Books about business are big business: Readers bought 17,155,000 of them in 2015, which gives the category about 7 percent of the adult nonfiction market. These books have always struck me as so full of jargon and Randian bluster as to be impenetrable by and unappealing to the average reader—and yet plenty of people, apparently, are reading them.
A large chunk of those readers, I imagine, are MBA students who are required or encouraged to read recent books about leadership and business models. But it’s not just wannabe CEOs who lap up titles about emerging markets, financial history, and visionary leaders—at least some actual CEOs are reading them, too. On any list of books recommended by famous business executives (there are plenty of them) you’ll find a slew of business titles, some of which these masters of industry make required reading for their underlings.
What are our bosses, and our future bosses, learning from these books? As someone who prefers novels and has limited time on her hands, there was no way I was going to actually read a bunch of popular business books to find out. I decided to take a bird’s-eye view of recent business titles: I used Amazon’s advanced search function to delve into the 50 best-selling “Business and Money” books published in the last 12 months. (Slate is an Amazon affiliate; when you click on an Amazon link from Slate, the magazine gets a cut of the proceeds from whatever you buy.) I would try to get a feel for the genre and learn something about the way business mavens think from these books’ virtual jacket-flaps.
A blend of psychology, economics, history, and memoir, Amazon’s list of best-selling business titles is full of men touting big ideas. (And they are still mostly men: I counted only eight women among the writers of the top 50 Amazon business best-sellers of the last year.) Nearly every book promises to illuminate some secret to success, wealth, and productivity, and those secrets invariably come decked out in buzzwords. Best-selling business writers allude not just to ownership but to Extreme Ownership, not just magic but Big Magic, not just work but Deep Work, not just rising but Rising Strong. (I’m still not sure exactly how that last one works, grammatically.) There are also plenty of nouns plucked from the dictionary for their focus-group appeal: Angela Duckworth’s much-talked-about Grit but also Presence and the athletically inspired Peak, Sprint, and Pivot. There are even some made-up nouns like Connectography and Superforecasting. But once you get past the biz-speak, a narrative begins to emerge. And though the vast majority of these books are purportedly based on cutting-edge research, the narrative is quite familiar.
Most of the best-selling business books of the last year, I found, fall into one of three categories. The first category is what you might call Chicken Little books: books that push the notion that the world is changing in unpredictable and possibly terrifying ways. The authors and their publicists, no doubt, would object to the Chicken Little characterization, because these books usually come with an optimistic disclaimer. Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, for instance, is described by its publisher as a “bright, hopeful book [that] will be indispensable to anyone who seeks guidance on where their business, industry, or life is heading,” in direct contrast to its ominous title.
But these books prey on, and aggravate, readers’ insecurities about technological, political, and economic changes. “Endless terror. Refugee waves. An unfixable global economy. Surprising election results. … What if they were all connected? What if you could understand why?” begins the blurb for Joshua Cooper Ramo’s very woo-woo–looking The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks. The description of Mervyn King’s The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking, and the Future of the Global Economy is even more blunt: “Something is wrong with our banking system.” Rana Foroohar’s Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business goes further: “[T]he misguided financial practices and philosophies that nearly toppled the global financial system have come to infiltrate ALL American businesses, putting us on a collision course for another cataclysmic meltdown.”
If I wasn’t worried about a cataclysmic meltdown before I started looking at Chicken Little titles, I sure am now. That’s where the second category of book comes in: These books promise to elucidate some arcane information that will give the reader a competitive advantage in a scary future. Some of these informational books draw their lessons from history, like The Rise and Fall of Nations: Forces of Change in the Post-Crisis World and The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War. (Rising and falling both begin to lose their meaning when you spend too much time looking at business titles.) Others insist on particular business models as the key to understanding and mastering the future (e.g., Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets Are Transforming the Economy—and How to Make Them Work for You), or even on a particular means of data storage (Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World). (Revolution also begins to lose its meaning when you spend too much time looking at business titles.) Knowledge is power, according to these books.
Let’s be honest, though: Reading about American standards of living between 1870 and 1970, or learning all the ins and outs of “networked markets,” doesn’t sound like a ton of fun. Nor does it seem like a particularly satisfying way of staving off existential dread. The third category, the largest by far, offers a different solution to the forbidding changes looming on the horizon: Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!
The vast majority of business books are self-help books wearing a suit and tie. These books offer different strategies for improving yourself enough to outrun the forces of history. Many of them, like Duckworth’s Grit and Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s Extreme Ownership—which invites readers to emulate the authors’ discipline as U.S. Navy SEALs serving in Iraq—send the message that good, old-fashioned discipline is the secret to success. Others, like Ego Is the Enemy and The Outward Mindset: Seeing Beyond Ourselves, say self-abnegation is the key. There’s lots of praise of creativity (Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear) and outside-the-box thinking (Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World), plus tips on overcoming emotional obstacles to success (Living Forward: A Proven Plan to Stop Drifting and Get the Life You Want). Even though these books are explicitly geared toward readers looking to improve their productivity and boost their careers, they have a tinge of the religious about them. By changing your attitude and your work ethic, these books say, you can become one of the chosen few: a rare winner in a crowd of losers.
In business publishing, the problems may be global but the solutions almost always lie within oneself. This, of course, is a fairly apt description of American capitalism—individuals who are smarter, harder working, or somehow more virtuous than their peers can rise above the fray. (It’s also a decent encapsulation of the publishing industry, dogged by dwindling sales and shoestring budgets for author advances and book promotion, where an author with an original idea can sometimes break through with a best-seller.) It’s not a surprise, really, that the business best-sellers list reflects the ideology of the society it belongs to; what’s surprising is how little that ideology has changed, even as the worlds of politics, economics, and technology do.
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