The Best Business Books of 2020

You might not believe it, but there were some great business books this year. And you probably missed them, distracted by the crazed year that was 2020.

Let me talk about it in two parts :

Part I

Like last year, I worked with Marker on Medium and did a meta-analysis of best of business book lists for 2020. In total, there were seven lists I looked at. They chose exactly 100 books this year. There were five books that were selected by three or more times by those lists.

  1. No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer – Selected by five of seven lists. Just a great book on the Netflix’s culture. Not sure everyone will agree with everything they do.
  2. No Filter by Sarah Frier – the best account of the rise of Instagram, on three lists including winning the Financial Times / McKinsey Business Book of The Year Award.
  3. Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire by Rebecca Henderson – Things are changing, lots of examples here. Appeared on three lists.
  4. If Then by Jill Lenore – The history of the first analytics company Simulatics and how their work still resonates today. The book appeared on three lists and was a longlist nominee for the National Book Award.
  5. Uncharted by Margaret Heffernan – Some books are written to explain a moment, other books arrive at the right moment. Uncharted is both. It was also selected three times and is my personal favorite of the whole year.

You can check out my whole article on Medium with additional links to interviews and excerpts from these books. I also have adapted versions on Instagram and Twitter.

Part II

There were three books on my list of personal favorites and there is some nice overlap with the meta-analysis. Here are longer reviews for each of them.

No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer

I remember being at a tech conference about six years ago and watching a set of speakers from Netflix. “No one approves our expense reports,” said one of the presenters. In a room full of corporate executives, there was an audible gasp. The speakers went on to say that no one approved the code they wrote either. Together, these two examples were meant to show that it wasn’t a question of policy or procedure. Netflix operates with a different culture.

No Rules Rules is the book that attempts to describe that culture. The book is written by two authors. The first author, to no surprise, is Reed Hastings, the co-founder and CEO of Netflix.  With Hastings, you get the direct transference of his beliefs and reasoning for why Netflix is organized and run the way it is. The second author is Erin Meyer, a business professor from INSEAD. Meyer serves two roles, one as provider of confirming research and another as the voice of Netflix’s employees. As a part of writing the book, Meyer interviewed hundreds of workers all over the world. This internating narration enhances both the traditional CEO book and standard business school thesis, as they respond to each other on the pages of the book.

Hastings says Netflix’s culture is based on three reinforcing principles. The first tenet is to build the best group of talent possible, because highly talented individuals make each other more effective. “Talent density” is increased by always evaluating if the company has the best people and by paying top of market salaries. Next, increase candor among those folks, because the highly talented love feedback that can make them better. To ensure effectiveness and no hurt feelings, Netflix trains everyone to give and receive feedback. And finally, you remove controls and trust people to do their best work. Hastings says each of these practices has challenges, but the benefits of each tenet multiples when enacted with the others.

Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Everything by BJ Fogg

If you looked at the business bookstore shelf any time in the last decade, you would have seen books on habits trying to crowd each other out. Novel scientific research provided new material to writers. The growth in the gig economy and work-from-home arrangements fueled new interest from readers adjusting to the challenges with personal accountability. And everyone found help with titles like Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, Wendy Wood’s Good Habits, Bad Habits and The ONE Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan.

I didn’t believe there was more room for another habits book until I read Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg. His research and his writings isolate the particular components of what make up habits and show people how to best utilize each to create new habits. I can’t think of a better time for this kind of book. Fogg is like a trainer you might hire if you really wanted more and better habits. He makes it simple to learn. He discerns the particular techniques that work best. And he’s also creative in how to engage them.

Only a few pages into the book, Fogg starts talking about a universal model for behavior. He says the model applies to everything, good and bad. Every behavior has three components: motivation, ability, and prompt (BMAP, for short) Simple, right? When you are trying to change a behavior, start with the prompt and ask if there was a reliable trigger for the behavior. Next, ask if how able you were to do the new behavior? Ability could affect everything from having what you need to knowing what needs to be done. The final factor to check is motivation. High motivation makes creating a new behavior easy but motivation fluctuates and can interact with other competing motivations. 

What you are getting in Tiny Habits is a 300 page workshop. There is a whole chapter with ideas on how to break habits. And a chapter on working with others on habits. And appendices with scripts, flowcharts, and lists to help you brainstorm habits for common challenges. This book is packed with tips and lessons to learn how to change your behavior and teach others to do the same.

Uncharted: How To Map The Future by Margaret Heffernan

Some books are written to explain a moment, other books arrive at the right moment. Uncharted is both. In our craving for a “new normal”, Heffernan would caution against there ever being a known future. Forecasts attempt to predict the future, but they are easily flawed with the ideologies of their creators. Memory, individual and collective, gives us the capacity to simulate the future, and we then miss the variations by creating false analogies of new situations. As our datasets grow, so does our false confidence in seeing the patterns they hold.

There are so many stories that drew my attention, the additional benefit of reading the perspectives from a European-based author. You could draw lessons from Ireland’s experiment with deliberative democracy to work with controversial topics like gay marriage and abortion. You could look to Alberto Fernandez’s work to fight corruption and reestablish a sense of ethics in his home country of Mexico. Heffernan highlights artists like playwright Henrik Ibsen and printmaker Norman Ackroyd, pointing to a different process for how one might uncover and trust what will unfold.

Uncharted read like popular nonfiction from authors like Mary Roach or Chip Heath. Heffernan mines a wide ranging cast of characters and histories. Her style favors more examples, which runs the risk of overwhelm, but never does. The throughline persists and we can see how all of these points connect into a greater understanding. Her intention is not to provide answers, but consider the questions that makes you think about how you think about the future. 

Market Update on Business Book Publishing – March 20, 2020

Last edit: March 24, 2020

Information about book publishing is often hard to come by for authors.

To combat that, I wanted to share a few things we at Bard Press are seeing right now.

Quick note: If you’d like more updates with trends and case studies from business book publishing, you can subscribe by clicking through to the newsletter sign-up form.

And be sure to check out my next post from April 6th on the continuing shift in the business book market.

1. Sales are down

We saw a 7.5% sales drop in the business and self-help categories, looking at the top 10,000 titles as tracked by NPDecisionKey. I heard the overall book market is down 10% this week.

The Top 50 was hit harder. Almost every title in the Top 50 for business books sold less this week. The total sales for that group was down 20%

The top of the list got hit the hardest. Two week ago, the #1 title was selling 10K copies a week. This week, the #1 title is selling under 6K copies.

2. Books are still launching

In the overall market, there are books launching with success: Untamed by Glennon Doyle, Get Out of Your Own Way by Dave Hollis, and a strong second week from Carrie Underwood’s Find Your Path.

Publishers, like movie studios, have also been pushing launches later into the year. Many books were scheduled to publish early in the year to avoid the fall presidential elections in the U.S.

Interesting side note: Movie studios are launching movies into early digital release, as movie theaters close around the country. NBC Universal released The Invisible Man along with two other movies and Pixar released Unbound. They are offering the movies at $19.99 rentals.

3. There are some big shifts in categories

We have noticed the Amazon Rank of some of our titles has been increasing (i.e. #5000 vs #1000). We always remember that Amazon Rank is a relative measurement compared to other products on the website.

Well, if you have been looking at the Top 100 Books on Amazon you can get a sense of shift in categories. With schools being closed and families staying home, children’s books dominate the list right now.

Update (March 23rd) : NPDecisionKey reports sales grew 38% for titles in juvenile non-fiction education, reference, and language print books. Leading topics include “math, language arts, puzzles, sticker books, word games, geometry, study aids, and coloring books.”

4. Retail is being hit hard

The outlets selling books are being impacted in different ways.

Amazon announced this week they are prioritizing household goods and medical supplies for the next three weeks, in an effort to help customers get the products they need. They told their suppliers to expect smaller orders and that it likely didn’t not represent actual demand on their website.

Physical stores are being severely impacted with closings taking place all over the country in reaction to government declarations. Stores from The Strand in New York City to Powell’s in my hometown of Portland have shut their doors but are still taking online orders. Barnes & Noble has been closing stores as needed and running others on reduced hours.

Airport bookstores, an important segment for business books, is down. We are seeing sales of our titles down 50%, which roughly matches the decrease in airlines bookings that has been reported in the news.

The combined effect across retail outlets is going to have a negative impact on book sales in the short term.

Open questions…

Some things I am wondering about:

  • Will we see a shift in the kinds of business books being read? Remote by 37Signals (a book about the company’s remote working efforts) and Shift by the folks at Keller Williams (a title about how real estate agents adjust to economic downturns) are both sold out on Amazon.
  • Have digital ebooks and audiobooks sold more copies this month because of availability and quarantining?
  • How much more will sales drop in business books? In the depths of the 2008 crisis, sales were off 50% from normal levels.

I’ll keep posting updates. You can sign up for my newsletter on trends and case studies from the world of book publishing by click on this link.

#Booknotes: Range

Range: Why Generalist Triumph in a Specialized World
By David Epstein


If you’ve been trying to excel at something and have been burning the midnight oil to hit the 10,000-hour mark, Range might make you reconsider your approach. In domains where patterns repeat and feedback is both rapid and accurate, what author David Epstein calls “kind” learning environments, you can develop useful intuition through deep and narrow practice to solve problems that have clear boundaries and stated goals, much like Tiger Woods does in golf or Garry Kasparov did in chess. Specialists rein in the worlds of medicine and sports.

The trouble is that many of the areas where we work and encounter challenges don’t look like a game of golf or chess. Patterns vary. Feedback is delayed. Successful outcomes can be hard to detect. In these more uncertain, unfamiliar scenarios, what Epstein calls “wicked” learning environments, a deep and narrow approach does not get us the best results.

There are implications for how we teach, how we approach our careers, and who we hire to staff our teams. Just consider this: Nobel laureates are 22 times(!) as likely than their non-Nobel-winning peers to participate in the arts as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other type of performer.

As Epstein says, “Facing kind problems, narrow specialization can be remarkably efficient. The problem is that we often expect the hyperspecialist, because of their expertise in a narrow area, to magically be able to extend their skills to wicked problems. The results can be disastrous.”


  • Kind Problems and Wicked Problems
    • Gary Klein research into intuition or naturalistic decision making
      • He studied firefighters and first responders
      • Those experts got very good at seeing patterns in their domains
      • Golf and chess are similarly kind domains with clear boundaries to the kinds of problems that need to be solved
    • Kind learning environments
      • Patterns repeat over and over
      • Feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid
      • Kind environments support 10,000 hour style learning with engagement in a particular activity with the goal of doing it better.
    • Daniel Kahenman did research into wicked problems
      • His first project was in the assessment of Israeli military officers. His predictions were awful.
      • Wicked domains have unclear rules
        • Patterns vary
        • Feedback is delayed, inaccurate or both.
    • Klein and Kahenman co-authored a paper saying that experience created expertise but it depended on the domain
  • How specialists fail
    • From Greg Duncan, education economist “Increasingly, jobs that pay well require employees to be able to solve unexpected problems, often while working in groups.”
    • Patterns
      • Chess players can memorize a board in a few seconds (they see common set of patterns that they use to make decisions), BUT if you show them pieces in random locations they are lost
      • Same for all of us! Try memorizing random words versus words in sentences
      • Experienced tax accountants do worse than novices at applying new regulations – “cognitive entrenchment”
      • Kepler looked for analogies for what he was seeing with planets – light, smell, heat, soul/power/spirit, magnetism, currents, broom, balance scales,
      • Functional fixedness – the tendency to consider only familiar uses for objects
    • Jayshree Seth when at Clarkson University – stick with in an area she knew she did’t like but already started , even thought she wasn’t that far in. Sunk Cost Fallacy.
    • Broader
      • Nobel laureates are 22 times are more likely to participate in the arts as a amateur actor, dancer, magician or other performer
      • An average adult today would have scored in the 98th percentile on a standard IQ test one hundred years ago.
      • BUT narrower specialization is making it harder for student to apply abstract concepts outside of their area of study (see James Flynn/NZ)
      • “Fermi problems” – back of the envelope problems that estimate big problems. The point is to show how someone thinks rather than an exact solution.
      • “Far Transfer”
      • Dedre Gentner – “our ability to think relationally is the reason we run the planet,” find surface analogies.
        • Adding one analogy improves problem solving by 3x, adding two analogies improves even further
        • Ambiguous Sorting Task – combination of domain (economic bubbles) and deep structure.
        • Laboratory research – Diverse teams with varied backgrounds that presented their unsolved problems to each other
      • Curse of the “inside view” from Tversky and Kahneman
        • The more inside knowledge you have, the worse your estimates end up (VC/construction/entertainment)
      • Einstellung effect – tendency for problem solvers to employ only familiar methods even if better one are available.
      • BCG created an analogies database to help consultants with engagements
      • Outsider Advantage
        • Eli Lilly posted problems for outsiders to try and figure out. The site is now called InnoCentive.
        • Harvard research from Karim Lakhani showed “The further the problem was from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it.”
        • “[big things happen] when an outsider who may be far away from the surface of the problem reframes the problem in a way that unlocks the solution.”
      • Napolean needed to preserve food for troops, science failed, foodie Nicolas Appert solved the problem
    • Outsiders make better use of specialist information. They also use laggard information in new ways.
      • Gunpei Yokoi at Nintendo committed to use technology that had already become cheap, even obsolete, in new ways to create their first electronic problems.
    • Eduardo Melero and Neus Palomeras – 32,000 teams at 880 different organizations – high uncertainty domains benefited from individuals that worked with a variety of technologies and more likely to make a splash.
    • Alva Taylor and Fredric Wertham – examined comic book industry, “When seeking innovation in knowledge-based industries, it is best to find one ‘super’ individual. If no individual with the necessary combination of diverse knowledge is available, one should form a ‘fantastic’ team.
    • Forecasting
      • Richard Tetlock – Good Judgment Project
        • General public volunteers outperformed experts by at least 30%
        • His team was so good they shutdown all other teams
        • Teams are 50% more accurate than individuals
    • We Can’t Put Things Down
      • Navy seaman ignore order to remove steel toed shoes when abandoning ship
      • Fighters pilots fail to eject from disabled planes
      • Karl Weick called it “overlearned behavior.”
      • Rather than decisions, keep “hunches held lightly.”
    • There is a difference between the chain of command and chain of communication
      • Himalayan mountain climbers–5,104 groups–found that teams from countries that valued hierarchical culture got more climbers to the cummit, but also had more climbers die along the way.
    • Less Is More
      • A study of young musicians found that exceptional players generally came from kids who started later and had fewer structured lessons
    • Teaching
      • Desirable difficulties – make learning challenging, slower, and more frustrating creates short term frustration and better in the long term
      • Hints short circuit learning
      • Distributed practice – create spacing between learning sessions
      • “For knowledge to be flexible, if should be learned under varied conditions.”
      • “Desirable difficulties like testing and spacing make knowledge stick. It becomes more durable. Desirable difficulties like making connections and interleaving make knowledge flexible, useful for problems that never appear in training. All slow down learning and make performance suffer, in the short term.”
    • Match Quality – degree of fit between the work and who the person is.
      • English and Welch college graduates switched more often than the later choosing Scottish students.
      • People who randomly switched jobs were happier than those who stayed
      • Teachers that switched schools were better at helping students.
      • Herminia Ibarra – “We discover possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.” We learn who we are in practice, not in theory. “I learn who I am when I see what I do.”
      • “Outsider artists”, non-formally trained artists; reminds me of “self-published authors”
      • Howard Finster “Trying things is the answer to find your talent.”
      • “Facing kind problems, narrow specialization can be remarkably efficient. The problem is that we often expect the hyperspecialist, because of their expertise in a narrow area, to magically be able to extend their skill to wicked problems. The results can be disastrous.”
      • Oliver Smithie – bring new skills to an old problem or a new problem to old skills

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The Three Business Books You Need To Read From 2019

I know I am making a big promise in the headline, but stay with me on this one. There are several reasons these three books can help narrow down your “I’m behind on my 2019 reading” list.

In this post, I’ll share some good sources I use every year to help with choose what I read, tell you why these books are good selections and give you a few reasons to pick up each one.

The Sources

I mentioned in a post earlier this week that we are in the heart of the “Best of” Season. Everyone is posting their favorite things of the year. I love it. You get to see what is important to people. With these curated lists, you can see if there are themes that arose out of the past year.

In the world of business books, there are a handful of outlets that I watch each year to see what they are recommending when the year closes. Let me share each of them and tell you why you should pay attention.

First, Porchlight Books (the fine folks formerly known as 800-CEO-READ) are in the 13th year of the Business Book Awards. Some of you know that I spent several years working there and starting the Awards program is one of the things I am most proud of. Last week, they announced their longlist with forty books across eight categories. In December, they’ll announce their category winners and at their New York City gala in January, they’ll crown their Business Book of the Year.

Going on even longer has been the Strategy + Business Best Business Books feature, now in its nineteenth year. The publication from PwC and its partners keeps seven categories, selecting three books for each category and choosing one title in each as their TopShelf pick. The category winners are generally curated by industry experts, as seen in their choices of Bethany McLean, James Surowiecki, and Sally Hegesen to serve this year.

Given the headliners, many consider The Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award to be the most prestigious. The judging has a nice Trans-Atlantic feel with the awards ceremony alternating locations between New York City and London. The visibility also comes from the £30,000 in prize money given to the winner. Their format is to start with a 16 title longlist announced in August, the six title shortlist shared in September, and the winner celebrated in December.

Amazon has a comprehensive set of year-end selections. These are picked by a set of editors at the company. They choose 20 books across a range of what they call “business and leadership books”. Their list is always good balancing bestsellers and practical problem solving. Already this year, they named Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber by Mike Isaac as their business and leadership book of the year.

In the world of small business, I want to mention the list that comes from Leigh Buchanan at Inc. Magazine. She covers business books for the magazine and she often write articles that look ahead to upcoming book seasons, or as she did earlier this month, she wrote an eleven title Must-Read list for entrepreneurs in 2019.

The final list is from Bookpal, a West Coast best book retailer. They have the newest awards program, The Outstanding Works of Literature (OWL) Awards, which they started in 2017. There are five categories from their OWL awards that fit into the world of business books and on their longlist, they nominate five books for each category.

Each of the lists above have different flavors. FT McKinsey is global and conglomerate. Strategy + Business is corporate and smart. Amazon plays it straight to the core of the business book category. Inc. Magazine leans toward small business. And Porchlight digs deep into their indie bookstore roots. Bookpal highlights books across the breadth of categories they sell.

The lists also have things in common. They are created by people who care about the business book category. They are journalists, booksellers, academics and business leaders who all believe they have a stake in helping readers find the best titles.

Intersections: A Meta-Analysis of The Lists

Personally, I always find myself drawn to the spaces between. With the common interests and divergent preferences, I always want to know where the business book lists intersect. A good book is a good book. And if multiple groups see that, there is something worth paying attention to. Looking at the intersections between those lists was particularly interesting this year.

Using the longlist from each group, the six groups recommend a total of 102 books. The majority of those books, 80 titles or 78% of titles, only appear once across the five lists. That represents the wonderful variety in both what these entities believe is a book that will appeal to a business audience and what represented a good book among what was published in 2019.

There were 19 books that appeared twice on those five lists. I am not sure I have pattern or conclusion I can draw from those. Porchlight nominated twice as many (or more) books and they are the common partner in 13 of the 19 titles that were selected twice. When you look at the other half of those pairs, they are evenly spread among the other five lists. The categories of those 13 books are also spread across general business, economics, current events and narratives. I believe this set of books shares the same effect of judges’ preference, as can be seen in the single titles.

This is where it gets interesting.

There were no books that were appeared on three of the lists.

There were no books that were picked by four lists.

And there were no books that were chosen by all six lists.

That leaves us with only three titles that were chosen by five lists. That’s where I want to focus the rest of the attention.

[If you’d like to see all the titles and some of the analysis, I have put all the data in a Google Sheet that you can find by clicking on this link.]

The Three Titles For 2019

Let’s start with the books:

  1. Loonshots: How To Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcali
  2. Nine Lies About Work: A (Freethinking) Leader’s Guide to the Real World by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall
  3. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

As I said, these were chosen by four different arbiters of business books. The last bit of analysis that I’ll share is that each book was chosen by a different combination of those five players. So, there was no voting block of perspective that led to these three titles.

I’ll admit there is randomness and probably pattern bias in trying to focus on these three titles. I am not going to try to justify these picks with any statistics or additional analysis. Let’s just say that the bubbling up of these three books is convenient.

It’s handy that there are only three books with such overwhelming support. Anyone can get these three titles and be through them between now and the end of the year. If that sounds hard, go read my essay on How To Read A [Business] Book.

Another convenience is this small group of books touches on the three things we should always be working to improve. First, we always need to put some focus on ourselves and Range provides an interesting thesis for how we should position ourselves in today’s world. Next, we always need to be working on how we work with others. Nine Lies pushes hard on some commonly held wisdom and turns it on its head. Finally, I don’t know anyone who isn’t touched by change and doesn’t need a way to bring new ideas and approaches into the world. Loonshots addresses that.

After I saw the broad agreement on these three titles, I decided to dig into each of them again. I’ll be posting reviews on each one of them between now and the end of the year. I hope maybe you’ll read along. When I share more about these books, I’d love to hear what you thought of them and how they helped you.

Update (11/26/19): I added the longlist selections from Bookpal’s OWL awards to the year-end lists for this article. They also chose the three common titles are well.

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#Author Booknotes: Hit Makers

The Book

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction
By Derek Thompson
Penguin Press, 2017


A staff writer for The Atlantic, Thompson pulls together a slew of fascinating stories and anecdotes to try and explain what makes things popular. The trick with a book like this is there is no singular way that phenomenon reaches critical mass. So, in that way, the overview approach to the material works well, as it does in magazine articles. The downside is that the variety dilutes the utility of a strong throughline or highly actionable advice. If you read it like you are going to move through lots of material and that will find nuggets to inform your worldview, you’ll be satisfied when you’re done.

My Notes

  • We like what we are familiar with.
    • Exposure (or repeated exposure) is one way we get more familiar
    • The impressionist painters we know today all came from a single collection.
    • James Cutting, at Cornelll, found you could change preference just by showing students obscure paintings with a higher frequency.
    • Music publishers in Tin Pan Alley agressively pushed new music to musicians playing in clubs in New York City and gather feedback about what to further promote.
    • Music prediction services like HitPredictor or SoundOut can explain part of the success of some songs, but exposure and airplay also play a huge factor.
  • The familiar needs to be balanced with the new
    • Industrial designer Raymond Loewy called this “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable” – MAYA
    • “People like a challenge if they think they can solve it. [Claudia Muth] calls this moment where disfluency yields fluency the aesthetic aha.”
    • Example four chord music, cable news focus on headline topics with endless viewpoints, Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature needed new and known songs
  • The balance can be found in patterns
    • The longest time to create surprise with the fewest number of musical notes is BBBBC-BBBC-BBC-BC-D
    • Rhetorical devices like epistrophe (repetition of words at the end of the sentence), anaphora (repetition at the beginning of the sentence), tricolon (repetition in short triplicate, and my favorite antimetabole (AB;BA – do onto others as they would do onto you)
  • This leads us to another pattern – STORY
    • Joseph Campbell’s ingredients: inspiration, relatability, and suspense
    • “…[T]ake twenty-five things that in any successful genre and you reverse one of them. Reverse too many and you get genre confusion. Invert all the elements, you get parody. But one strategic tweak? Now you’ve got something that is perfectly new.”
  • Popularity is always being shaped by choice, economics and marketing
    • Industrialization is followed by the rise of fashion
    • “Distribution is a strategy to make a good product popular, but it’s not a reliable way to make a bad product seem good.”
    • Researchers Balaz Kovacs and Amanda Sharkey found that winning awards actually produces lower ratings from readers
      • Possible cause – higher expectations for those titles
  • Randomness
    • Duncan Watts studies information cascades
      • Everything starts at zero
      • And 1 in 1000 is still 1 in 1000 and very hard to predict
    • Al Greco calls the entertainment business “a complex. Adaptive, semi-chaotic industry with Bose-Einstein distribution dynamics and Pareto law characteristics with dual-sided uncertainty.”
    • Virality is a myth; broadcasters that share with millions make the difference in hits
      • “Items spread wider and faster when everyone can see what everybody else is doing.”
    • Sometimes it is not really about the product, but that someone “buys” popularity of the product.
    • Even people who produce lots of product can’t predict what will be a hit (i.e. Vincent Forrest on Etsy)
  • “Ideas most reliably spread with the piggyback off an existing network of closely connected and interested people.”
  • “The paradox of scale is that the biggest hits are often designed for a small, well-defined group of people.”
  • “Artists and teams produced their most resonant work after they had already passed a certain threshold of fame and popularity. Perhaps genius thrives in a space shielded ever so slightly from the need to win a popularity contest.
  • Random facts
    • One percent of music artists earn eighty percent of all recorded music revenue.
    • Music companies use Shazam to see where songs are being searched and find small places to launch into bigger markets
    • NBC uses 40-40-20 test for new programs
      • 40% of people say they are aware of the show
      • 40% of that (16% of total) say they want to watch it.
      • And 20% (3.2% of total!) of that say they are passionate about the new show
  • FX’s Nicole Clemens: “I am looking for a 90 hour movie. It is a Trojan horse for a deeper question: Who is the character becoming? What is he or she going to do next?”
  • Kat Kamen, first head of merchandising at Disney: “The art of film is film, but the business of movies is everywhere.”

My First Day

todd headshot 2016
Today marks my first day at an old job.

After five years away, I am returning full-time to Astronaut Projects, my publishing studio based in Portland, Oregon.

IT Revolution has been a great home. I have so much gratitude for Gene, Margueritte, and the whole team for my time at ITRev.

The Phoenix Project started as a novel for technology leaders that we launched as a self-published book on Amazon in 2013. With each indicator of success, we iterated. We first released the title as a hardcover and an ebook, followed that with a paperback edition and then an audiobook. We followed that with The DevOps Handbook and titles by other authors in the technology community. In my time there, we sold over 500,000 copies of our books.

2017 kept nudging me in a new direction. My trip to India nudged me. Our family trip to Europe over the summer poked me. My 46th birthday elbowed me.

Many things, big and small, kept pointing me to focus back on my own business.

So, here I am, on my first day back as excited as ever.  With new beginnings, you never know where they will lead, but I do know my future is with authors, books and readers.

I help experts create better books and grow their businesses.

If you are thinking about publishing a book, I can probably help. Let’s talk.

The 100 Best, Five Years Later

I walked into my local bookstore, Powell’s, recently and found a copy of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time on the shelf. I always appreciated the happy coincidence that since my co-author’s last name was Covert, the book was shelved between Jim Collins’ Good to Great and Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I like to think our book’s popular location helped its sales over the years.

This paperback copy had a small black mark on bottom face denoting its remaindered status. Powell’s had bought the copy from a company that specialized in overstock inventory. Publishers printing too many copies and selling off the excess might bother some authors, but for me, I always saw an opportunity. Not the first time, I tracked down the company and bought up all the copies I could find. At three dollars a piece, remaindered copies work great as gifts, marketing tokens, or a 300-page business card.

The existence of extra inventory might give you the impression the book didn’t do well. In the sum of its many forms – hardcover, digital, paperback and audio – The 100 Best sold over 45,000 copies. In foreign markets, we sold eleven deals for translation rights. In the first year, we earned back the six figure advance we had been paid and started earning money for both the publisher and ourselves.

The book is five years old now and it is hard to think of another project that had a larger effect on my life. Professionally, my career as an editor, an agent, a literary scout, and now a publisher, all materialized around the expertise shown in writing The 100 Best. People still marvel at how quickly Jack and I chose of the books (it took about 24 hours). They still measure themselves against the list, counting the titles they have read (the record is 92).

The first lesson I learned was that book concepts have to be simple. Our initial proposal was titled “Monday Morning: An Executive Guide to The Business Ideas That Matter.” The project was ambitious. Neither Jack and I were writers, so brought in a writer to develop the concept. The idea was to construct a series of chapter length essays that examined a topic like time management or customer relationship by a method of compare and contrast. We wanted to see if we could put Peter Drucker, Stephen Covey and David Allen in a mixer and say something interesting about results. When we completed the proposal and shared it with one of the top literary agents in the business books, his answer was very clear, “I don’t get it.”

We were pretty disappointed, I more than Jack. From the start, he thought the concept was too complicated. From the man who had been reviewing business books since 1981, I should have listened more closely to those early hesitations.

To be more accurate, I was devastated. I had put a lot of work into the proposal and put even more hope into the possibilities the project would open up. It took more than a year before we returned again to the idea of a book.

In December 2006, we gathered a wonderful group of authors and publishing professionals at 800-CEO-READ’s first Author Pow-Wow. Over dinner, I told Will Weisser, the associate publisher at Portfolio, about our crazy idea to write a book and asked him if he would read the proposal. He wasn’t sure about the concept either, but he agreed.

The holidays passed and Will came back with a familiar sentiment – “I don’t get it,” but he followed with a better question – “Why don’t you just do the 100 best business books of all time?”

I groaned aloud as I read his email. My response was “That’s already been done, multiple times.”

Will wrote back, “You are right, but almost all books have been done before. Just remember the iPod wasn’t the first mp3 player. If you get it right, you get to own the category.” I felt like the gauntlet had been thrown down.

We could do a book on the best business books but it was going to have to be different and interesting. The book would be based around reviews but the richness would come from connecting the books to one another. We would recommend books beyond the list of 100 books. There was be a choose your own adventure feature when you got to the end of each review. There would be “easter eggs” with suggestions for movies, novels and events that readers would also be interested. The book would more resemble a magazine more than a book with multiple points of entry for the reviews. I think it worked. The compliment we received over and over again was “This is better than I thought it would be.”

The 100 Best also showed me a hidden love for writing. In college, I prided myself on only taking two English classes enroute to getting my engineering degree. Looking back, I missed an opportunity to learn to express myself, to share my ideas, to determine what I believed. I would find my way to blogging almost ten years later as the way to finally start writing and that would lead to my job at 800-CEO-READ.

I was a hack though. I didn’t appreciate active verbs, the rhythm of a finely constructed sentence, or the drafts it takes to create good writing. We were so fortunate to have Sally, a wonderful editor, on staff who helped Jack and I through the dozens of reviews that needed to be written and rewritten. In the book’s acknowledgements, we described Sally’s multifaceted role as “editor, cheerleader, psychologist, humorist, and referee.” I would add “teacher” to that list. I am not the writer I am today with the book project or Sally’s involvement in it.

The most common question I get asked now is whether I would change anything. I tell people who ask I wouldn’t change a thing. I know they are asking about the list of books but I like to pretend that they see the bigger picture – the sweat, the missteps, and the joy that come from having created something that helps people just a little.


100 Best and 5-4-3

I am excited to announce that a new updated edition of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time is available for the new year.

Jack and I lengthened several reviews. There are new sidebars about decision-making, visual thinking and the year that changed business book. Most importantly, The 100 Best is cost less than ever to purchase. The new paperback edition is $16 (or less on Amazon). The fully updated ebook edition is $9.99 and available for the Kindle, Nook, iBook, and Kobo.

The biggest question you probably have is if we have changed any of our selections and the answer is no. We still stand by the original 100 books we chose, but it has been five years since we made those selections. Thousands of business books have been published in that time and many are good titles that are worthy of your attention.

To fill the gap since our initial selection, we have a created a new ebook called 5-4-3.

We looked at the last five years, picked four books from each year, and choose three things to tell you about each book. Each book has a short description for those who haven’t bought the book, a suggested starting point if you own the book, and a highlight outside the book for those who are already fans.

5-4-3 is free and available at We hope you’ll leave a comment there and share the ebook with others who might enjoy it.

P.S. I am also in Day Three of posting The 100 Best in 100 characters on Twitter. Check out my Twitter feed to follow along.

Poor Economics – A Rich Book

Since its inception in 2005, the books chosen for the Financial Times Goldman Sachs Business Book of Year award have largely reflected the perspectives of the sponsoring organizations. The selections of The World Is Flat and China Shakes the World in 2005 and 2006 respectively nodded to the continuing effects of globalization and the need for greater understanding. The winners of the last four years show multiple perspectives on the economic collapse and the continuing effects in the books The Last Tycoons, When Markets Collide, Lords of Finance, and Fault Lines.

2011 marks an unexpected change for the competition. The judging panel this year chose Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of The Way To Fight Global Poverty by MIT professors Abhijit Banerjee and Ester Duflo. The book, published by PublicAffairs, looks at the ever present tension around the methods that should be used to provide food, healthcare, and education for the more than 1 billion people around the world who live on less than one dollar day. On one side, aid organizations and governmental bodies most often advocate giving aid to help elevate these pressing problems. On the other side, a growing number of groups have pushed for market based solutions.

Banerjee and Duflo walk a wonderful middle line that dispenses with rhetoric and instead collects data directly from the people affected. Through randomized control trials, experiments are conducted to test the real impact actions have on the choices of individuals and families in these regions. Over and over, the conclusions show balanced approach of both aid and commerce work best.

Poor Economics is a great read for anyone who continues to be fascinated by the research being done into decision-making. The book illuminates how difficult it is to predict customer behavior in any market. In Kenya, the purchase of malaria nets are highly dependent on price, free being the most successful price point. Families offered a second opportunity to buy a net are more likely to buy one if they received the first one at a low price. Friends and neighbors also will buy nets after seeing their friends using a free one. The trouble is that providing malaria nets at very low prices only increases slightly the chance that the next generation will adopt them.

For those who question whether Poor Economics is a business book, they merely need to look at the price elasticity of malaria nets, the power of sampling, and the ever difficult challenge of demonstrating value to customers, even when it is a matter of life and death.

Idea Arena Podcast – The Method Method with Eric Ryan

In this interview, I talk with Eric Ryan, co-founder of Method and the co-author of The Method Method: 7 Obessesions That Helped Our Scrappy Start-up Turn An Industry Upside Down.

Method has done what few companies are able to do–establish a premium brand at the top of a well-established consumer products category. In their case, it was soap. Eric says method was established in the wake of two major trends: lifestyle in the home and sustainability and they merely looked for the right opportunity to take advantage of those trends.

The book is a corporate memoir, a celebration of the company’s first ten years. We don’t often get this view into a company or worse, the telling of the story is delayed so long that the anecdotes have atrophied with age and lost their meaning.

The interview lasts 21 minutes.


Download The Interview

A Summer Business Booke Sale

My two sons have been asking me all summer how they might earn some money. I didn’t have any really good ideas from them (they are 8 and 5) until my wife decide to move into her office into mine.

We suddenly needed more floorspace; floorspace covered in piles of books. A quick trip to IKEA for two bookcases got us part of the way there, but there was still too many books to move in her desk.

So, I got serious about what books I needed to hang to and the rest were transported to the garage by my young helpers.

With over 250 books now available, my sons are holding a Summer Business Booke Sale.

For $12, you will get the following:

  • One Grade A business bestseller or award winner
  • One solid business title with lessons for anyone willing to read
  • One recent pre-release galley that is more than worthy of your time
  • One hand drawn invention by our resident eight year old scientist
  • One thank you note from the five year old customer service representative
  • And specify a category (like leadership or marketing) and we’ll do our best to create a bundle

This is a great deal. For the cost of a discounted paperback, my young entrepreneurs will pack and ship three great business books to your doorstep.

You can do the math and figure out that the two boys are not going to get rich from this scheme. I hope you’ll think of the business booke sale as an their online summer lemonade stand.

If you would like to get your own Summer Business Booke Box, you click on the PayPal link below:

Thanks for your consideration!


Zach, Ethan, (and Alexa)

One Vastly Overrated List and The Solution

After writing providing us a list of The 10 Worst Business Books of All Time, Geoffrey James is back with his latest BNET slideshow titled 7 Vastly Overrated Business Books.

James cites is criteria for inclusion as:

You see them on corporate shelves everywhere and they’re cited at meetings, conferences and seminars, but when you dig a little deeper, and think about their contents, you’re forced to wonder WTF the fuss is all about.

His list is made up of:

  • The One Minute Manager
  • Winning by Jack Welch
  • 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
  • Atlas Shrugged
  • Who Moved My Cheese?
  • The Art of War
  • The Wealth of Nations

I know this is another run at creating link bait and I still can’t let it go. His choices and his reasoning are just weak.

First, he goes after the two biggest of business fables of all time. Both are simple tales designed to deliver a simple message. I used to berate these books and now appreciate them in the spectrum of what is published. THEY HELP PEOPLE. Accept them for what they are and just moved on.

Atlas Shrugged is a binary book. Either you like it or you don’t, but everyone should read it. Including it on a list like this does a disservice to the book and pushes people away from it.

The three books make appearances in The 100 Best Business Books of All Time with 7 Habits making the list of 100. You read The Art of War to understand strategy in a big way. The Wealth of Nations is too long for most to be able to spend time with it, but what we should remember is that it was originally published in 1776 and contrary to what James says, it still serves as a foundational book in the study of economics.

Winning is the only one I get close to agreeing with James on. This book was infinitely better than Straight From the Gut, but as a GE alum, Welch’s rewriting of history around his views of work life balance at the conglomerate didn’t sit well with me.

Let me offer a solution to such ill-conceived list making.

I just opened up the What to Read section of my website. There are two sections. The first is a Best of The Year section. The second section is 25 Great Business Books. The Best of List will update occasionally and the Top 25 list will get updated every two weeks or so with a book that is worth your time. There are RSS feeds for both sections so you can get the updates as they happen. You can also leave your comments on the book as they are posted.

This is my small part in trying to improve the conversation around business books.

Best of 2008

I know I am suppose to write this post before the year end, but with travel and children I ran out of time.

So, in no particular order here is what has happened and what rises above the rest when I think of 2008:

  • E started kindergarten and Z started preschool.
  • I posted my favorite business books of 2008 over on the 800-CEO-READ blog and worked with us on their selections.
  • Jack and I turned in the manuscript for The 100 Best Business Books of All Time in April. And we just got finished books today and they look great. The book hits shelves February 5th.
  • My 91 bookmarks remind of these yummy sites:
    • Spoonflower for custom fabrics based on your designs
    • Sticker Robot for custom stickers
    • Moo for business cards, holiday cards, and sticker books from your Flickr photos
  • We survived the snowiest winter on record in Waukesha. I think it was 109″.
  • That turned into a flooded basement after warm weather and some huge rains.
  • Mac Apps you should be using: NetNewsWire for RSS feeds, Ecto for blogging, VoodooPad for note taking, and possibly WriteRoom for a clutter-free writing space.
  • Mac Apps to consider: Things (I use to manage to-dos in BaseCamp, but I think I like this desktop/iPhone combo better) and TweetDeck (allows filtering, grouping, and searching all in one Tweeter app)
  • I posted 305 tweets this year. I would have never guessed that and TweetStats tells me I have been accelerating my use of Twitter.
  • Music that worked for me:
  • This American Life provided the best description of the credit crisis I heard, read or watched anywhere. Listen to The Giant Pool of Money. It is worth all 58 minutes. In second place is Michael Lewis’ Panic, an anthology of articles, reports, and missives on the bubbles we have gone through since 1989.