While some scholars debate its origins and its boundaries, business literature is the body of major articles and books that have had formative influence on modern business theory and practice. As such, depending on whom one asks, it may or may not include popular business titles on the current best-seller lists. Moreover, for many, business literature includes not only those works dealing ostensibly with business subject matter, but also classical writings that continue to illuminate contemporary business issues.
The first problem that has to be resolved is differentiating between business literature and economic literature. This may seem reasonably straightforward today, but if one takes a 17th-century perspective on this issue, business literature and economic literature are virtually synonymous. For example, John Reynolds's Perfect Directions for all English gold now currant in this Kingdome (London, 1633) was both an economic treatise on money and a manual on book-keeping. While the development of separate business and economic literatures didn't really begin until the 19th century, we find other titles from the 17th century that could have come off last week's best-seller list: A Way to Get Wealth (1625), The Way to be Rich (1662), and The Pleasant Art of Honey Catching (1684).
Included in the pre-19th-century business literature are chronicles of early explorations of Africa, Asia, and the Americas; discussions of a variety of occupations such as accounting, banking, and retail trade; explanations of inventions and discoveries and their commercial potential; and last but not least the works of Adam Smith (1723-1790), Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), David Ricardo (1772-1823), and others. Some of this early literature has reached the status of "classic" and is still valid today. Some of the literature of that time was important for a limited duration and now has only historical value, while other writings from this time period weren't even valid at the time they were written. Other kinds of business literature began to appear that had a more utilitarian purpose. For example, as the pace of business accelerated (circa the 18th century) price lists—or more accurately prices-current lists—began to appear on a regular basis to help regulate commercial transactions. This can be seen as an early form of the kind of business literature published to answer very specific information needs. However, all of this literature, taken as a whole, prepared the business community for having written information available to help them conduct their businesses. And the roots of today's business literature in the United States and elsewhere spring from them.
From a strictly American perspective, business literature developed slowly until the 20th century. While the Wall Street Journal got its start in 1889, our three most-read business magazines— Forbes, Business Week, and Fortune —got started in 1917, 1929, and 1930 respectively. While many business book publishers trace their origins back to the 18th or 19th centuries, the number of business titles actually published was never very large until the latter half of the 20th century. One of the contributing factors in this "late" development of a business press in the United States is the lack of formal educational programs for business. The first U.S. business school, the Wharton School of Finance and Economy, was established at the University of Pennsylvania in 1881. Only two other programs, one at the University of California, Berkeley, and the other at the University of Chicago, were begun before the end of the 19th century. Harvard's Graduate School of Business didn't open its doors until 1908. With the development of these university programs came the need for textbooks and other works to support the educational process. This introduction of formal business education also helped lead to the professionalization of business and the beginning of a clear delineation between blue-collar and white-collar workers. This lead further to the establishment of a variety of professional associations representing the sub-divisions of the business world. One of the major roles for most of these groups was (and still is) to contribute to their body of professional literature by publishing newsletters, journals, and books. Slowly the amount of available business literature began to grow.
If the first half of the 20th century can be characterized by slow, steady growth, the second half of the century has been more of a stampede. The outpouring of written information has been tremendous in all fields, and business ranks right up there with the leaders. By the early 1980s 52 percent of the magazines tracked by Folio (the trade publication of the magazine industry) were business titles. Furthermore, 40 percent of the 400 largest revenue-producing titles were specialized business publications. Book production has also increased. Fewer than 200 business titles were published in 1950 in the United States. By 1995, according to The Bowker Annual, that number was more than 1,840, although that appeared to have been the peak in the trend, as figures for 1996 and 1997 fell below 1,800. Still, in 1996 there were 1,380 new titles and 389 new editions of older titles.
Over several decades, business books also have begun to sell more copies. While some business-related titles had reached "best-seller" status before, the first to make it to the number one spot on the New York Times best-seller list was Norman Darcey's How to Avoid Probate, which topped that list for 17 weeks in 1966. (This is no small feat; for example, the One-Minute Manager was one of the top 25 nonfiction titles of the 1980s, however, it never spent a week in the top spot.) In the 25 years between 1966 and 1991, business titles topped the nonfiction list in all but 9 of those years, and some years saw two different business titles make it to the top position. Business publishers today take a very broad view of the definition of publishing, as business literature is available in print, electronic, audio, and video formats.
Any list of important books is by nature incomplete and subjective; however, there are a few dozen noteworthy titles that are lauded widely by business leaders and scholars alike. The following are several of the best known and most celebrated.
A number of highly regarded business figures have reported over the years that some of the most important literature on business and management comes not from business journals and presses, but other fields. The most ancient of these is the Chinese classic The Art of War, dating to 500 B.C. Written under the apparent pseudonym Sun Tzu, it is considered a masterpiece on strategy. The Art of War carefully lays out a rational, disciplined, and forceful (yet humane) method of achieving victory over military adversaries. The obvious analog in the business world is competition between rival companies. Another oft-cited historical work is the medieval Italian diplomat Nicolo Machiavelli's The Prince (1513), a widely known—even infamous—treatise on political intrigue. The book is a sort of instruction manual for gaining and exercising power, and is regarded by some as a relevant lesson for corporate executives. Other pertinent nonbusiness literature, as judged by business leaders, includes readings in world history, literature, behavioral sciences, and philosophy.
Many business and economic works have likewise withstood the test of time. These range from early classics like The Wealth of Nations to relatively recent monographs by influential business school faculty and corporate leaders. A well-known and somewhat controversial example is Alfred P. Sloan's My Years with General Motors (1963). Sloan was a prominent executive at General Motors who helped fashion the automaker into the world's largest company. Though his book was in large part autobiography (and actually written by a ghostwriter named John D. McDonald), Sloan's accounts of his managerial practices and organizational theory served as a model to many fellow business executives and aspiring ones as well. Later, when GM's unwieldy bureaucracy proved to be a competitive liability, Sloan's book fell into disfavor as a model for effective business management.
Management philosophy was also the theme of Tom Peters and Robert Waterman's 1982 volume In Search of Excellence. Peters and Waterman were consultants at the prestigious McKinsey & Co. management consulting firm, and their book was an effort to counter the prevailing business logic of their time. While their prescriptions and proscriptions for success weren't always borne out by the facts of specific companies, their theories continue to hold sway in the business community. Peters and Waterman contended that in order to succeed, businesses must cultivate practices that lead to the most innovation and the greatest customer satisfaction. Companies do so, they argued, by, among other things, (1) promoting entrepreneurship and creative solutions within the business, (2) knowing and understanding the customers intimately, (3) running a focused and streamlined business without complicated organizational or administrative barriers, and (4) ensuring maximum productivity at all levels, guided by hands-on managers.
Among the literally thousands of books about investment, only a few seem to have enduring appeal. One is The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham. First published in 1949, the book presented a cautious and rational approach to investing in the stock market, in stark contrast to many of the popular works on the topic. Graham, a respected professor and mentor to famed investor Warren E. Buffett, argued that investments should be for the long term and ought to be based on the value of a stock as rooted in the fundamental strengths of a company and its finances. In other words, investors shouldn't pay too much for a stock relative to a company's profitability and future potential—e.g., not getting in on the bandwagon just because a stock's price is rising quickly—and they should consider the overall, long term soundness of the business when choosing a stock. These are the central tenets of so-called value investing and fundamental analysis, and are still widely espoused today.
Another important investment tome was Burton G. Malkiel's A Random Walk Down Wall Street (1973). Articulating an idea already expressed by others—and later challenged by many—Malkiel said that price movements on the stock market are largely random and unpredictable. As a result, he concluded, a" monkey throwing darts" could pick good stocks as successfully as the typical expert. This is known as the random walk theory.
Other important contributions include the following, among many others:
Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors (1980) by Michael E. Porter. This book is considered an authoritative exposition on how to analyze a company's competitive position.
Diffusion of Innovations (1962) by Everett Rogers. As revised in subsequent editions, this title provides an important study of technological breakthroughs and other innovations spread throughout a market under various circumstances.
How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) by Dale Carnegie. Though not regarded as a profound study, this enormously popular book describes how interpersonal relations can be used to advance business needs.
Out of the Crisis (1982) by W. Edwards Deming. A scientist and management educator, Deming was instrumental in focusing the attention of Japanese manufacturers on the quality of their products, as measured by rigorous statistical tracking. This book summarized his principles long after they had been put into practice.
The Practice of Management (1954) by Peter F. Drucker. This was one of the most influential works of the esteemed management theorist's prolific output. In it, Drucker emphasized clearly delineated functions and methods of management and how they relate to furthering a business's purpose.
Strategy and Structure (1962) by Alfred Chandler. As its title suggests, this book addresses how business objectives and strategies dictate the organization of the enterprise. Although it inspired a wave of corporate decentralizations and reorganizations, many of the book's assertions were later challenged by other writers.
Where Are the Customers' Yachts? A Good Hard Look at Wall Street (1940) by Fred Schwed Jr. This irreverent look at Depression-era Wall Street may not have been received as a masterpiece, but the book provides a timeless and thoughtful antidote to speculative stock market frenzies.
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Zimmerman, Martin. "Pithy Classic Skewers Wall Street." Dallas Morning News, 14 July 1996.