Business Books: “The Modern Era’s Second Worst Promulgator of Intelligence Reduction”

In 2008, Fast Company ran an op-ed by Elizabeth Spiers that described business books as "the modern era's second worst promulgator of intelligence reduction,"

My letter to the editor, which which was partially republished in the magazine, is below and describes how misguided Spiers arguments are.

Dear Editors of Fast Company,

I write to provide a needed counterpoint to Elizabeth Spiers April 2008 Not So Fast column titled “Library of The Living Dead.”

I will start where she ends, agreeing in fact with Spiers’ ultimate conclusion: Business books are self-help, by their very definition. The implication that business books fall strictly into the “I’m OK, You’re OK” segment of self-help is where Spiers and I diverge. A book publisher recently shared research with me that showed the number one reason people buy business books is to find a solution to a problem. Sitting at the educational crossroads between “I know nothing about this,” and “Let’s hire a consultant,” business books contain a high value proposition for the twenty dollars and two hours spent. Not, as Spiers says, to abdicate responsibility for the choices they make. Instead, it takes a great deal of personal awareness to look for answers from those who offer experiential lessons in books.

The packaging of those lessons receives the majority of criticism in Ms. Spiers column and I am always dismayed by the problems pundits have with this aspect of the industry. Human civilization is built upon stories and when an author chooses a fable as the delivery device, the writer is making the lessons more accessible to a wider audience.

The “12-step-ification” is a crutch that bloggers, business magazines, and book publishers certainly use alike, in the same way celebrity authors are used to garner attention and sell product. This is simply product marketing through concreteness and social proof.

The bestseller list as a guide to the “best” in the category is just another form of social proof. My optimism for the category would bring me to highlight Gallup’s research-based StrengthsFinder 2.0 or Jim Collins’ insightful and wonderful written Good to Great as evidence that some books that make the bestseller list really deserve the title.

In the case of John Kotter, we have the benefit of choosing either his current top-selling fable, or his 1996 book Leading Change, which has sold over a million copies. Both books tackle the same content, but offer options for the reader to choose his method of consumption.

Ms. Spiers overall indictment of the entire business book category is an easy mark and one that could be applied to any genre of media. Her elitism about what constitutes good reading compounds the problem further. While I can appreciate her hyperbole as a method to communicate some criticism about the genre, a more subtle treatment of the subject would, I believe, be more effective.

Beyond that, Fast Company is a magazine that has always supported business ideas. A simplistic column like Spiers’ goes against the very DNA of your publication. The mantra “WORK IS PERSONAL” matches well with Thoreau’s or Emerson’s definition of self-help. The publication of this column leaves me wondering just how that mission has been served.

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