Thursday, March 26, 2020

How To Read a Business Book: Simple Rules

Sandy Santin--entrepreneur, founder of Sensitech, and
the guy who hired me in 1995--shows how to shelter in place
in style!  (Want to join in?  Click here!)
Before thinking about books, think about time.  

If you are a 30-year-old male in America, you can expect to live on average to about 78.[1]  Let’s round that up for good behavior and assume you’ll be around another 50 years, 40 of which you’ll work and the last 10 of which you’ll sip tequila on a beach.  (Ladies, you get more--both time and tequila.)
On average, assume you’ll read one book a month while you’re working and two per month once you retire.  That means you’ll get to choose 720 books to read in your remaining time on earth.
Every year in America there are 11,000 business books published, a stack equivalent to a 99-story building.[2] Assume that pace was constant for the last 20 years and will hold for the rest of your life.  That’s a supply of 770,000 current business books measured against your 720 choices—a one-percent option that only holds if you never read a non-fiction book outside the business niche or one written before 2000.
Or, God forbid, a work of fiction.
If you want to get the most out of your precious choices, here is a simple list for how to tackle a business book:
1. Curation is key.  There is an unproven but not unreasonable supposition that 90% of everything is trash.  With business books, that estimate might be low.  Consequently, if there is a cardinal rule about how to read a business book, it starts with selecting what to read.  Curation is key: find a way to reliably winnow down the options available from a stack 99-stories high to a handful from which you can choose each month.

Friends and trusted colleagues—the same people who help us find a new restaurant or choose a movie—are ideal curators.  Reviews from business periodicals can also be helpful.  And quality publishers, like venture capitalists sifting through business plans, help to separate signal from noise.  If you wish to read well, you must find a way to curate well.
One word of caution: Be skeptical of best-seller lists, which can be gamed (a practice called “leapfrogging”). “Bestseller” status on Amazon, which updates its rankings every hour or so, can result from an author or agency loading sales into the first hour or two of a book’s release, after which it falls into oblivion but forever carries the “Bestseller” imprimatur.  
Marketeer Brent Underwood took a picture of his foot, selected the title Putting My Foot Down, used Amazon’s “cover creator” to design the cover (without a book having been written), and priced his offering at $.99.  A few hours after launch, purchasing one copy for himself and convincing two friends to ramp his total sales to three, the “book” achieved “Bestseller” status—including reaching #2 in the “Freemasonry and Secret Societies” category of Amazon.[3] Underwood was now a best-selling author. 
You have been warned.
2. Never read in pain. Even with strong curation, you will have misses.  Once you realize a book is not working, stop reading.  Remember the math: 720 choices, 770,000 options.  
3. Always read the Introduction first.  Economist Tyler Cowen believes that “Most books are at best articles, and you can be done with them in a few minutes. You get the drift, you’ve seen it elsewhere, you’ve seen the excerpt in The Atlantic.”[4]  The “article” Cowen references is almost always the Introduction to the book—the very section many readers skip.  
The Introduction includes the author’s explanation about why he’s written the book and how he plans to make his case, often with examples drawn from the text.  The Introduction will help you choose between reading the book cover-to-cover, dipping into select chapters, or moving on to another book.  
4. Treat the paper or ebook as a tool. My mother forbade my siblings and me from dog-earring pages, saying “books are your friends.”  However, I have found that if I treat the ideas in the book as my friends but the book itself as a tool to be marked up, dog-earred, and otherwise gently abused, I retain much more information from the reading experience.  For many people, physically engaging with a book or an ebook is vital.  And, Mom, books that look used also look loved.
5. Target 3-5 ideas. Think about a book that you read a year ago.  Now, think of three things you learned from that book.  It’s difficult, right? 
Marketers talk about the “evoked set,” the 3-5 brands that are top-of-mind and represent possible purchases when you shop.  Our brains seem well-tuned to hold onto that small set of possibilities.
One modest goal in reading a business book, then, is to capture three to five key ideas and then find a way to permanently record those ideas.  Some people keep a separate Word document.  Others write their thoughts on the inside cover of the book and then review it every so often to refresh their memories.  Some keep a list on Evernote or Google Keep. 

If you read twelve books a year and gather 36 new ideas, you will have created a unique competitive advantage--and be even more charming at cocktail parties.
“The single best use of a business book,” author Seth Godin writes, “is to help someone else.”[5]  Sharing helps lock in a new idea.  Putting that idea into action can help add a new and reliable implement to your management toolbox.

[1] Nathan Yau, “Years You Have Left to Live, Probably,” Flowingdata, Web February 13, 2020,
[2] Jack Covert and Todd Sattersten with Sally Haldorson, The 100 Best Business Books of All Time: What They Say, Why They Matter, and How They Can Help You (New York: Penguin Random House, 2016 [rpt: 2009]), 1, 334.
[3] Brent Underwood, “I Became a Best-Selling Author on Amazon In Five Minutes With Three Dollars,” Quartz, February 9, 2017, Web February 13, 2020,
[4] Tyler Cowen on the Ezra Klein podcast, May 21, 2018, Web February 13, 2020,
[5] Seth Godin, “How to Read a Business Book,” Seth’s Blog, May 21, 2008, Web February 13, 2020,

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