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Why Some Books Are Built to Fail

By now you have read my three or four posts on choosing a title and subtitle for your book, and my encomium to Seth Godin's Purple Cow. Now, let's spend some time in the next few posts looking at some of the reasons books fail: some books, you see, are built to fail.

Reason #1:

They are simply too hard to read.

Business is a dynamic activity, with a bias to action, and with a real impact on peoples' lives. Business people are busy, now more than ever. And business is hard, also now more than ever. So, most business people, while they are eager to improve themselves, are not looking for a Kafkaesque experience in reading a book. If they wanted to read Joyce's Ulysses, they would have bought that.

Business books, or any book, should not make your hair hurt, so why do so many books suck the life out of ideas with dry, abstract, passive, impersonal, jargon-laden prose that only a linguist would find of interest? I think the reason is that many authors confuse erudition with opagueness. They think that prose that reads like the dissertation of a deconstructionist makes them sound smart. Smart is complicated, right?


Smart is the ability to make the complicated, the profound and the meaningful crystal clear to the average reader. Average reader, now there is an interesting phrase. I don't mean "average", as in a mediocre person; I mean "average" in the sense of not being a specialist in the material in the book, of being new to the material, in some way, and in being interested in the material--but not obsessed with it. Let's face it, we read books to be enlightened AND entertained, and the experience is one that we want to enjoy.

Don't just tell. Tell stories, as you tell. Show, then tell. People learn by story. Help your reader learn by telling a good story, and maybe some good stories too.

Gee, and if you need a higher justification for writing by story, just read Aristotle's Aesthetics. I don't think a higher authority exists.

So there is a reason that Good to Great, The Tipping Point, and many other influential and best selling titles are best sellers. It is not just that the underlying ideas are interesting, but that the authors had the talent, the intelligence, and the desire to write a book that you and I can enjoy while being taught.

Do not fall prey to the idea that erudition is obfuscation. Fall prey to the idea that erudition is the clear enunciation of a fine idea.

Finally, we recommend two books to all our authors, and I recommend them to you: Strunk and White's classic, The Elements of Style, and Stephen King's, On Writing. Both are wonderful reads, and enlightening.