Janet Brady, PhD

Organisational Linguist

3 Tips for Choosing Business Books

Which book

When you buy business books, do you feel overwhelmed by the overflowing book shelves? According to Bloomberg Businessweek, 11,000 plus business books are published each year, buyer behaviour suggesting that:

  • Purchasing choices are made based on brand, not content.
  • Length does matter, brevity chosen ahead of authoritative analysis.
  • Seduction is preferred to substance, catchy titles obscuring poor value.¹

Such consumer behaviour reveals more about the buyers than the books. But are managers so reluctant to read books that offer quality content and real value?

If you seek books that provide mental stimulation and a strong argument, here are three tips to help you select business books.

1. Don’t get sucked in by persuasive marketing language

Persuasive marketing language is used in many business books to trigger an emotional response. How else can authors (or editors) make their book stand out? The aim is to get you to want their book, not its neighbours on the shelf.

Here are some of the marketing tricks (modified from the Media Literacy Project):

  • Intensifiers. The language of business books is full of intensifiers, such as superlatives (best, most, unsurpassed, optimum, highest, lowest), comparatives (more, better than, improved, bolder, faster, less than), and hyperbole (astounding, extraordinary, incredible) used strategically to convert browsers to buyers.
  • Extrapolations. Inaccurate generalisations based on small samples or fallacious causality. Extrapolation ignores complexity, the essential nature of organisations and management. It is most persuasive when it triggers our hopes and desires for a simple solution to a complex problem.
  • Analogies. An analogy compares one thing with another. If the analogy is weak, using emotionally-charged metaphors and images downplay the inaccuracy of the comparison.²

Examples include “visionary companies” (Collins and Porras, 1994), “transition acceleration and success strategies” (Watkins, 2003), and “talented employees, great managers and strong workplaces” (Buckingham and Coffman, 1999).

If you read peer-reviewed research articles (e.g. Managerial Learning or Human Relations) you will notice the absence of persuasive marketing language.

2. Resist the Seductive Power of Management Gurus

Business books written by Management Gurus are used to start and strengthen a fashion or trend. These books:

  • Employ stories of heroic deeds performed by transformational leaders who become the catalysts for organisational innovation.
  • Lack empirical evidence that illustrates the effectiveness and limitations of ideas when implemented.
  • Rely on rhetoric that persuades and emotionally captivates readers while disengaging them from their capacity for critical thinking.

As Clark (2004) reveals, groups of managers and book editors actively participate in the development of the Guru’s ideas and the business book industry’s profitability:

  • Managers, by attending and responding to the Guru’s live presentation, unknowingly provide feedback as to the viability of the Guru’s ideas. When the signal is weak, the gurus modify their ideas in response.
  • Book editors work with Gurus to turn these tested ideas into a product.
  • Book editors, paralleling the work of sports talent scouts, search for individuals with guru potential and contract them to their publishing company.³

With the help of market testing and expert editing, Management Gurus are able to position themselves as the innovators of ideas and strategies. Their books create the buzz that places them on best seller lists and the Gurus at the pinnacle of the lucrative speaker circuit.

Perhaps the recent proliferation of self-appointed “Thought Leaders” reveals the identities of aspiring Management Gurus.

3. Decide if you want Instruction, Entertainment or Education

When you pick up a business book, can you tell which category or genre it belongs to? Each genre has its own unique goals, content and writing style. For example:

  1. Self-Help/Survival Guides/Self-Motivation: Examples include:
    • Advice illustrated by scenarios showing how others implement the author’s advice and produce an idealised outcome (see my previous post on managing up).
    • Tips for surviving the unpleasant workplace, impossible boss, or undermining co-worker (did you notice my use of intensifiers just now?)
  1. Sales tool. Aims to establish the author’s “brand”, establishing credibility or role as a “thought leader”, the objective to position the author as first choice consultant, trainer, coach or public speaker.
  2. Bandwagon. Harnesses the latest trends or fashions such as social media and social networking, coaching, and leadership.
  3. Biographical. Uses personal experience to help others learn from their success and failures.
  4. Research. Presents non-commercial research in everyday language to make it accessible to a business audience.
  5. Review. Written by subject matter experts who synthesise complex ideas, develop an argument, or critique the work of others. Often summarises knowledge accumulated over many decades and is well referenced. This category includes:
    • In-depth analysis of commonly-accepted but little questioned organisational practices.
    • Comparison and evaluation of a range of management trends, theories, models, methodologies and ideologies.

Categories 1-3 above tend to ask readers to expend little effort in their consumption. In contrast, Categories 5-6 require readers to invest considerable time and effort but offer the richest rewards. While you can find some useful gems in the first group, the second group often calls into question many taken-for-granted beliefs and practices.

Ultimately, your choice of business books depends upon whether you want to read something that you are likely to already know, agree with and procrastinate over, or whether you have a genuine desire to learn.


  1. Spitznagel, E. (2012, July 19) How to write a bestselling business book. Bloomberg Business Week. Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-07-19/how-to-write-a-bestselling-business-book#p1
  2. Language of persuasion. Media Literacy Project. Retrieved from http://medialiteracyproject.org/language-persuasion
  3. Clark, T. (2004). The fashion of management fashion: A surge too far? Organization, 11(2), 297-306.


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