Why Do Most Business Books Suck?

I recently read an interesting take on business books by Tribal Leadership’s David Logan. He explains why most business books are bad for you:

First, most business books use stories to cover over their complete lack of insight. This week, I read a galley of a book that I hope will never come out. After some catchy anecdotes about hero CEOs, it advised, among other things, that leaders figure out what’s really important, then do those things. It went way out on a limb by saying that great leaders are remarkable at forming relationships. And (are you sitting down?) the best leaders are honest when a strategy isn’t working.

Second, the stories themselves often highlight the wrong message…Business success isn’t a checklist, and that’s the implied message from many business books: do these things and you’ll be the hero. Business success is a dance: with the market, employees, investors, customers, landlords, and creditors — not to mention spouses and kids.

Third, most business books are air sandwiches: empty in the middle. One of my mentors told me to read the first and last chapters of a book, because everything in the middle is either stories or takeaways so simple that watching Mr. Rogers is a better use of your time. I’m too obsessive-compulsive to follow this advice, but in 95% of cases, it would be better if I had.

I would add that one reason so many business books suck is that the authors write them as marketing or self-promotion tools. Such books emphasize the author’s expertise over quality content, making for an irritating read.

Another aspect of the business book malaise is cultural. Many people buy business books in order to learn how to succeed. If the book promises success (especially quick, easy success), and the writing style is motivational, that’s enough for many readers. They want a vitamin, not wisdom. If you’ve ever seen the books FedEx Office sells on its bookshelf, you know what I mean.

Authors who do this gain a reputation as an expert. Readers gain temporary, if insubstantial, motivation. But publishers are concerned with sales. Thanks to our quick-fix culture, vitamins sell. In a sense, you can blame the market for the proliferation of half-cocked business books.

It takes sifting to find the gems in the business book pile. Here’s our take on the 25 best business books ever.

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