Business Book Kryptonite, Part I

In Monday’s post I discussed how even brand-name CEOs don’t sell books like they used to. That got me thinking. There are a whole host of topics that usually don’t sell anymore. I present these subjects in general terms, meaning that the chances of launching a new break-out book in any of these categories is not great. That does not mean that there haven’t been bestsellers in these areas over the years—or that there won’t be in the future. Nor does it mean that these are not subjects that people aren’t intensely interested in. It just means that these book topics sound a lot better than they sell. Here they are, in no apparent order. I will include five today—and five more on Friday: 

* Business Books on Work/Life Balance: People don’t want to have to buy a book to achieve balance in life. Most people think they can have balance by working less and leaving the Blackberry out of the dining room at dinner time.  Also, this is an area that publishers burnt out all by themselves. Too many books in the 1990s and early 2000s promised readers to teach them how to balance their checkbooks and their lives at the same time. Now business book buyers from the big chains are looking for something else—anything else. One current stong selling titie that touches on this topic and bucks this trend is Portfolio’s Juggling Elephants: An Easier Way to Get Your Most Important Things Done— Now, by Jones Loflin and Todd Musig.

* Managing Teams: This was a huge topic in the 1990s. Individualism was dead. Teams were the rage. How to manage them, lead them, organize them, settle conflicts. Anything and everything related to teams was hot. One of the hottest books of them all was The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High Performance Organization, by John Katzenbach and Douglas Smith (Harvard Business School Press), which came out in late 1992. Other publishers cashed in by bringing out their own teams books (publishers often pile on when something works). Today, at least when it comes to business books, teams are dead. Long live the individual. One exception: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. (although the title tells you something about what’s happened to the category).

* “Global” investing books: Let me be clear—I do not mean books on globalization (e.g. Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat). I mean books that tell you how to invest overseas.  I have probably received more than a hundred proposals on this topic over the years. Most business book publishers have tried to publish at least one global investing book, sold a dismal thousand copies before vowing not to touch this area again. Most investors feel that owning one international fund in their 401k has them covered on the topic (more on 401ks in the next posting). 

* Books on negotiating: Again, there are exceptions here, but overall, negotiating books do not sell very well. Most people think they are either fantastic negotiators or awful negotiators—beyond help. There is no middle ground at all. That means that people in both camps feel that a book won’t help them hone their skills. Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury (Penguin paperback) is still the king of the negotiating books. It really tells you something about a category when its bestseller can be traced back so many years. The original hardcover of the book was published more than a quarter century ago, in 1981, the year before In Search of Excellence was published.   

* Anything with “ethics” or “values,” in its title: these are important topics, and they should be chapters in other books (all of my books have a section or a chapter on values). But almost everyone feels that they don’t need to be taught anything on ethics, thank you very much. Most people feel that they are ethical and they have values and don’t need to buy a book on the topic. However, people still feel an intense need to write on this topic. I get tons of book propoals that fall into this category.

Stay tuned: Part II comes out on Friday with five more book topics that people aren’t that interested in anymore. 

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