Lighten up if you want to write a serious book on business

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If you look through the books on my shelves, you can pick out the Serious Business Books right away. Titles are usually no more than three words long, and embossed in large capital letters on the cover. They are not vacuous, like the lighter form of management literature, but generally, they are just pretentious and badly written

If you want a business book for Christmas you may be tempted by the lightweight volumes on airport bookstalls. Books like Who Moved my Cheese? or Fish, which can be read in ten minutes and forgotten more quickly.

But when I picked up one of the three books sitting on my desk recently in mistake for another, I realised that there is now a distinctive, and homogeneous, category – the Serious Business Book. These are the volumes the FT’s Martin Lukes, with many others, buys but does not read.

The three representatives of the genre were Value Shift, by Lynn Sharpe Paine, which chronicles the growing interest in ethical behaviour and corporate social responsibility. The Innovator’s Solution by Clayton M. Christensen, which describes the difficulties successful firms encounter in managing disruptive technologies – and CFROI Valuation by Bartley J. Madden, which outlines techniques for business and project evaluation.

The title of a Serious Business Book should be no more than three words long, and embossed in large capital letters on the cover. VALUE is 4 cm high, SOLUTION requires 5cm, and CFROI an eye-catching 6cm. Black, gold and red are preferred colours. No pictorial or graphic material appears on the cover – in contrast to the eye-catching displays of the airport bookstall volumes and the artistic efforts of fiction publishers. But beneath the masthead is an extensive, exhortatory sub-title. Ms Paine’s subject is How Companies Must Merge Social and Financial Imperatives to Achieve Superior Performance. Professor Christensen has ideas on CREATING AND SUSTAINING SUCCESSFUL GROWTH, Dr Madden proposes A TOTAL SYSTEM APPROACH TO VALUING THE FIRM. I have no right to criticise: the American publisher of one of my books abbreviated the title to WHY FIRMS SUCCEED in letters 4½ cm high and proposed the subtitle of CHOOSING MARKETS AND CHALLENGING COMPETITORS TO ADD VALUE. I write Serious Business Books

If you look through the books on my shelves, you can pick out the Serious Business Books right away. I wondered if this was just the house style of the Harvard Business School Press. But while it is the house style of the Harvard Business School Press, it is the style other publishers adopt when marketing Serious Business Books.

I was reading three such books simultaneously because it is very hard to read them at all. I defy anyone to turn more than two or three pages of a Serious Business Book without needing a cup of coffee or remembering a phone call they must make. Think of Orwell’s prose, or Fowler’s principles of style, and then think of the polar opposite. Never use a short, Anglo-Saxon word when a longer, Latinate one is available. Ms Paine never meets people or talks to them, she interacts while Professor Christensen does not have ideas, but articulates his theories. You must always hack through an undergrowth of subordinate clauses to reach the point – ‘Some of the estimating procedures described below could be improved upon if one had more in-depth information concerning a particular firm,’ writes Dr Madden: your valuation is better when you know more.

You will find no trace of irony or humour. People who study management, unsure of their academic standing, crave to be taken seriously. Because scientific prose is often complex, people mistakenly think they demonstrate the scientific character of their work by complex forms of expression. Reports of experiments are, properly, written in detached and dispassionate style: but engagement is surely what we seek from people who write about their business experience. The best Serious Business Authors of the last ten years are Jim Collins, who combines original thinking with a gift for language and an eye for detail that Paine, Christensen and Madden so conspicuously lack; and the self deprecating Henry Mintzberg, who, like all good non-fiction writers, transmits to the reader his own personality and enthusiasm for his subject.

Serious Business Books are not vacuous, like the lighter form of management literature: they are just pretentious and badly written. The peasant’s sandal on the cover of my own latest work has little to do with the subject inside. But it conveys a message to booksellers and librarians: please do not shelve this volume among the Serious Business Books.

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