The Author’s Dilemma – Why Most Business Books Suck

bookWhy do most business books suck? In many cases, the relevant content of business books could be summarized in fewer than five pages. In fact, the introduction often covers all of the book’s main points and the remainder of the book is simply an arduous embellishment of the core concepts, replete with a mind-numbing litany of real-world examples and associated gratuitous commentary.
The Author’s Dilemma is, “How do I write an insightful business book that is not redundant but is lengthy enough for the publisher to justify the $19.95 list price?”

The Trailer Was Better Than The Movie

The introductions of many business books are like compelling trailers for blockbuster movies that pique your interest and motivate you to see the movie. However, once you see the film, you realize that, in order to get you to fork over your dough for the flick, the film’s producers included all the good jokes, cool explosions and racy scenes in the trailer. The remainder of the movie consists of dialog dribble, exposition and other filler material required to stitch together the previously viewed jokes, car chases, violence and semi-clad actors.

As an instructor at a major university, I am constantly challenged to find relevant entrepreneurial business books that will enlighten my students. Unfortunately, most business books are like many blockbuster movies – all promise and little delivery.

Rather than simply asking why most business books suck, a more relevant question is: “Why do most business books suck for entrepreneurs?”

Many business books are written by intelligent, accomplished and informed individuals. A few of them are even entrepreneurs in their own right. However, entrepreneurs are often not the intended audience for such books, as publishers often target their books to a wider, more generalized audience. Other reasons business books often miss the mark for entrepreneurs include:

Entrepreneurs Need Tactical Guidance – Obsessing about strategy is a luxury that only Big Dumb Companies (“BDC’s”) can afford. Entrepreneurs must define a series of skirmishes, they do not need to devise elaborate battle plans. Entrepreneurs need only develop a basic strategy and craft an evolving and iterative tactical plan which guides them in the general direction dictated by their overall strategy. Although a few books attempt to act as entrepreneurial field guides that offer tactics in specific areas (e.g., selling, marketing, PR, etc.), their usefulness is often limited. Books that highlight tactics are valuable for entrepreneurs whose specific circumstances match those outlined in the text. However, specific tactics are often difficult to translate into markets outside of those described in such books.

Entrepreneurs Have Corporate ADD – A pithy format, offering bite-sized data, serves entrepreneurs well. If you prefer to pour through 400-page academic tomes, you may be a nice person, but you are probably not an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs “Get It” – Consistent with their Corporate ADD, entrepreneurs tend to excel at digesting numerous disparate facts and making quick, gestalt decisions. This inherent impatience causes entrepreneurs to quickly become frustrated with books that repeatedly reinforce their central point through multiple examples, analogies and anecdotes.

Entrepreneurs Are Contrarians – In general, the use of multiple examples is an appropriate means of convincing someone to change their behavior. However, since most entrepreneurs have no allegiance to the status quo, they find books which rely on numerous examples as a means of changing the reader’s behavior to be frustrating and largely irrelevant.

Many business books are written to convince middle managers that they should do things differently. The Innovator’s Dilemma is a classic example of such a book. Clay Christensen notes that the very skills that executives are taught in business school and cultivate on the job (e.g., ask your customer what they want and build it) are the same skills that will result in the demise of their businesses, once they achieve an initial degree of success. Fringers do not blindly follow “accepted” business practices and thus do not need to be convinced to “change their ways.” Although The Innovator’s Dilemma is a well-written, thoughtful book, most entrepreneurs are innately driven to create a series of disruptive technologies without being told to do so.

Formula Over Form

Just like other areas of popular culture, business books fall into a number of proven formulas that publishers return to again and again. Some of these formulas include:

The Parable – The best thing about these highly formulaic books is that they are generally mercifully brief. As the heading suggests, these books rely on a parable to reinforce the lessons they extol. Some of the more noteworthy (infamous?) parable business books include: Who Moved My Cheese?, The One Minute Manager, Fish! For Life, Louder Than Thunder and The Salesman’s Magician.

The Biography – As philosopher George Santayana so aptly pointed out, one can learn a great deal by reading about the accomplishments of those who have gone before. However, in the case of business biographies, the emphasis is often on imparting entertaining anecdotes that are not particularly relevant to the average entrepreneur.

The most popular of these books focus on the ultra-successful business elite. The reality is that most entrepreneurs will not start the next Microsoft, Google, Cisco or eBay. The early-stage experiences of these founders and key executives might be enlightening, but it is unlikely you will learn much beyond the discussion of their ventures’ early stages. These wildly successful and uncommon individuals often did not face many of the challenges common to “average” startups and thus are not ideal role models for the average entrepreneur.
A biography about a skilled, yet unsuccessful entrepreneur would likely be more relevant and educational. Unfortunately, publishers are not clamoring to write biographies on failed entrepreneurs.

Amazon lists over 2,000 books under the business category of “Captains of Industry.” It seems that every executive involved in an IPO feels that their life and accomplishments should be memorialized in a business biography. Quite unfortunately, with the advent of online publishing, the inundation of such self-serving books is not likely to abate any time soon.

The Historical Novel – These books are short on learning and big on drama. In order to make these books entertaining, the authors include a great deal of text describing the cast of characters. Historical novels also suffer the same larger-than-life issue of biographies, as most of the companies selected as the subject of such books are outliers in the world of startups. If a company does not either dramatically flameout or make a big pile of money, no one takes the time to record its history.

One exception is The MouseDriver Chronicles, which describes the machinations of a marginally successful startup that developed and sold a mundane, real product. I highly recommend this book. Another entrepreneurially relevant historical novel is Startup, which depicts the tribulations of a high-profile, venture-backed enterprise. Although there are a number of passages that are a bit dated (e.g., “after the meeting, everyone vied for the conference room phone to retrieve their voicemail”), the book conveys a number of valuable lessons. Written by the company’s founder, Jerry Kaplan, the reader is exposed to many common mistakes made by first-time entrepreneurs.

If you want to read a soap opera set on a business stage about a company that was either immensely successful, ruthlessly dishonest or both, be sure to pick up a historical business book. Examples include: The Billion Dollar Molecule, Masters of Doom, The Google Story, The Perfect Store: Inside eBay and The Paypal Wars.

One Idea – As you likely guessed from the heading, these books express one idea in the introduction and then repeat it over and over and over and over again. Sometimes the idea is clever, even brilliant. However, the repetition becomes mind-numbing by the end of the second chapter. These books are often filled out with case studies, real-world examples and humorless anecdotes which attempt to exemplify and support the validity of the “one idea.” These books sell surprisingly well and include such well-known titles as “The Purple Cow,” “The Wisdom of Crowds,” “The Tipping Point, “Blink” and “The Long Tail.” I agree with Malcolm Gladwell, the author of “Blink” and “The Tipping Point” – sometimes you really can take a “decisive glance” and come away with an epiphany. Books in this category are evidence of this fact. If you are an entrepreneur, a decisive glance is all you need invest in this business book genre.

Academic Treatise – A number of business books arise out of articles written for business journals. In addition to being difficult to read, these books generally contain numerous four-by-four charts that slice and dice various market variables in innumerable and imaginative ways. They are also weighed down with assiduously researched data, none of which is relevant to an entrepreneur trying to make payroll and generate sales. Examples include nearly any book published by Harvard Business Press, Stanford University Press or Wharton School Publishing.

Consulting Sales Pitch – These books are the most insidious of the lot. They are written for the expressed purpose of pimping a particular cookie cutter consulting plan created by one or more partners of a prominent consulting firm. Although these books may take the form of “The Parable,” “The List” or “One Idea” books, in all cases they tend to be extremely jargon-laden and extolling a flavor-of-the-month business philosophy.

Fortunately, these books are less prevalent than they once were, following a couple of scandals in which the authors were busted for attempting to manipulate the best-seller lists. It seems the authors’ consulting firms pre-ordered large quantities of their books to spike the initial sales and place the books on the various best-seller lists. The otherwise worthless books were subsequently given away to the consulting firms’ hapless clients. Examples of books in this genre include: The Productivity Imperative, Blue Ocean Strategy, and The House of Value Creation. Legal Notice: None of these books were in any way involved in the previously mentioned best-seller scandals.

The List – At least biographies and historical novels are somewhat entertaining, if not overly enlightening. List books are neither. Such books outline a list in the introduction. The remaining chapters then delve into each item of the list in greater detail. Such books epitomize the “I saw the trailer, so there is no need to see the movie” truism. There are numerous examples of list books, but I will refrain from listing them here, so as to avoid falling prey to the “listing pitfall” found in such books.

Best of The Worst?

The best entrepreneurial business books tend to be those which cover the primary activities required to create and operate a successful startup. Such books provide entrepreneurs with pragmatic insights via real-world examples, hands-on exercises and easy-to-digest bullet-point lists.

A good example of a relevant book for entrepreneurs is Guy Kawasaki’s The Art of the Start. Guy succinctly addresses a number of relevant startup issues in pithy chapters and offers concrete, tactical suggestions for addressing a number of typical challenges faced by most startups.

infoChachkies Defined

Although clearly imperfect in many respects, the infoChachkies contained at are designed to avoid the pitfalls found in many business books. Our goal is to provide entrepreneurs infoChachkies – bite-sized learnings that are ideally digested in small doses. This approach allows entrepreneurs to print off a particular entry of interest and enhance their education whenever and wherever it is convenient, even in the “porcelain library.” Once they are done doing their duty, they can then get back to work without having had to search through an exhaustive book to locate a handful of points of tactical interest.

By utilizing the entries’ tags, readers are able to quickly dive into a particular subject of interest. In the absence of a phone connection to John Greathouse to ask a quick, pointed question, readers can drill down to the specific issue of interest (e.g., negotiating, networking, recruiting, pitching, etc.) using the Blog’s Categories list, rather than having to plow through a book.

Feed Me Back

We are interested in your opinion regarding the state of business books. Please contribute your thoughts so we can create an infoChachkie Business Book Library. Let us know which business books you love and which ones you hate. In addition, if you know of other examples that fit in the various categories articulated in this post, please share your thoughts so that like minded entrepreneurs can avoid replicating your literary consumption mistakes.

Copyright © 2008 by J. Meredith Publishing. All rights reserved.


John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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  • I liked the “I’m not going to list those books here.” joke.

  • I found “Four Steps to the Epiphany” full of practical advice for starting a software company. I do agree that many business books are a good magazine article that’s been expanded unnecessarily, this is not one of them. What’s strange is that I would be willing to pay the same amount for a much shorter write-up boiled to essentials with a few examples than a 180-250 page book. Perhaps 10-25 pages would do for most.

  • I do like the style of this blog and felt the same way about mine when I started writing it. Short text notes in blog format helping people on a wide range of topics that can be searched seems so much better than a book.

    In the end however, if you want to get ideas across it sometimes needs the author to carefully think through a total topic and capture that thought process into a book to make it more widely available to certain demographics and to have people follow a longer set of thoughts – this is why I ended up writing a book as well as the blog.

    Having read 100’s books on entrepreneurship I also have to agree about many really being far too many words to cover the basic concept and “nuggets” from the book. However again I have to defend the authors as I found it very hard to condense my ideas into 40K words and threw away a further 40K to get my book on entrepreneurship done!

    In any case, if you want to see if I did a good job of keeping the topic to the point check it out:

    So you want to be an Entrepreneur? is a fast and fun way to find out if you can make it as an Entrepreneur.


  • Mike Thompson

    I enjoyed John Mullins’s “The New Business Road Test.”

  • Doug G

    Love this. I’ve become fully adapted to buying business books and reading 1 to 3 chapters then setting them aside.

    Most really seem to be articles that are extended to book length. And, being designed to “sell”, they follow formula not brilliance.

    That being said, a few have been quite influential to me. I kicked off my marketing career with “Competitive Strategy” by Michael Porter. Of course, that’s a very difficult and deep book. The typical “book pub market” would never let that one out. But his depth is what made it compelling reading.

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  • Kevin

    There is a great series of books called “The 55-Minute Guide” series that tackles this very issue. There are about 7 or 8 of them and apparently more coming, mostly around business communications… I wrote one of them ! 🙂

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