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What good are books?

About four years ago, I had coffee with the founders of an amazing civic project that had transformed acres of post-industrial wasteland into a popular waterfront park. The project’s leaders wanted my advice on how they could tell their story in a book.

I was excited by the prospect of working with them, but then I asked about their specific reasons for wanting a book. As they saw it, a book might inspire other people around the country to fix up their own urban waterfronts. Their account of victories, setbacks and mistakes would help others learn from their example. And they had gathered plenty of valuable information about park design, land rights, stakeholder engagement and fundraising that they were eager to share with readers.

The more I learned about their goals for their book, however, the more I was persuaded that a book was probably the last thing they needed. Instead, I suggested that a simple interactive website would likely help them achieve all their objectives faster, more effectively and at much less expense. It seemed to me, and it still does, that no single book about a subject as dynamic as civic innovation could ever be as useful as a well-managed blog featuring lots of multi-media maps, charts and videos. Blogging may have made this entire book genre obsolete.

Ever since that day I’ve continued to ask myself: What good are books? What is the relevance of such a slow, deliberately paced medium in a world with 2.1 billion smartphones -- four times as many as there were just four years ago? What good are books now?

Disruptive change has been an important subject matter in most of the 13 business books I’ve edited and ghostwritten since 2007. What I’ve learned from all this research and writing (and what I’ve learned directly from working with authors) is that the destruction of old forms and old ways of doing business naturally opens up opportunities for those willing to seek them. So I’ve tried to adopt the same optimistic outlook toward the book trade. As growing numbers of non-fiction genres continue to be eaten by the Internet (reference books, travel guides, how-to books, to name a few), I believe the remaining genres are destined to improve in quality -- by doing a better job at what they do best.

Now that the web is bursting with free “content,” publishers are forced to focus their attention on truly substantive prose that’s worth paying for. Authors can be spared from the dreary task of puffing up ordinary ideas into book form, but they must also accept that survival now requires them to work harder and stretch to produce extraordinary results. That’s not such a bad thing, is it?

Technology has been disrupting the communication arts for more than 100 years, and the pattern is always the same – mediocrity takes a hit and creativity flourishes. In the late 1800s, photography made portrait-painting all but obsolete, leaving many ordinary artists both brokenhearted and broke. But some painters were inspired to create new kinds of images that no photograph could ever match. Van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso all owe their immortality to the disruption of photography, which offered them and their colleagues the freedom to innovate through Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism, and countless other abstractionist movements.

The birth of the movies spurred similar modernist innovation in live theater, thanks to Pirandello, Becket, Brecht and many others. And when, in turn, the movie business started losing its paying audiences to the disruptive technology of free television, one happy outcome was the remarkable American cinema of the 1970s, with its stark realism and frank approach to sex and violence. Risky, cutting-edge films like M*A*S*H, The French Connection, The Godfather and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would never have been made if movie studios hadn't been under financial pressure to offer audiences something television could not -- something worth paying for.

So where’s the lesson here for non-fiction books — and for business books in particular? I’d suggest that business books need to truly excel at the one thing that no blog can ever offer: a memorable, immersive reading experience, one that transfixes, transports and transforms the reader’s thinking.

Good fiction routinely offers readers such experiences because the written word has a unique quality that on-screen storytelling can’t possibly imitate. When Game of Thrones airs on HBO, we all watch the same exact piece of entertainment. We see actors in costumes being filmed on movie sets, pretending to fight with computer-animated zombies that aren’t really there. The Game of Thrones novels, however, offer readers a completely different experience. The printed word stirs up in the mind of each individual Game of Thrones reader a unique set of intimate mental images and emotional responses to what goes on in that weird fantasy world.

The most recent Game of Thrones novel sold 298,000 copies in its first day, and no two buyers purchased the same exact experience that day because reading is by nature a wonderful and deeply personal act. Making that kind of intimate connection with readers is what business books are now challenged to aspire to, using all the tools of best-selling literature to elevate the business genre’s average level of quality.

Readers no longer need books to show how to fix things.

They rely on books to transfix them with excellent prose.

Readers no longer need books that only report events.

They rely on books to transport them through vivid storytelling.

And readers no longer need books that offer information.

Instead they rely on books to provide them with transformational experiences.

By the close of each non-fiction chapter, readers want that chapter’s subject matter to be revealed in a completely new and intriguing light, like the cliffhanger at a novel’s chapter end. And at every book’s conclusion, readers rightfully expect their investment of time to be rewarded with a feeling of transformation, with a profound new understanding of their world and their place within it. Only the written word can deliver a big idea with that kind of impact, developed through a strong point of view, over 40,000 to 70,000 words. And arguably, the stakes are higher with business books than with other books, because the ideas in some business books really do have the power to change the world.

If that seems like a tall order, imagine yourself as a 19th-century portrait artist looking at a photograph for the first time and asking yourself, Now what? The bar has been raised for our medium. Ideas and approaches once worthy of book contracts are now more properly the domain of blogs and other web content.

On the other hand, blogging offers current authors an advantage unavailable to authors twenty years ago. If your book ideas aren’t quite hitting the mark today, blogging is the ideal medium for developing those ideas, with help from reader comments and discussion, until one or more of those ideas breaks through.

The price of disruption is that maybe what you once thought was a strong book idea is now only blogworthy, at least for today. But there’s nothing wrong with blogging, he blogged.

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