According to the November 2004 issue of Fast Company, "last year, 5,301 books claiming to be about business were published." This is about 14 books per day! This is overwhelming and no doubt that most of us cannot handle such a crowd. Let's assume nevertheless that, despite the sheer size of new publications, you have been able to identify a few books that meet your interests. Now the question is: How should you read them? This is indeed the question asked by Fast Company. They come up with three basic advices that can be found here.
These advices are well-taken. If you allow me, here is how I would rephrase their message of caution
1. Take a big grain of salt
Fast Company says that you should not read a business book literally. Business books are about generalizations. But, to me, this is precisely where the problem is: Corporations beg for uniqueness. They don't want to play karaoke. So here is the oxymoron: If this is true that corporations dream of creating their own monopoly (what Jonas Ridderstråle and Kjell A Nordström nickname moonwalking monopoly in tribute to Michael Jackson), how come you can coin (average) "best practices" and what is the value of the average (generalization) when what is at stake is about higher order moments (say deviation from the mean statistically speaking). No corporation wants to be average. It strives to be unique, deviant.
Moreover, never forget that a book is written by an author who has his or her own agenda: fame, consulting, speaker fees enhancement. So what's the best bet if you're an author (and don't want to one of the 5,301 crowd): Be (for a while) a "moonwalking monopoly ", that is deviating from the mainstream business literature while at the same time supporting your "moonwalking monopoly" concept with an extensive field study. In a nutshell, your best bet is to create "concept volatility." You don't have much to lose and a lot of potential upside if your newly minted concept rings the bell!
So, indeed, do not read literally: Averages are misleading and the business book author does not want to be "average" either.
2. Distill the central idea
Indeed, a book has a standard Gutenberg format which entails production constraints: say, for example, a minimum number of pages to justify the price (maybe the hardcover). Hence, fairly good chances, that the central idea will be repeated several times! But, beware, once you've found it, don't fall in love with it. On the contrary, challenge it right away. Be skeptical.
a/ In statistical hypothesis testing, we use data to make a decision about whether or not to reject a statistical hypothesis (usually stated as the "null hypothesis") in favor of an alternative hypothesis. Hence, you would discuss about the power of the statistical test (the tested proposition vs. the alternative proposition). How does this apply to a business book and its main recipe. Let's take an example: "Built To Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies" by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras (3,5 million worldwide sales). Collins says that the most important idea is in Chapter 4: "Preserve the core! And! Stimulate progress! To be built to last (for how long by the way? How long is long enough to be BTL compliant?), you have to be built for change!" Well, this is such a broad and general statement that even a sophisticated statistical test would have almost no power and would not help you deciding whether the "recipe" is worth it!
b/ Moreover, don't be fooled by randomness. Authors themselves are usually fooled by randomness: How many companies are there around? How many of these companies did they really look at. How can you be sure that the ones that were picked did well because they applied the recipe and not because they were lucky? How many autors are there around starting the "guru" publishing race and how many get it right? Are they skilled or lucky business writers?
Interestingly enough, business authors, when they are challenged because people realize that the select group of companies they cherry picked did not fare that well after all, claim this is because these firms did not continue enforcing the (say BTL) recipe!
3. Create your own toolbox
Read a lot and not only books. Read blogs etc... Moreover, don't forget that there are far more books that any Barnes and Noble can carry. Rationing is at work: You get to see what sells. It does not mean that what does not sell is bad. It is a mere reflection of a winner take all/zero sum game curse. Once something starts to sell, it evicts the rest (fight for bookstore/library display space) and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a sense, (physical) capitalism has created its own way of rationing. This is weird when you think that socialism was blamed for rationing too. Hence the success of Amazon: Half of its book sales is outside the typical Barnes and Noble carry. Its customers show that they want more than what is stored on bookshelves!
Never forget the long tail (what is not on bookshelves). This is were gold nuggets are and, as you know, nuggets are never easy to find but worth the effort!