The Business Book Revolution

The rise in the popularity of business books is what management guru Peter Drucker might have called both a “recent phenomenon” and “totally unprecedented”. One of the most interesting things about the business book market—despite its incredible resilience—is how it has tended to fluctuate with the stock market and the overall economy. 

Take the lackluster 1970s, for example. During that decade, before the business book revolution, companies hunkered down, just trying to survive Watergate, an oil embargo, recessions, low productivity rates and double-digit interest rates. Few of us in business book publishing can name even one great business book to come out of that uninspiring period. The stock market lost well over half of its inflation-adjusted value between 1968 and 1974, and another six percent by July of 1982 (the Dow hovered around 800 in mid-’82). The bears ran rampant on Wall Street for 14 years. 

The next decade did not start much better—but then came 1982. In retrospect, we know that was the beginning of everything. That was the year that ushered in the greatest bull market in history—catapulting the Dow from 800 to over 13,000 and then 14,000 by 2008. To repeat that percentage increase the Dow would have to exceed 175,000 in  a similar time span. That was also the year that Peters’ and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence was published, as well as Blanchard’s and Johnson’s The One Minute Manager.

For years after that hundreds of authors pitched their book proposals by telling me that their book was “the next In Search of Excellence.”  That was not the right way to go.

I didn’t publish a single book that was pitched to me as “the next In Search of Excellence.”  Editors and publishers look for new and fresh ideas, not recycled books pretending to be something else, especially when they use a “phenomenon book” as a point of comparison. In my parlance a “phenomenon book” is one that defies all odds to sell in the millions of copies, when the average business book probably sells fewer than 3,000 copies per year. Books like Who Moved My Cheese, Reengineering the Corporation and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People are phenomenon books.

The next year, 1983, was another great year for business books, as Naisbitt’s Megatrends and Iacocca topped best-seller lists. Before long business books dominated non-fiction best-seller lists. Iacoccca went on to become the best-selIing business memoir of all time, selling an incredible five million copies, while In Search of Excellence sold more than three milllion copies in its first four years. Excellence was glued to the New York Times Bestseller list for three years, and the book became “the most widely held” of all library books—in all categories—between 1989 and 2006.

That was it. There was no going back. The business book revolution was in full sway, and business emerged as a dominant non-fiction category that persists to this day. (In a future posting I will include some firm numbers to back this up). 

An interesting footnote to all of this: Peter Drucker, now commonly accepted as either “The Father of Modern Management” or “The Inventor of Management” wrote his first business book in 1946, after spending two years studying the inner workings of General Motors. That book—Concept of the Corporation—is what I call “the grandfather of the modern day business book.” He wrote half a dozen books by 1982, but Drucker was never considered cool or hip, and none of his books ignited the type of sweeping movement that was sparked by In Search of Excellence. I will include many more facts on Drucker in future blogs, especially as we get closer to publication of Inside Drucker’s Brain.   

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