The Death of the Celebrity CEO

We have quietly entered a new era in the world of business book publishing—one in which a robust category of business book publishing has all but disappeared. While business book sales continue to hold up fairly well despite a housing bubble and $140+ per barrel oil, the Enron era intervened and revealed to the world the feet of clay of many chief executives.  As a result, celebrity CEOs—who a decade ago were one of the surest things in the industry –have gone the way of rotary phones and the Selectric typewriter. 

Brand name chief executives have left the building—literally and figuratively. As a result, business book publishers can no longer put names like “Gates” (Microsoft) and “Welch” (GE), “Kelleher” (Southwest Airlines) and “Ellison” (Oracle) on books and wait for the money to roll in. Those good times might be gone forever…or at least, a long while.  

Ironically, 60 years ago Peter Drucker wrote that no organization could survive if it depended on a CEO superman to run the place. However  in 1990s, larger-than-life figures celebrity CEOs like Michael Dell, Andy Grove, and especially Jack Welch emerged as the super-class—marquee names that guaranteed strong “box office” sales in bookstores. Jack Welch was the king, inspiring two dozen books with combined sales of roughly two million copies translated into some two dozen languages (I wrote three of them and edited six others). 

When Welch finally wrote his own book, Jack: Straight from the Gut, it sold about a million copies. Even Welch’s friend and #2 at GE, Larry Bossidy, who is certainly not a household name, also sold most of a million copies of the book he co-authored with Ram Charan, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. Those books were published in 2001 and 2002 respectively.

Now, half a dozen years later, we have run out of the kind of CEOs capable of delivering sales in the tens and hundreds of thousands. There are a few exceptions, but they are few and far between. Steve Jobs is a compelling figure, but you can’t do a book on him without hearing from some legal department (even if the book is a mostly positive portrayal of the Apple founder, like Portfolio’s Inside Steve’s Brain). Warren Buffett is another exception. But he costs a fortune. When word got out that former Morgan Stanley analyst Alice Schroeder was writing a Buffett book with his complete cooperation, Bantam paid an incredible $7 million for the book (strangely titled The Snowball. We countered with Even Buffett isn’t Perfect by Forbes’  Vahan Janjigian). A $7 million advance, which was roughly the same Welch received for his first book, was unprecedented for a mere mortal/writer. One could understand the advance if it was Buffett himself writing the book, but he is only cooperating with the author. The fact that a publisher is willing to pay so much for someone with access to a celebrity CEO only proves the point that an authentic celebrity CEO with big box office appeal is an incredibly rare commodity these days.      

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