What Business Bestsellers tell us

Sally’s World, October 2002

I like to walk around in a bookstore and look at the new books and the bestsellers and browse the various sections. I like to see how and where the various types of books are shelved and what the latest trends are in size and design and color.

I’ll often just grab a bunch of books with intriguing titles and sit down. Thumbing through them, I’ll jot down any new catch phrases that I spot in a little notepad I obsessively carry with me at all times. Yes, I am the one who hogs the table at your Borders Books Cafe sipping one cup of coffee for hours, although as a good citizen I do return the books to their shelving section. People who work in bookstores don’t get paid enough to have to pick up after me. I am also hedging a bet with the fates in case some day a bookstore café becomes my place of employment.

This bookstore ritual of mine is one way in which I take the temperature of the times. From these visits, I can tell a lot about our collective mental health, about what is worrying us and about how we intend to fix whatever ails us.

On my last visit, one thing I noticed is that Michael Moore’s book Stupid White Men about George Bush and his business associates has for some time now been topping the New York Times Best Sellers Chart for Business Books. The release of Moore’s book was delayed last year around 9/11, and Moore was circulating an angry email at that time charging censorship. Whatever you think of Moore’s politics, he sure knows how to push his thumb into the center of the bruise and maintain pressure with great deliberation and zeal. This one has impeccable timing. Shipping this book as the Enron scandal unfolded was serendipitous genius.

Perhaps because of my somewhat checkered, on and off illustrious career, and perhaps because I am a business writer, I am often drawn to business self-help books. These books are a kind of guilty pleasure. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I actually READ them.

You know the type. There’s usually a man or woman pictured on the red glossy dust jacket, body language denoting power, arms crossed, head tilted in challenge. The title promises to solve your burning career question of the day. You know, something like: “HOW TO AVOID BECOMING THE MAIN COURSE: Power lunching tips from 50
prosecuting attorneys.”

I am happy to report that my latest visit to this section cheered me right up. Usually these books are sold by some kind of game metaphor, or hunting metaphor or crushing-the-beer-can metaphor. You know, “You – snake, Me -crocodile – UGGH!” For a long time, there was a “Be Bad, Break the Rules and Get Ahead” metaphor. And this was especially popular among books geared toward women.

I really dislike these books because they discount the importance of culture, promote image above true values, and urge women to ignore their gut instincts. The 90s gave rise to corporate cultures of corruption and greed where office politics ruled, where so many of the behaviors urged in “Be Bad and Break the Rules” would actually maintain the status quo. I believe we have to hold true to what is right, push back and be heard if we are going to build businesses that are good workplaces for all of us.
I was cheered this last visit to the self help section because although one or two of these titles seem to sell into perpetuity, the wellspring for new books on this theme is drying up. Once again, it is Enron and the ensuing corporate scandals that have slain the “Be Bad” cliché.

All I can say is “Thank You, Sherron Watkins!” The Enron VP didn’t exactly leap, but rather was pushed, into the public spotlight. But still, she did a great favor for all people in business, but especially women. She was Brave and she told the Truth.
To fly so high at Enron, Watkins had to possess political savvy, superior intelligence and a tough gut. She knew what rules to break and what rules to bend. But in the end, what is remarkable is what she didn’t do: She did not remain silent. She spoke up – quietly – in a culture that above all valued glad-handing and backslapping and the rogue mentality (wink! wink!). The CEO and Chairman and top management team at the Crooked E didn’t listen. But the world did.

I also took the time for a second cup of coffee and to read “The Greed Cycle,” an article by John Cassidy in the Sept. 23 New Yorker that talks about how the “shareholder value movement” encouraged our corporations to go crazy. It seems we were so busy building shareholder value that we lost sight of what was valuable in our businesses and what was valuable in our selves.

So “Ta! Ta!” to books with titles that pair “Bad” and “Business.” And so long to business philosophy books that endorse image over substance. Instead I see an upward trend in titles using the words “brave” and “authentic” and gasp! “honest.”
Maybe we will all start learning things worth knowing again. Like how to develop products that meet a real need. How to sell these products to customers. And how to make those customers so happy that we ALL make a profit! Maybe we will get focused
on making an honest living again!

So my visit to the bookstore tells me that we still need time to recover, but I am optimistic. The business bestsellers tell us we are well on our way.

Sally Duros is a writer, editor, producer and communications consultant.