Even if there are plenty of brilliant business books out there, this industry is infested with an overwhelming majority of “low quality” books (to be nice).
To help keep my sanity, I had to make a compilation of what to look for and avoid, as a kind of “intellectual safety checklist”.
Here are the 10 most common plagues I:
- Self-promotion books, giving little practical value besides making their authors look like wizards.
- Books that don’t go beyond the obvious. You should sell what people want. Or: invest in companies that will grow. How? Sorry, this is out of scope. Thanks captain obvious.
- Shallow books that stay on the surface of the problem. They could be summarized in a couple of sentences without losing anything. Some of them even say everything in their title. Usually, they pick a catchy idea to solve an important problem but fail the reality test. It’s false good ideas. They bet everything on the cover for the sales. And since the majority of the readers can’t test what is suggested and don’t know enough in the field, they can become popular, even if they are completely wrong.
- Vague books that conveniently skip the real challenges. I invented this simple product, and boom, billions of customers suddenly appeared. Dear author, you might have forgotten some critical steps in-between. The reason is usually because of a mix of luck, unknown factors, and/or less glamorous aspects, ranging from good ones (like hard work for years) to less glorious ones (unfair advantages inherited from their family). Maybe having a daddy senator and/or billionaire might have helped open some doors? That doesn’t remove your merits after the initial kickstart, but it’s misleading to conveniently forget to mention it. It’s ok to have a billionaire dad, you might still bring very bright insights. But few authors have the courage to tell the whole story and these few courageous ones usually help build much greater clarity on a subject.
- Embellished stories. How I succeeded with my company. They usually focus on an inspiring narrative, cherry-pick facts and successes, omitting some less glorious but critical facts, which focus the reader on misleading or even counter-productive ideas. An ex US-president even blatantly lied about facts and events that never happen, in his business book. That’s not helpful to understand how the world really works.
- Cherry-picking books, that select only evidence that confirms their hypothesis, discarding all the contradicting facts. Like “competition is for losers” or “you need to create your own blue ocean“. Hello confirmation bias.
- Excessive generalization books, where the author generalizes his particular success as a general path that the whole planet should follow. To the hammer, everything looks like a nail. And as the proverb says “that’s when your balls are itchy that you discover that the hammer is not the solution to everything“. In our business context, we are plagued with advice from big corporations, funds, or startups founders that are counter-productive and toxic for regular small businesses and investors.
- Misleading books. These billionaires wake up at 4 am (and other irrelevant habits). If waking up early had any impact on financial success, the blue-collar workers would be wealthier. Hello correlation fallacy and survivorship bias.
- Plain wrong books. Your house is not an asset. Please read accounting 101 before saying such non-sense.
- Feel-good books. Desire something very hard and it will happen. Yep. With a ton of hard work, for many years, and with a pinch of luck too. But that’s way less glamorous said like that. Sorry for crashing the party.
These books often combine several of these points.
Often, the bestsellers are affected by some of these points to various degrees. Mostly because the only things that could become popular, in the sense of selling more, is not by being wiser, but by appealing more to the masses, which often involve using and abusing several of the well-documented human brain biases and fallacies.
Books promising to make money quickly in a plausible way often outsell the ones requiring effort and time. The masses don’t want wiseness, they want something for nothing (and they want it fast!).
It’s not new, but it seems to get worse during the last 20 years.
Why are we invaded?
Several factors contribute to it.
Part of it is because the bad books don’t withstand the test of time, therefore most of them disappear from libraries a couple of years after being written. So it might give the false impression that it was less of a problem in the past.
Part of it is because more and more saturated digital channels make books a marketing channel as good as any other.
And also, part because the cost of writing bad books is in constant decline.
Nowadays, you can find English-speaking Ph.D. writing 15000 words (a typical self-promotional small book) for $1500 on popular freelancer’s platforms. You don’t need to be clever, experienced, or wise anymore. The newly graduated Ph.D. will make a summary of the best-sellers in your category, remix it around your general philosophy, and put your name on it. Amazon takes care of all the digital distribution and printing in a couple of clicks. You don’t need to convince a publisher that he will break even on his costs anymore.
Of course, it doesn’t include the promotion, but since you can do so many experiments until you find what sticks with the market, it’s worth trying for many marketers.
What’s the future?
I think it’s going to get worse.
Writing a good book is, in the vast majority of cases, unprofitable from the perspective of book sales, unless you can reach millions of readers.
Therefore, the only way to make real money with books is to sell something inside the book. Subtly, but surely. A seminar, a workshop, a consulting or coaching session, an online course, a mastermind… or simply promoting the author’s company and its know-how.
And even for the authors having access to audiences in the millions, they end up having to write about what the audience wants to read, not necessarily what has the biggest impact. The donuts sell better than the veggies. Especially if you try to appeal to the widest audiences possible.
At the same time, it’s an opportunity for the readers who can differentiate trash from gold.
That’s the 21-century paradox of information: the more abundant is information, the more hidden wisdom is.
I mean, I don’t mind a world where most of my competitors are bottle-fed with crappy knowledge. The modern-day version of the proverb “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”.
What should we do?
Focusing on the few brilliant books.
Candor, total intellectual honesty, admitting mistakes, and less glorious aspects of a story, are some traits that help prevent most of the plagues listed above.
It’s not bulletproof, because even the most intellectually honest authors can fall into plenty of other biases, but at least, it removes the most common problems.
In a word, the best books try to follow the same intellectual disciplines as scientists writing a good research paper. There is a set of rules and guidelines scientists use to limit as much as possible the well-documented biases of the human mind.
Granted, it’s not fun to implement such discipline, but that’s the price of useful knowledge: complete truth.
And yes, it also makes the stories much more nuanced, less “black and white”, and usually leads to way less grandiose revelations. But we are not here to admire self-aggrandized people. We are here to learn, and the complete truth is the raw material we need as input.
That’s part of my mission with this website: help spot the real, valuable knowledge, from the low quality, biased content.