Do business books work?

Every year, more than a thousand new ‘business’ books get published in the US. Not textbooks or manuals, but general interest books about how to do business better.

Some sell a few hundred copies. Some sell a few hundred thousand. One or two might sell a million. Out of a potential audience of 30 or 40 million white collar workers in the US.

Do they work or are they an utter waste of time?

I’ll admit to being biased (wow), but my mail is an interesting barometer. Here’s a self-selected group of people, a fairly large one, fortunately, that takes the time to write in and tell me what helped and how. Not only do my books seem to help, but the general consensus from this group is that many different books from many different authors help. There are plenty of clunkers, lots of dramatically overwritten brochures masquerading as books. But mixed in with the drek are books that change everything.

If we’re going to be honest about it, we should agree that the best business books are either useless (in which case rational business people should avoid them) or they’re useful.

So here’s my real question:

If you went to a doctor who told you that she hadn’t read a scholarly article or taken any training since med school, would you stick around? What about a lawyer who doesn’t read law journals or a dentist who never bothered to read up on the newest case studies?

Never mind the professions. What about the machine shop down the street? Think the $18 an hour machine operator is supposed to read the manual that came with the new machine? Who cares if he doesn’t like to read?

Why does our bizarre national fear of reading have anything to do with this? We read stuff all the time (email, stop signs, the comics) but for some reason, people think it’s fine to draw the line at books. (Typical annual per capita purchase rate for hardcover books in the US: one).

True story: I was doing a speech for a bunch of twenty-something campus reps for a clothing company. One young lady raised her hand. She pointed to Purple Cow (about 160 pages long) and said, "If we only have time to read twenty pages, which twenty pages should we read?"

Fortune 1,000 companies have literally hundreds (or thousands) of salespeople. Why aren’t each of these salespeople required to read the latest sales book from Jeffrey Gitomer? Compared to the cost of training, it’s almost free. Compared to the cost of not doing anything, it’s a bargain.

Can you imagine web designers who proudly proclaim that they never read up on Ruby on Rails or metatags? So how come so many marketers are comfortable announcing that they’ve never read anything by Guy?

Now, repeat the entire post substituting ‘business blog’ for ‘business book’.