What Makes a Business Book a Business Book? No White Space, For One.

It’s been a little more than 24 months since “I Have A Strategy (No You Don’t)” was released. And, not coincidentally, since this site was updated.

Most of the customer reviews on at least one popular online retailer’s site have been favorable. Some glowing, in fact:

  • ‘Engaging guide to strategy…’
  • I have to hand it to Mr. Malham – he nailed it…’
  • Book has the virtues of brevity and focus…’
  • This book is very funny. As in dry humor… lays down a fairly comprehensive foundation for what strategy (vs tactics) is and how organizations make them work…’
  • ‘McKinsey meets “The Little Prince…”’
  • ‘One of the best books I read so far in 2013…’  

Those who didn’t care for my humble offering have been equally enthusiastic in their execrations:

  • “Oh, look I wrote a book! No you didn’t…”
  • “I found this book irrelevant and out of focus…”
  • “This book is truly garbage…[It] should be carved down from the first 20 pages into a two page pamphlet and left in bathroom stalls for a quick read…”
  •  “Highly unsatisfying book that wastes time, money, and shelf space…
  • “This tiresome manual fails to impart either entertainment or information. It reads like an amateurish mind map…”

There is lukewarm praise. (“Somewhat helpful.”) There’s a splash of ambivalence. (“Whatever…”) There’s a single wave of condescension, with an elegant, passive-aggressive flourish. (“I am sure that the author wanted the book to be awesome…”)

And while any author enjoys kind words and praise from readers who enjoy a book in the spirit in which it is conceived, I must say, the nasty reviews have been extraordinarily insightful; and have successfully advanced the conversation around the book in ways I did not foresee. Now that we’ve established what strategy is, the question has become: what makes a business book a business book, anyway?

A not too liberal reading of almost all the unfavorable online reviews suggests that unhappy readers are quarrelling not so much with the content as they are with the form of my humble offering, though, I must concede, some hated the content, too.

Really hated it.

Clearly, there are expectations for a book in this genre. My publisher did make available online a preview of “I Have a Strategy…” well before it was released, to help manage those expectations; but it seems many angry customers chose to ignore it.

I’m still unclear as to what readers who dismissed the book as little more than a practical joke believe to be the elements of a real business book, but I’m fairly convinced one of them is word count. That is, word count per page. Anything with too much white space could not possibly be a business book—white space gives one room to think, imagine, maybe doodle.

There is no white space in business.

That white space created a collegial kerfuffle in Vietnam. A business consultant based in Ho Chi Minh City tracked me down to see if I could help him obtain copies of the book printed in Vietnamese. The economy of words, the plainness of thought, the simplicity of design made it very appealing to his comrades who were accustomed to the usual byzantine business tomes from the West that, eventually, end up in the hands of consultants in Ho Chi Minh City.

Then he asked about all the “blanks” in the book.

“I think it’s a pause so the readers can think about the issue on their own before moving to the next page, ” he wrote. “My colleague, on the other hand, believes that’s the space for notes.”

Before scribbling in the book, he wanted to be sure that they were using blanks the way the author intended. I encouraged my new friend to view the white space however he wished: as designated zones for spontaneous bursts of marginalia or as reflecting pools on paper.

Or both.

After my conversations with him, I realized that, among the workers at one firm in Ho Chi Minh City, there is a pretty clear idea of the “usual” American business book, and, in this case, they preferred one that didn’t look—or read—anything like the “usual.”

Awfully revolutionary, I thought.

Still, beyond word count, my guess was as good as anybody’s as to what makes a business book a business book. This, naturally, got me thinking about contemporary French philosophy. The late Jean Beudrillard, a post-structuralism man to the core, believed that if he published anything—a book, a theory—that his colleagues could understand, he had failed: His colleagues and himself. If, God forbid, general readers understood it, so much the worse. I was wondering if the same held true about “acceptable” business books. If that was the case, then perhaps a business book could only be defined via negativa. In other words, nobody really knows what a business book is, but everybody knows what it is not: Comprehensible.

Then, along came a tweet from @gocarlo…

On a train to VA. Reading…”I Have A Strategy (No You Don’t)”. Life is good.

I tweeted my thanks, and added that I hoped the book was contributing to the pleasure of his train ride.

He tweeted back:

Thanks, the book was so nice I read it twice. Seriously, that was the most delightfully disarming biz book I’ve ever read.

I pondered the tweet. Later in the day, I shared it with my colleagues. In a matter of moments, we began deconstructing the idea behind it.

Business books, by and large, are not designed to be disarming. If any genre was in the business of arming, it was the business book genre. Delightfully disarming? Well, it just isn’t done, to be British about it. I suppose, to some, a business book that is “delightfully disarming” is not unlike a porno that’s thrillingly modest. Have there been exceptions to the rule? Sure. But that’s just it: they’re exceptions. One that was cited as an alternative to my humble offering by a particularly dyspeptic critic is “The Lean Entrepreneur: How Visionaries Create Products, Innovate With New Ventures, and Disrupt Markets.” I haven’t read the book, although it sounds fascinating and I certainly appreciated the referral. All that I know of it is what I’ve seen in the online preview. My critic is right: readers may get more out of one chapter of this book than they’d get out of mine, if word count is the metric.

I’m not so sure it is. It most certainly is not the case in Ho Chi Minh City, where white space is content.

Another thing regarding the tweet: The word “disarming,” as it related to a business book, was certainly an interesting choice. As a design criterion, it’s absolutely essential to having hard conversations in business, if all parties are committed—seriously committed—to solving business problems. The correct problem. In the most literal sense of the word, one must drop all the weapons that are designed for the expressed purpose of “fighting” new ways into conversations about old problems. Weapons that kill true innovation on the spot, in defense of the status quo.

To that end, I contend that any book that seeks to challenge, nay break, conventions should be subtly or not so subtly disarming—one can’t have an intelligent, civilized conversation about the possibility of solving for “other” with somebody, typically a player deeply invested in “business as usual,” who wants to take your knees out for daring to question dearly held assumptions about The Problem and how to solve it.

To be delightful, well, that seems like a bonus.

In some business circles in the West, this is considered damnable and irreverent. But, as George Bernard Shaw reminded us, every great truth usually begins as a form of blasphemy.

And to some, I’ve written a very blasphemous book.

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