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Bob Sutton

I want to thank everyone for making such thoughtful comments. My main conclusion after reading all your comments is that stuggling over the tension is constructive because, to write stuff that has rigor but is actually interesting and useful, isn;t an eay thing to do. And yes it is important to recall that different books appeal to different people. And Claudia, thanks for the vote of confidence about Hard Facts. That book took forever to write, in part because it draws on so much research and we worked so hard to make it actionable, as you put it -- although The No Asshole Rule also does have a lot of advice about actions people and organzations can take, it clearly isn't nearly as deep.

Claudia Kotchka

Bob, If it makes you feel any better, I love your "Hard Facts" book and believe it is well named (enough sizzle). Interestingly, while I find the blog entries on "no assholes" interesting, I'm not as interested in the book. The "Hard Facts" book sounded actionable to me (and it is) while the other more entertaining. So, maybe your marketing is just fine - if you are attracting the audience with the most interest. There are so many management books that I think it takes time for the really good ones to float up and I think "Hard Facts" will be one that stands the test of time.

S. Anthony Iannarino

Hi Bob,

Two comments: First, when you write a book, you are surely an author. But if you are interested in people actually picking your book up and reading it, then you are in fact a marketer. I would suggest to you that a title like "People Might Want To Try Being Nice At Work" will sell far fewer books than your aptly chosen and far more provocative title. And, if my gut is right, you hope the book makes a difference, which requires it being purchased and read. (I can’t wait to do both)

That said, the title is perfect!

Now to my second point; I have a hard time understanding your opposition to The War for Talent and Topgrading. Surely you aren't arguing the opposite (hire the least-talented individuals you can find and leave the worst performing people in place or promote them), are you?

Sean

How much of the sizzle is from the title alone?

The No A**hole Rule is a much sexier title than Hard Facts.

Joining Dots

Well I thought your Hard Facts book was brilliant. But I like well researched books designed to be usable. i.e. not too lightweight but also not too academic.

But that's different audiences for you. I'm the same with documentaries. Those made for primetime TV are often to fluffy or outlandish, but I have friends and family who love them.

By the way, if you're measuring the effect your blog is having on book sales, I've now got Knowing-Doing on order from Amazon...

Ralph Maurer

This is a fascinating discussion and one, as the first comment suggests, that is omnipresent in publishing related fields. Even novelists have this debate, though it is couched in terms of art vs. commerce.

One perspective I would add is that it isn't really a perfect competition out there. Books with lots of sizzle and easily digestible (but, perhaps, poorly supported) ideas have the tendency to obfuscate the more intellectually valid books. They don't necessarily compete on an equal basis because, by using P.T. Barnum tactics, they take up the available 'space' in front of the audience. Followers of broadway noticed the same thing when overwrought, glitzy, trite musicals came along. These musicals made it harder for the audience to find the 'good stuff.'

-Ralph

Kent Blumberg

Your post has had me thinking since I first read it. There is much to chew on here.

The underlying question you are asking, I think, is,

“How can we (researchers who write books) communicate our findings – and market those communications – in a way that the people we think should have our information will in fact buy it from us?”

None of us – except perhaps the federal government – can force customers to buy something they don’t want to buy. My doctor cannot force me to diet and exercise – I have to see the value in it for myself. Ford cannot force me to buy an SUV if I want a small hybrid. I cannot force my customers to buy the paper I make if they don’t think my paper gives them better value than someone else’s paper.

Ideas are the same. You cannot force people to consume your ideas – no matter how true, valid and evidence-backed they are. Your ideas must be communicated and marketed in a way that your target audience understands the value those ideas will bring to them, believes your book will deliver that value, and feels the price matches the value they will get by buying and reading the book.

“The market for business knowledge -- the customers and the sellers -- routinely rejects serious, deep, and important stuff.”

Probably true. Possibly regrettable. But not necessarily bad – just something researcher/authors must deal with.

Years ago, Disney produced a beautiful animated feature film called “Fantasia.” The film is a series of animated scenes, set to “serious” classical music. Classical music aficionados will tell you that much of the music was changed to suit the needs of the movie – and they see that as a bad thing – “it ain’t pure.” In the end, though, the movie surely brought many new listeners to a genre that had been entirely too stuffy up to that time. Is that a bad thing?

Each of us in business, whether we make widgets, sell burgers, or sell the fruits of our research to book buyers, is a marketer. If we want a target customer segment to buy our widgets, burgers or books, we need to meet that segment’s needs.

Tom Rath, has recently published Vital Friends, an account of the Gallup Organization’s research into the anatomy of friendship. Tom solves the customer segment problem by providing two products in one book. The main part of the book is written in an accessible, non academic style. However, Tom and his team have included an appendix that contains very detailed explanations of their research methods and careful statistical analysis of the results. I read the appendix first. Many others will read the body of the book and never touch the appendix. But both segments will buy the book.

You ask how to get the people who “should” consume your ideas to buy them. I think by doing what other businesses do: segment your market, target segments of that market, and then produce your product (ideas) in a different way for each targeted segment.

Notes:

1. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Hard Facts. But I just happen to be in the customer segment for which Hard Facts is great value (I am an engineer by training).

2. Truth be told, I believe you and Jeff Pfeffer are already positioning the concepts behind Hard Facts for different target segments. The book, this blog, your website, speeches, interviews, articles – all will reach different segments.

3. Disclosure, as suggested in your post: I have absolutely no evidence to back any of this up. This comment is based entirely on anecdote, opinion and rumination. No data were created, harmed, or consumed in the making of this comment. It is possible my logic is sound, but it is certainly not based on evidence of any kind!

Jason Yip

I'm reminded of this: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/25/dogood.html

That is, sizzle is independant of substance and if we want the right substance to be learned, then we need to learn how to create sizzle.

On this specific issue, I'm wondering if it's just a matter of shorter, more focused books?

Bob Sutton

David,

Thanks for your very thoughtful and open advice. Part of my struggle here gets at something you have written to well about: What it means to be a professional. To me -- and I am drawing on work by sociologists in part -- part of the problem is that management doesn't qualify as a profession because there is no agreed upon body of knowledge that it draws upon, no agreed upon standards of behavior, and in particular -- unlike lawyers and doctors --no agreement to put their clients interest ahead of themselves (indeed, much theory, notably agency theory, reflects the opposite assumption, and it is both an assumptions and an aspiration that runs through most MBA programs.) So for me, the struggle is between what managers should consume and what they do, and the standards they -- and those who advice them -- use and should should use. My answer, not unlike yours, is to make things as interesting as I can, while making the more rigorous underpinnings more clear, and to keep pushing toward more rigor. Now, it is interesting that not all groups have the same reaction to inserting research. I mostly teach engineers at Stanford, and they are constantly asking to see the original studies. And because of the evidence-based medicine movement, virtually every health care group that I work with wants to hear more about theory and data. So people who are analytical and people who are being pressed to use evidence in their industries are now asking for more evidence.

Thanks again for your lovely note, and I do think that ultimately this tension between being engaging and careful documentation of limits and evidence is a useful one to struggle with.

David Maister

Bob, my experience says there is a trade-off in serving the different audiences. I mad a fatal mistake in one of my books (Practice What You Preach) of including all the formal rigor and data so that the reader could examine the conclusions, and not just depend on my assertion that I had done good analysis.

My managerial audience hated it - most readers don't want to be walked through the data - we / they want to be shown the conclusions as fast as possible.

Nor, to your point, do we / they want the references and acknowledgement of prior sources. Like you, that's due diligence and intellectual honesty, but it better not get in the way of presenting a compelling story. That stuff needs to get banished to the appendices.

I don't think this is an "Us and them" issue - I think we all want to get our conclusions fast nowadays. I my own atempts to keep up, my catchphrase is "Inside even the best book is a great article trying to get out."

David Bourbon

You might want to read Virginia Postrel's The Substance of Style (if you haven't already) for some interesting ideas concerning your question. It's a more universal issue than you may think, and one to ponder

Regards,

David Bourbon

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