.
Some publishers advocate for a speech version of the book to be presented in the opening to course-length books. “You get the best of both worlds!” they say. I have never thought that this is the right solution. It’s a bit like saying you should start every movie with the trailer and then start the movie. When that approach is taken, that speech version is often presented as the introduction and most readers report skipping the introduction.
Let’s admit that some people want the one-hour documentary and others would prefer a ten part series.
Think about the customer and build the product to best help them. Maybe it is the course. Maybe, it is the speech. No matter the choice, it’s not going to work for everybody. And that is OK.