Only connect: The publisher’s role in helping ideas spread

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Nigel Wilcockson, head of Random House Business Books, recognizes three categories of business books:

‘There is the management strategy book, which is what people think of straight away when they think of business books… you’re trying to get across ideas that may be relatively common currency but you’re finding a fresh way of putting them across.

‘Then there’s that category of books which are looking at the Zeitgeist, a few years ago it was the banking crisis then big data was the next big thing, AI is the thing at the moment. Here what I’m looking for is someone who has a fresh take on it, there’s no point simply repeating what other people have said.

‘Then the third category, and this is what I think makes business books so fascinating, are those books coming at it from a slightly different angle – a lot of people are talking at the moment about behavioural economics, for example. I think behavioural economists have a lot to teach us in the business world about how customers tick, how people in organisations tick and so on – and there you are looking for freshness of ideas.’

Another recent guest on the Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast, Raj Nair, President of Ford in North America, is a reader of business books rather than a writer (so far), and he identifies this third kind of book as the most valuable for him:

‘I look for books that actually challenge your original paradigm and your perceptions and make you think… I enjoy that feeling when there’s something that I’ve thought about it but have taken for granted, and then reading something that causes me to say, “Oh no, there’s another way to look at that.”’

In one sense we have the world at our fingertips when we go online, at least potentially: in reality our internet experience is oddly and increasingly narrow. We see what our closest friends are sharing, our search results are tailored to reflect sites we’ve looked at before and hedged around with advertising targeted to our demographic, our location, even our mood.

Paradoxically, in a world of unlimited access to unlimited information, our worldview is getting narrower.

Publishing per se, in the sense of making public and distributing, isn’t the issue any more. Nigel Wilcockson confessed:

‘My younger daughter asked me what publishers actually did and after I explained to her she said, “I don’t really see that that’s a job.”’

So perhaps our real job as publishers is becoming less about the simple mechanics of publishing, and more about the incubation and translation of new perspectives: identifying where research in one field has implications for an entirely different field, and joining the dots between them.

The translation might be literal, for example bringing Scandinavian concepts such as ‘hygge’ or ‘likke’ to the English-speaking market and making the world a little happier and cosier in the process. More often it will be metaphorical: the leap from agile software development to entrepreneurship taken by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup, or from cell biology to organizational theory in Geoffrey West’s Scale: The Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities and Companies.

In a world in which we’re diving ever deeper into our specialist niches and their virtual echo-chambers, publishers can be the ones knocking through the walls between them.

‘There’s another way to look at that’ might just become our new mantra.

alison jonesAlison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers.

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