At first, it seemed like a match made in heaven. The book’s big, bold title grabbed your attention. The subtitle promised to solve one of the many challenges you’re facing right now. The glowing testimonials from CEOs and respected peers confirmed that it was the missing piece for anyone who hoped to be successful.
But by the time you got to chapter three it felt like a bad Tinder date. The author was repeating different versions of the same humorless anecdotes and displaying a brazen disregard for your time and attention span.
He was out of things to say.
You closed your eyes and whispered through clenched teeth:
“This should have been a blog post.” 😑
This is the big gripe readers have with business books — that they’re 90% fluff. They’re recycled ideas inflated to fit a format people will pay for. They’re expensive brochures.
While the criticism is often warranted, it unfortunately masks the fact that plenty of business books are well worth reading cover to cover.
We don’t have a quality problem with business books — we have a selection problem.
I think this line from Seth Godin’s post “Do business books work?” sums it up perfectly:
“There are plenty of clunkers, lots of dramatically overwritten brochures masquerading as books. But mixed in with the dreck are books that change everything.”
Obviously, Seth Godin benefits when people have a favorable opinion of the genre that’s built his career. But as I look over at my bookshelf, I think he’s onto something. For every five business books that were completely forgettable, there’s one like The Hard Thing About Hard Things, which I’ve underlined so much that the non-underlined portions are now the minority.
But how do you filter out the truly great business books from the nonstop hype the genre creates? That’s one of our goals at Hardbound, where we turn bestselling nonfiction books into illustrated stories you can read in 5 minutes. We’re not trying to condense “fluffy” books down to their bare essentials — we’re trying to connect readers to books they’ll love getting lost in.
Because savoring every page leads to a much more impactful experience than simply skimming for actionable takeaways ever could.
In the process of searching for these kinds of books, we’ve picked up a few techniques that have been helpful. Here’s how to find great business books.
It’s really easy to get stuck in the trap of thinking that every business book you pick up should look like something this guy would read:
But what do we mean when we say “business books,” anyway? I think there’s often a disconnect between what we want out of business books and the types of business books we look for.
We want business books to make us more effective at our jobs in some way. That’s why it’s so easy to get stuck reading books about specific “business-y” topics and skills, like sales or time management. But we often discount the fact that getting better at our jobs is about way more than what we associate as typical business skills. It’s also about things like empathy and understanding what makes people tick.
That’s why if you look at the featured books in Amazon’s “Business” category you won’t just find books the typical Businessman™ might read like StrengthsFinder 2.0. You’ll also find books like Thinking, Fast and Slow, which won both the National Academy of Sciences’ Best Book Award and the Nobel Prize for Economics. It’s categorized not only under “Business,” but also under “Cognitive Psychology” and “Medical Books.” (It’s also coming soon to Hardbound! 😀)
When Forbes asked the elite entrepreneurs who make up their Midas List what books entrepreneurs should read, Chris Sacca of Lowercase Capital (and Shark Tank fame) suggested Not Fade Away, a memoir about confronting mortality written by a man dying of stomach cancer.
Sometimes the books that make you more effective at your job are about a lot more than just business.
What do great books and mediocre books have in common? They both have awesome testimonials!
That’s why I go through a fun exercise when considering a book: Googling its title + “recommendation.” It’s a super easy way to find out what kinds of people are giving the book unsolicited praise.
Let’s use a book I mentioned earlier, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, as an example. A quick “hard thing about hard things recommendation” search surfaces a blog post by Brad Feld, co-founder of Foundry Group and Techstars, in which he says:
“If you haven’t yet bought Ben Horowitz’s book…go get it right now. It’s one of the best books you’ll ever read on entrepreneurship and being a CEO.”
This is a great sign, but the real kicker is a few paragraphs down, where Brad reveals that the book was so compelling he read it in a single sitting.
Try the same thing with Creativity, Inc. (the book about how Pixar sustains their creative culture) and you’ll find a recommendation from Mark Zuckerberg.
Of course, this search will surface recommendations for almost any book you try it with, but the key here is who the recommendations are coming from and how they’re talking about the books.
When you can find sincere, unsolicited praise from smart people whose opinions you value, you’re on the right track.
If a book came out in the last 10 years or so, there’s a good chance that securing positive Amazon reviews was one of the author’s and/or publisher’s top priorities. That means the bulk of the book’s reviews are often seeded by the author’s biggest fans, who might view it through slightly rose-colored glasses.
Many authors have also participated in programs that gave their book to readers for free or at a discount in exchange for a review (Amazon recently banned these after a company called
Review Meta published a viral study that found “incentivized reviews” inflated a product’s rating by about .38 stars — a big enough difference to turn an average-rated product into a top-rated product).
With all that in mind, it’s worth taking ratings with a grain of salt.
Review Meta actually has a pretty cool new browser extension that automatically tells you what percentage of a book’s reviews were engineered or look suspicious. I’ve also found it to be better than Amazon at identifying a book’s most trustworthy reviews.
This is often the first thing I do before buying a book.
Go to YouTube or your podcast app of choice and search the title of the book + the author’s name. Watch or listen to one of the top results. If it leaves you feeling eager and excited to learn more, that’s a great sign. Bonus points if it’s an interview and you can clearly tell the interviewer goes out of his or her way to praise specific parts of the book.
For example, this presentation from Jonathan Haidt was all I needed to see to confidently take the plunge into his 2012 bestseller The Righteous Mind:
Not your typical business book, but it’ll teach you a ton about how people form opinions!
Granted, this step isn’t foolproof. Sometimes great writers aren’t great at talking about their books. And it is possible to make a mediocre book seem awesome in an interview or presentation. But this is a selection filter that usually doesn’t steer me wrong.
It’s pretty rare to find a new business book about a topic no one has ever written about before.
This article, for example, points out the wave of books on the topic of expertise that have all come out in the past decade:
Interestingly, all five of those books cite the work of a psychologist named Anders Ericsson. (If you’re familiar with Gladwell’s “10,000 Hours” rule, it was based on one of Ericsson’s studies.)
My point isn’t that you should definitely read Ericsson’s work instead (although we did release a Hardbound edition of his book Peak, which provides a super fascinating look at his most famous research), it’s that there is usually a variety of ways to approach any given topic, some of which you’ll enjoy more than others.
If you love Malcolm Gladwell’s writing, Outliers might be the most enjoyable, memorable way for you to learn about expertise. If you were a huge fan of Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, you might like Mastery more.
There are many paths to improvement in the world of business books. Choose the one that suits you best.
If you really want to make sure a book will be worth your time, there probably isn’t a safer selection filter than the passage of time. Mediocre books make their way to bestseller and “best of” lists all the time, but it’s usually pretty difficult for them to stay there for years and years.
Look up any list of best books in a given category and you’ll rarely find a book that’s been out for less than a few years. The average age of the top 10 books on Product Hunt’s list of books for founders, for example, is about 11 years.
While focusing on classics can make you late to the party on great new books, it’s your best bet when you’re looking for a sure thing.
Books are subjective, so there’s no foolproof formula that will prevent you from ever reading a business book you don’t like again. But if you follow these six guidelines, I think you’ll find your success rate increasing dramatically.
And if you’re looking for a fun way to sample books before you take the plunge and buy them, subscribe to Hardbound! We release 5-minute illustrated stories based on the best books in business, science, and history every week.
Also worth a read: