My Favorite Business Books of 2012

As the year comes to a close, I have been thinking hard about what books influenced me this year.

In 2012, I read fewer books than in past years and that is why I called these books my favorites, not the best (if you are looking for the best, check out 800-CEO-READ’s Elite Eight for 2012).

“Favorite” is also probably a better description of these books because I found my reading more directed this year as I worked on growing my business and spent time thinking about the parallels between entrepreneurship and publishing.

In any case, I wholeheartedly recommend any of these titles:

 

Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration by Scott Doorley and Scott Without

The people behind of the innovative work environments at Standford’s d.school put everything they learned about collaboration and how to build space that support collaboration in this beautiful book. When I say everything, I mean everything from communication theory to bills of materials for the fixtures they built.

The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future by Chris Guillebeau

There is one message you get loud and clear from Guillebeau’s second book – be relentlessly useful to your customers. That means you need to be communicate in your offering clearly, give customers what they want (not what you think they need), and be OK promoting what you do. This might sound like Marketing 101, but we all miss some part of this when we launch our latest project or new business.

Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works by Ash Maurya

Maurya started his book in Lean Startup fashion as article written for his newsletter followed by a self-published edition. With a thousand copies sold of the minimum viable product sold, he partnered with O’Reilly to be their first book released in their Lean Startup Series. Running Lean is a more tactical book than Eric Ries’ Lean Startup and focuses around the three stages of startups: Problem/Solution Fit, Problem/Market Fit, and Scaling. Knowing which stage you are in allows founders to know what actions are going to move their startup forward.

The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s Most Exclusive School for Startups by Randall Stross

Books that promise an inside look into an organization are often weak. The writer often lacks the access required to provide new and insightful commentary. Stross delivers the rare exception with his fly on the wall view of the drama founders experience in the Y Combinator program. And yes it is drama with founders pivoting from one idea to the next hoping to find the funding they need to take their startup to the next level. What we also see through Stross’ reporting is the philosophy that drives the Silicon Valley’s premier boot camp/accelerator/grad school for startups.

The Essential Deming: Leadership Principles from the Father of Quality by W. Edward Deming

There aren’t many business authors who accumulate the quantity or quality of work that warrants a greatest hits album. Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis both did and it is nice to finally see Edward Deming receive the same treatment. You might find Deming’s writings more difficult to read as his arguments resemble geometry theorems in their completeness and clarity. The work might also seem foreign because his prescriptions are still largely ignored. Maybe this new volume will solve that problem.

The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking by Mike Rohde

I am a member of the sketchnoting tribe and it’s so great to see my long time friend Mike Rohde create a book that celebrates visual thinking. I have wanted to move beyond my style of a single “font, arrows pointing all directions, and lots of exclamation marks. The Handbook shows great examples from other sketch noters and exercises to improve this largely improvisational art form.

Go Author, Go

On the front page of the Sunday New York Times this week is an article titled “In E-book Era, Rule for Writers Is Type Faster!” The piece focuses on the additional work already busy authors are doing now as readers demand more new material. Some are writing more books. Some are writing novellas between books. Some are hiring writers so they can write more books.

There are some interesting thoughts between the lines:

  • Publishers want to be able to capitalize on faddish interest in an author with more stuff readers can buy. Does art go well with speed? Is there other ways to gain permission to talk to readers in between books?
  • Talent is scarce and once commercial success is seen publishers want to scale the art. What are the limits to that kind of effort?
  • Abundance of an author’s works correlates to more sales and through these additional avenues discoverability improves. Does lower prices have the same abundance effect? How about removing DRM?

Idea Arena Podcast – The Big Thirst Interview with Charles Fishman

In this interview, I talk with Charles Fishman, the author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.

Fishman, a longtime writer for Fast Company Magazine and the author of The Wal-Mart Effect, takes on the conflicted relationship we have with water and how those conflicts, left unresolved, will only lead to bigger problems as the water we need becomes more scarce. From the opulent water fountains on the Las Vegas Strip to water delivery trucks in India, from a wool processing plant in Australia to a IBM microchip production plant in Vermont, Fishman illuminates the unknown ways water gets used while showing how our attitudes about life-giving liquid must change.

Our relationship to water goes way beyond what we know about it. The facts about water, the science, the chemistry, the geology–those are both fascinating and important. There would be no advanced civilization today without that understanding–we would have long poisoned ourselves.

But our relationship to water is at least as much emotional as it is analytical. That’s why a bottle of Evian tastes so good that we pay a thousand times more for it than for the same amount of water from the kitchen faucet. It’s the reason that water pipes hidden beneath our streets are poorly maintained, it’s why people around the world get so angry when their water bills go up.

We need to understand the science of water goes only so far in explaining how we deal with water every day, both as individuals and as a society. And our feelings about water are often so powerful, so visceral, that we need to be sure they don’t prevent us from seeing water clearly.

The interview lasts 43 minutes.

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Idea Arena Podcast – TouchPoints Interview with Mette Norgaard

In this interview, I talked with Mette Norgaard, co-author with Doug Conant of TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Connections in the Smallest of Moments.

Leadership is often mistaken as grandiose visions or rallying battle cries. The authors of TouchPoints make the simple yet powerful case that leadership happens in every interaction you have and that most of us waste those opportunities. The book provides a simple model that start with “How can I help?” and through listening intently, framing the issue, and advancing the agenda leaders have the ability to move their organizations toward the positive results they have always wanted.

Sadly, leaders often see these interactions as distractions that get in the way of their real work: the important work of strategizing, planning, and prioritizing. But in our experience, these TouchPoints are the real work. They are the moments that bring your strategies and priorities to life, the interactions that translate your ideas into new and better behaviors. That is, providing you take these TouchPoints, no matter how brief, and infuse them with greater clarity and genuine commitment.

The interview lasts 24 minutes.

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The Two Narratives of The Book

Sam Anderson wrote a piece for New York Times Magazine that ran over the weekend called ‘What I Really Want Is Someone Rolling Around in the Text’ about the importance of marginalina to books. Anderson shares his love for writing on the pages of books:

Anderson also shares the rich history of marginalia dating back to the 1700′s and how digital editions of books should allow this to flourish again.

With all of the talk about adding audio and video to books, sharing bookmarks and comments with my friends is my idea of an enhanced ebook. We are taking tiny steps towards this with Kindle-capable tweeting but we seem a long way away from what we all want to do through these social networking tools we us every day.

Let’s take it to the next step and imagine a marketplace as active as Amazon’s used book market that would allows people to sell their marginalia as an add-on to the ebook you just bought. That next layer of data would accelerate discovery of thoughtful passages and bring an in-text critical analysis. You could read along with the reviewer and discover as they did insights and art of the author. You might by multiple copies of marginalia to enjoy a favorite book again and again from different angles. Or imagine how this could be used in the educational setting giving instructors the ability to share what they teach with their students. And as Anderson points out, this data layer could be turned on and off with a touch.

I still think we need map; a standard linking structure of permalinks that would allow us to easily link to passages within the book and share those with others across an array of platforms. This is yet another reason why page numbers is a bankrupt mechanism for establishing location within a book in the digital age.

My first reaction was that publishers should build this infrastructure and maintain the narratives of both author and readers, but as we have watched the web develop, no one has maintained a vertical integration of the data stack. The successful companies have always built on what was there and gave people hooks to expanded it further.

The trouble is that book publishing is not native to the digital landscape and without a common set of mechanics to enable this sharing, progress is going to be difficult. The change in focus at Open Bookmarks from a standards approach to a principles approach shows that difficulty.

I continue to be hopeful. There is too much conversation going on for the industry not to see how readers want the reading experience to evolve.

Let Business Books Get Shorter

“Fact: If all business books were edited to be 80% shorter, there’d be absolutely no adverse effect on civilization.” -@counternotion

I see a day soon when there will be peace between business book readers and business book producers.

Peace?

“Where’s the conflict?” you may ask.

Well, let’s look at both sides.

Readers want great ideas that help them solve problems. That’s what they have always wanted. They want inspiration. They want to see the steps. They want their worldview altered. As Kathy Sierra says, readers want to kick ass.

Producers want credit for the idea. That is what they have always wanted. Authors wanted credibility gained from the bound edition of their hard work. Publishers want to make money distributing these insights to the masses.

This sounds like a wonderfully uncomplicated case of supply and demand, but when you ask readers their biggest complaint about business books, they always lead with “They are too long” or “They have too much fluff” or “The only thing I need to read is the introduction.” While I also hear from readers that the quality of the ideas in the books sometimes disappoints them, this is not the primary grievance.

Producers already know this. Ask authors how many times publishers have asked for higher word counts. Ask publishers about the pressure to maintain price points by having to maintain page counts. Ask retailers about how much they dislike small books with narrow bindings that won’t sit nicely on their store shelves.

All of these pressures lead to artificially lengthened books. The modifications include larger font size, smaller trim size, and plays of all sorts with margins and spacing; all methods to maintain impression of substance–an idea important to publishers and authors alike. A friend of mine refers to issue of substance as ‘The Whomp Factor’ or the amount of noise the book makes when the book hits your desk. The louder the thud, the higher the publisher’s retail price and the author’s consulting fees.

If you don’t believe there is a disconnect over length in business books, we only need to observe that an entire industry segment exists to provide readers with only the main points of a book. Historically, the primary value of book summaries has been time saved as they have been traditionally expensive, driven by the same economics as publishers, but digital distribution is pushing prices lower with individual summaries at around half the price of the book itself. Or buy a subscription for a year and that price drops to one-tenth the cover price. Publishers have long lived with what they believe is a symbiotic relationship with summary providers. Publishers accept increased awareness for their books knowing a summary may cannibalize that same book’s sales.

I believe ebooks may be the place where both sides in this conflict can find peace. Without the physical qualities to judge a book, readers may be more open to shorter reads at similar price points if the material is good. And publishers may feel less pressure to maintain page counts in a world where that quantity changes based on the reading device.

The idea of shorter business books raises all sort of interesting questions.

  • Can you charge a similar price for a shorter e-book versus a printed p-book? (Yes, you can. Early publishers are ceded price too quickly)
  • What changes something from an article into a book? (The word ‘book’ is broken; I talk about that problem in this video)
  • Do book publishers start to compete with magazine publishers for the appropriate place publish to long form material?
  • Is there a duration dividing line for fee-driven and ad-driven business models in publishing?
  • What is the better way to measure length? (I took a shot at answering that one too)
  • Do you need book summaries if the book get shorter?

Reader want ‘books’ that deliver value for the time spent. The question is who is going to deliver that in the new era of digital publishing.

Just Do It

Seth Godin has been making the same plea in the last several books. “We Need You To Lead Us” was the subtitle of Tribes. Using reverse-psychology, Linchpin asked “Are You Indispensable?” to prod us into action. “I sell fireworks,” he says at the beginning of Small Is The New Big in talking about how his writing encourages those with great ideas to get them done.

In Poke The Box, Seth removes the whatever directional intent there may have been in those prior works and imploring us to do something, anything. There are no barriers left.

Inger isn’t photographing the Portland’s live music scene because someone told her to. Modern Skirts’ Gramahawk album was made up of music they wanted to make.The King’s Sixth Finger didn’t make sense to publishers, but it didn’t stop Jolby. Amanda Hocking and her 900,000 copies sold didn’t wait to get picked.

If you are already doing, you don’t need Poke The Box.

If you still need a push, here is it.

Three Great Solutions

Business books are solutions looking for people with problems.

Take a look at these three new releases:

From Bud to Boss: The Secrets To A Successful Transition To Remarkable Leadership by Kevin Eikenberry and Guy Harris

The pitch from Kevin and Guy is very clear: our book can help you be successful in your first role as a leader. I would guess that hundreds of thousands of people are giving that first leadership opportunity every year. You could see this book working in venues ranging from schools to companies to non-profits to religious groups. The book reminds me of The First 90 Days, where the argument was a handful of transitions determined that overall arc of your career. From Bud to Boss would be helpful to a lot of people.

10 Steps To Successful Virtual Presentations by Wayne Turmel

Did you do a Skype call this week? Have you attended a WebEx meeting in the last month? When moving from emulating phone calls with the new technology and add pictures or video, virtual presentations get alot harder. Wayne says that fewer than 15% of managers use these sort of tools, mostly because of fear and lack of training. This reminds me the rampant problems with poor Powerpoint presentation that finally started to get addressed in books like Beyond Bullet Points, Presentation Zen, and Resonate. It seems to me that there are thousands of people who could use the tools and tips that Wayne has to offer.

The Freak Factor: Discovering Weakness by Flaunting Weakness by Dave Rendall

Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Our strength grows out of our weaknesses,” and that strikes at the heart of the book Dave wrote. His message reinforces the work that Gallup has done over the last decade: Leverage your strengths while appreciating and embracing your weaknesses. Or as Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea says, “Like yourself, not despite your flaws and so-called deficits, but because of them.” The book is heavy on people with pictures and profiles who live this philosophy. This book is 178 pages of permission to be the person you have always wanted to be.

These are all great books that solve specific problems – succeeding in first leadership experiences, using digital tools for effective, remote presentations, and finding the courage to embrace who we are.

If you are dealing with anyone of these issues, the three books above are great solutions to consider.

Publishers Are Not Your Friends – Part II: Missed The Mark

The intention of my essay Publisher Are Not Your Friends was to illuminate, from the author’s perspective, the highly emotional process of having a book published. Give authors some warning of the pitfalls. I instead indicted publishers and editors and made them a scapegoat for the effects on the writer.

Neal Maillet, the executive editor at Berrett-Koehler responded to my post on Facebook saying:

Point taken; I can’t claim that I can spend as much time on each book as I would like. You’re right that there is a system that needs to be fed, but my honest goal with each author is to make them feel that they made the right choice in a publisher. I don’t want to be like the car salesman who sends you to the grubby mechanic at the back door once you sign the papers. I’m sure I haven’t pleased everyone all the time, but I’d like to think my authors have sensed an honest desire to be of service to their idea.

Here’s the strange thing about Berrett-Koehler–I think our policy against paying advances makes for a different relationship after the contract is signed. There is less of a power imbalance–this policy won’t work for all books or authors, but it seems to make the relationship less fraught. And we also give the author an escape clause in case they feel we’ve sold them a pack of lies. Only two authors have exercised it in 20 years. We sort of flip the system on it’s head and it works for us.

Berrett-Koehler is wonderfully unique in so many ways from the Author Day they organize at their offices for each book they sign to the author-organized Authors Co-op. Royalty structures, cover collaboration, and yes, the ability to walk away from the contract give you some idea how engaged they have to be as a publisher.

Tim Sullivan, executive editor at Harvard Business School Press, left a comment here saying:

If I ever fall into this trap as an editor — “After the contract is signed, the relationship seems to change. The author has been given their marching orders and not really expected to be heard from until some time the next year when the manuscript is complete.” — shoot me. There is nothing (NOTHING) more terrifying than receiving a complete manuscript on the due date that I haven’t seen before. Which is not to say that I disagree with your general point.

Both editors essentially say “Yeah it is not great, but it is not that bad.”

I get that.

I missed the mark.

I am going to make another run at this topic soon, better attempting to capture the expectations authors have going into the process, how often they don’t match up with what happens and the compounding effect that has in an already high emotional state.