Is Quality Control Lacking in Business Books?

In Sunday’s New York Times, Bryan Burrough — an author, former Wall Street Journal reporter and now a correspondent for Vanity Fair, takes business writers to task for producing books that are of generally low quality. He gives many reasons for this: Some of the books are too technical, some too complicated, some authors don’t have access to the business people they write about and some simply can’t tell a story. He also suggests that because businesses are notoriously secret, it can be hard to get access to information that would make a compelling narrative.

He also notes that many of the business book authors are not good writers; they are “chief executives, professors and experts in their field” who often lack “professional craftsmanship.” A lot are written “by consultants and others who I suspect seek to use the books as giant business cards, a way of garnering attention … or speaking engagements.” Of course there are exceptions, he says, including Greed and Glory on Wall Street, Liar’s Poker and Den of Thieves.

According to Wharton management professor Stephen Kobrin, publisher and executive director of Wharton Digital Press, the term “business books” encompasses a wide range of genres. “These include narratives — such as the spate of books dealing with the Great Recession — biographies of business leaders, histories of firms and the like. Recent books, such as Too Big to Fail, The Wizard of Lies and The First Tycoon, are works of serious non-fiction. More typically, ‘business books’ include investment advice, biographies of CEOs or firm histories aimed primarily at a business audience, and a wide variety of books that deal with specific issues such as leadership, strategy, marketing, human resource management, technology and so forth.”

What differentiates “business books” from narratives, he adds, “is that they are written to provide managers and others working in business and other organizations with information that will be useful in improving their performance and that of their companies. The best business books help the reader adapt to rapid change, view his or her situation from a truly fresh perspective, develop skills or capabilities, gain deeper knowledge of processes and disciplines or provide an understanding of new technologies and their applicability.”  

Kobrin, like Burrough, finds some reasons to be critical. “The worst business books are both jargon laden and trite, capitalizing on the fad of the moment. They tend to be vapid exercises that are the moral equivalent of a too-clever Powerpoint presentation…. That said, it is far from clear that there are more ‘bad’ business books than can be found in any other genre. I suspect the difference is that it might be easier for business books to see the light of day than other categories of non-fiction. More business authors come with ‘platforms,’ the ability to move books through their speaking engagements, consulting practices and the like.” While Kobrin does not have hard evidence to support the assertion, he “suspects that it may be easier for publishers to see their way to a positive P&L with a business book than for other works of non-fiction.”

Burrough and John Helyar co-authored one of the most recognized business books of the last few decades — Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco, published in 1990. Wharton management professor Daniel Raff describes the book as “a brilliant success at the time and durable enough to support a second edition 20 years after the first.” One can find books in the business section of airport bookstores “which are comparably dense, insightful and carefully written,” Raff adds. Some, like Barbarians at the Gate, “also have subjects with plot and character and develop these superbly. But books like that are not typical of the genre.”

Viewed from Burrough’s “personal perspective, or from an academic one, there seems to be something to his criticisms,” Raff adds. “But I also wonder whether they beg an important question. Business books, for the most part, provide a certain sort of consumption experience, and they appear to be purchased primarily by people who are looking for this experience.” In that sense, Raff says, many business books have something in common with the articles in some magazines also for sale in airport bookstores: “They stimulate readers to think harder than they might have otherwise about why certain decisions are made or how particular things might get done. I do have the impression that a lot of the books are read in the course of an airplane flight and are never subsequently consulted. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t satisfy a need or desire, or that they don’t serve a constructive purpose.”

 

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