Lots of awful business books
There were exceptions, but for most of the 20th Century most business books were simply awful. The writing was dreadful and textbook-like. Stories of actual companies were rare indeed. That changed in 1982.
In Search of Excellence
If you enjoy reading business books today, thank Tom Peters and Bob Waterman, authors of In Search of Excellence. It was the first business book to make the New York Times best seller list and it stayed there for a while. Decades later, it still delivers value.
What made In Search of Excellence different was the writing. The authors told stories and wrote clean, understandable prose. They filled up 350-plus pages with the book, notes, and an index. That set the page count for must business books from legacy publishers right down to today.
There were reasons business books were 300 pages
In the beginning there were good reasons for that length. Publishing a conventional paper business book is an expensive proposition. People didn’t buy a lot of books when paper was the only option. Books cost too much. So, you added value by putting everything relevant between covers.
Part of the problem was that there simply wasn’t anywhere else to put things. The first business web sites didn’t show up until 1994 or so. It took another ten years before you could expect that most business book readers were also using the web.
For most of the last thirty years we’ve been creating books with “just in case” amounts of information. A lot of recent business books also have a lot of filler.
How many 250-page business books have you seen that try to cover a king-sized bed of a book with a cot-sized blanket of an idea? How many times have you quit reading a business book after the first chapter, because there simply wasn’t any more to say? If have to fill 250 to 300 pages maybe that was necessary. But it’s not necessary anymore.
Technology makes new things possible
Ebooks and print on demand make it possible to reduce the financial risk of publishing. Web sites, tablets, and smartphones give you a place to put the extra “stuff.” That changes the value proposition.
The lean business book
The Lean Enterprise Institute defines “lean” this way.
“The core idea is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.”
The challenge in writing a lean business book is to find the statue in the stone and strip away everything else. If it moves the book forward, put it in. If it’s helpful but not essential, put it somewhere else and link to it. If it’s neither, leave it on the cutting room floor.
What a lean business book looks like
If you’re writing a business book today, make it lean. Define what you want your book to do. Then put the essentials in and leave everything else out.
Thanks to Michael Bungay Stanier. When I interviewed him about his book, he said something that started the chain of thinking that led to this post. He also let me bounce some ideas off him and gave me some feedback along with way.