February 25, 2020

Cook the Books

The business book is a conundrum. With so many ways to convey ideas, why does it still exist?

Don’t get us wrong—we love business. And ideas. And books. But the whole book-based delivery system feels like overkill for most business books. Frankly, the preface and first chapter usually seem to get the job done; if we’re feeling a little fuzzy on the concept, we skim the rest. And we are not alone—apparently most people do not finish books.

We used to think we were the only ones who grumbled about the way business books deliver value. Then we discovered a mysterious entrepreneur/professor who not only disdains the business book but classifies his complaints by sub-genre.

For years, we’ve believed that it’s time to reinvent the business book. But what should it become? And how will we know the reinvented version is going to work? Should it just be a podcast?

This, as we say at Spark, is why we test.

How Did We Get Here?

Business books started with great purpose. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, more or less invented the entire notion of economy and business as a discipline. Books related to business in the next century—John Stuart Mill and Marx & Engels—addressed business at the philosophical or systemic level.

Once the concept of copyright got sorted out in the late 19th century, business books began to flourish. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was published in 1936 and has sold 15 million copies! But that level of sales is rare. More likely, major publishers are high-fiving if they sell 30K copies.

Royalties from the average business book, then, are unlikely to replace the proceeds of anyone’s day job. So what are they for?

Dale Carnegie, who started his training course a couple of decades before his book was published, foreshadowed the role of business books today: most business books are promotion for something else—speaking, consulting, training. With the exception of game-changers like The Innovators Dilemma or The Lean Startup, the business book is often a form of marketing.

Why Read a Business Book?

When publishers think about marketing business books, they inevitably consider them at the title level, rarely at the category level. Publisher: “Read this new book because whatever.” Potential book buyer: "Why read a business book at all?"

There is no shortage of category-level competition. Podcasts are extra-portable and lend themselves to multi-tasking (commute, gym, data entry). Great short-form content is everywhere online, and increasingly organized by platforms like Medium. Interestingly, the Harvard Business Review has recast itself as a platform for qualified contributors. And don’t forget email: paid newsletters like Stratechery didn’t originate with a book.

For business books to compete, it’s time to shake things up.

The New Frontier

If we were a publisher of business books, we would test new delivery mechanisms right now. Even if you think your business book business is just fine, having a validated concept or two in your back pocket is a good way to manage risk.

What would we test?
Cook the Book. We would test new formats of print business books, designed for maximum utility. Why can’t a business book, for example, be more like a cookbook, informed by an overall theory or approach that is exemplified through applications to different categories of need? And with all the amazing data viz in the world, why are the visuals in business books so mundane?
Mini Me. Short fiction is having a moment. Why not short business books? Let's pare it down to the useful parts and save a few trees in the process. Just think of all the people who might read to the end.
From Print to Platform. Monetizing content is hard, but a combination of focus and utility could pay off for newsletters that discuss business—
and business books by extension. We would test micro-topic newsletters like Strategy for Start-Ups or Rock Star Resource Allocation to see which audiences are receptive to which concepts. Delivering useful content in bite-sized chunks can create a business with multiple revenue streams: subscription, ecommerce (books), training, webinars, podcasts, etc.

The fun part would be designing audiences for testing. Yes, we could focus on the existing core audience of book buyers, but more accretive would be to test multiple audiences of non-book buyers who are finding content elsewhere, defined based on interests, habits, and values.

We're ready to reinvent business books...climb into our testbed.

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