"Cubicle Slaves ... hack off your ties ... flip off your heels ... the Work can be Cool!" Tom Peters
Jack Covert is the Founder and Mentor of 800-CEO-READ, a division of the Milwaukee-based independent bookstore Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops. He started the business 25 years ago, and the company has enjoyed double-digit growth each of the past six years. Formerly a merchant selling records, Covert strongly believes that books can change the world and, because of that, continues to work well past his "use by" date. This year (2009) he coauthored The 100 Best Business Books of All Time to help readers find the books worth their time. Covert is a frequently quoted expert on business books and he has been interviewed by CNN, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Inc., and numerous major daily newspapers. His company's monthly Top 25 list of bestselling business books is a frequently cited standard and is distributed to more than 600 newspapers via McClatchy-Tribune News Service. Tom says, "Jack Covert 'gets' what CEOs want/need to read ... better than anyone in the business. His sense for what's r-e-a-l-l-y important (vs. the pop idea of the moment) is matchless."
President of 800-CEO-READ, Todd Stattersten spent six years with GE after graduating from college, followed by three years working in his family's sheet metal fabrication business. Todd joined 800-CEO-READ in 2004 to pursue his passion for business books. In 2005, he edited and self-published More Space: Nine Antidotes to Complacency In Business, a collection of essays by well-known bloggers on their view of business. In 2009, he coauthored The 100 Best Business Books of All Time: What They Say, Why They Matter, and How They Can Help You with Jack Covert, which they discuss with Erik for our Cool Friends interview.
tompeters.com asks ...
What is 800-CEO-READ?
TS: 800-CEO-READ is a Milwaukee-based company that specializes in selling business books to organizations and individuals. We've been in business for the last 25 years. We grew out of an independent bookstore called Harry W. Schwartz here in Milwaukee. We're the only bookstore in the country that really has this laser focus on what's going on in the genre of business books.
You claim to lay out the 100 best business books of all time. What are your criteria?
TS: There are three things that we think about in terms of what makes a really great business book. The first is that it has to be accessible, in that when you pick it up and you start reading it—
JC: —it's got to make sense.
TS: It has to be well written and understandable. One of the problems with reading Michael Porter or a lot of academic books, such as Competitive Strategy, is that it's difficult for the layperson to read those books and understand them.
The second important thing is, are the ideas still applicable? A lot of "best of" lists in the media, such as, "Here are the 15 best books of the last 100 years," tend to go back and recommend books from a long time ago. For instance, Frederick Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management shows up on a lot of lists.
It's our belief that there are a lot of books that, while historically important, are not necessarily all that relevant to today's businessperson. We think, as a matter of fact, that " title="See our book page" target="_blank">In Search of Excellence was a watershed moment in terms of what happened for business books. Prior to that, you either got Peter Drucker, who was going to deliver management advice, or you were going to work your way through academic tomes.
In Search of Excellence was written in a completely different style; it was engaging. And since that book sold so well when it hit the market, the publishing industry got behind it, saying, "Hey, there's something to this business book thing." And they realized that if they provided it in a manner that was accessible to the lay businessperson, they could sell a lot of business books.
We feel that a lot of the books published prior to In Search of Excellence aren't particularly applicable to today's businessperson.
JC: And the third thing that makes a great business book is, do they have a good point? Is it a quality idea? Does the author describe a concept that I can take to heart and then implement in my own business? Is it really useful? Is this something that I believe matches up with what I already know is true?
Implementation seems to be the holy grail of business books. And you discuss how business books basically are a solution for somebody. Maybe not for every business, but most business books provide some kind of solution. Is there any particular book on your list that lays out the clearest route to implementation for someone that can be accomplished without consultants? Do any of these books really lay it out clearly for one person or one small department to implement real change in a business?
TS: They failed accessibility.
JC: But Leading Change is a book that is written at the right level and makes the right points. He lists the points of how to do a change initiative in the easiest possible way. He lists the eight stages of change. This has got to happen and then that has got to happen. He lays it out very clearly. It's brilliant, really.
TS: And I think that's to your point, which is, I've got this problem and I need a solution, which is going to require some action. That action is going to change something. Something has to be different than what it was before. But the reality is that, we, as humans, don't tend to do very well with change. And the other thing to remember is that it's easy to start a change initiative, but it's very, very difficult to finish it. Kotter's book, unlike most, deals with that issue, also.
So which author that we would assume would be in here, isn't? Or authors? What are the surprises here?
JC: Dr. Seuss.
Dr. Seuss is in?
I noticed that Porter isn't in, which you've already mentioned.
JC: But he is mentioned. Now, it's true we're not big fans of Michael Porter's Competitive Strategy. But for books that we don't include in The 100 Best but that we feel have value, we've got these sidebars in the book. Taking the example of Porter and Competitive Strategy, we actually send you to his article on that subject that was just updated last year. It's called "The Five Competitive Forces that Shape Strategy."
Similar situation with Peter Senge's book, The Fifth Discipline. Very important book in the mid-'90s, but that book is almost impenetrable. From our point of view, it completely fails accessibility. But he and a bunch of writers went back a couple of years later and put out The Fifth Discipline Field Book. We recommend Fifth Discipline Field Book as something to go read instead—same concept, much more accessible, completely different format.
TS: At the end of each review, we list two or three books that we call "Even More," which are recommended books that aren't in our book. So in fact, we recommend 395 books, not just 100.
I thought that was a very nice touch in these chapters. I like all of the extra write-ups from some of your colleagues at 800-CEO-READ. There's a nice energy to it.
JC: From the very beginning we wanted this book to have a magazine feel to it. We were inspired by Fast Company and other magazines. The layout is very magazine-like.
On another front, there don't seem to be many women authors in your list.
TS: I believe there are eight. And you're probably going to ask me who they are now.
You had to know I was going to ask that question.
JC: No, we asked it ourselves after we finished it.
TS: Katharine Graham's A Personal History is probably one of the best biographies that we've chosen.
But does it say something to the business culture? That's a biography. That's not a business theory or business management book, per se.
JC: Erik, I think it's a function of education. And I think it's only been in the past five or ten years that there are more women in undergrad school than there are men. What's going to happen is that this is just going to take time.
TS: I think what happened is that the sorts of people who write business books are either leaders of businesses or those who have left and started their own, either consulting practice or coaching business, whatever the case might be. And I think it, again, matches up to what Jack's talking about in that—
JC: It hasn't been that long.
TS: And I think there's an interesting question around the idea: is business advice gender-specific? Does it matter who it comes from? Business is business. You were bringing up this cultural question, which I think is absolutely important. I totally get that. But, I'd also respond with the fact that good business advice, no matter where it comes from, is valuable.
You include a number of works of fiction in your list.
TS: There are 25 books that we mention in our book that are works of fiction. There are probably five works of fiction in the 100 Best.
I find that interesting, because I've heard Tom Peters respond to the question, "Tom, what business book should I read?" with, "Why don't you read real fiction? Because real fiction is about people in relationships with each other. And that's what business is about." So what fiction books have you included?
TS: I would direct people to a book by Joe Badaracco called Questions of Character. He teaches at the Harvard Business School. He agrees with Tom. At Harvard Business School, they teach business lessons using the case method. But what Joe found was that when he could find the right fictional story to convey the same idea, it was much more effective.
In Questions of Character, which is a leadership book, he has chosen eight works of fiction about leadership. In each chapter, he talks about a different work of fiction and what it means. He gives a synopsis of what it is and then walks through what it is that this person did or didn't do. They're ethical issues. There's no clear answer. He uses Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. He uses The Secret Sharer. And F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon.
We also chose to include Pat Lencioni's Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which is a fable about a company that's coming apart. The company works its way through figuring out how the team can work better.
JC: We also include The Goal, by Eliyahu Goldratt and Jeff Cox.
TS: The Goal was actually the first business novel. Nobody has really used fiction as effectively as The Goal did. It sold four or five million copies. It's a manufacturing book, an operations book, and a management book. We tend to think in stories and we learn by hearing other people's stories. So that's why fiction is useful to people who want to learn about business.
I read that you had a big surprise in discovering five meta themes that run through all the books. Can you talk about that discovery and what those are?
TS: Back to the original premise, back to our original idea that business books help people solve problems, an alternate title for The 100 Best Business Books of All Time could be The 100 Best Solutions of All Time. After we finished writing the book, we found that these solutions tend to point back to the same problems over and over, no matter whether it's leadership or marketing or innovation or biographies.
There are five of them: purpose, decision making, action, change, and feedback. If you look at purpose, a lot of the stuff that's been coming out of the Gallup organization, such as Now, Discover Your Strengths, has all been about the idea that we should not concentrate on our weaknesses. What we should do is concentrate on our strengths, things that we're very good at, things that match up the best with who it is that we are. We think that's a great idea for how people can find their personal purpose. It also ties into our fifth theme, which is find great ways to give feedback.
What's interesting about the five themes, especially when you put them in this order, is the fact that they reinforce each other. So, knowing your purpose—individually or organizationally—makes for better decision making. Once you're making decisions and you're doing those on a regular basis, it generally leads to action. You start doing things once you make decisions, rather than being paralyzed by it.
Once you start taking actions, things change. That's what we want to have happen. Then when you take feedback and use that information to make adjustments on the first four, well, that's a continual improvement kind of process.
Which reminds me of the line from Drucker that a decision hasn't been made until some different action has taken place as a result. That encompasses two of your middle points there in those five meta themes. I think people could learn a lot, just from remembering that.
TS: Absolutely, I agree. That was in the Drucker review, The Effective Executive.
So what are you hoping to achieve with the publication of this book?
JC: We did this book as an exercise that we wanted to share. Our business is comprised of selling books and promoting great business ideas. And this is one of the great ideas that we want to promote, the idea that there are some really good books out there that you may have missed. Todd, tell him the third reader story.
TS: We think the problem that most people have with business books is there's too many, and they can't find the one that works for them.
You said there are 11,000 published each year, right?
TS: Eleven thousand. So if you stacked them, one on top of each other, you'd have a ninety-story building. Ninety stories. Somewhere in that stack is the solution to the problem you're trying to deal with. What we think happens is that someone recommends a book to you. You read the book and you're, like, "Gosh, this is a really good book." You start with the first book, and you think business books really work for you.
Then you go looking for the second book. You walk into the bookstore, or you look online. Then you might find yourself attracted to the clever cover design or the title itself. You get the book home, read it, and then discover it's terrible. It happens.
JC: It happens way more than it doesn't, Erik.
TS: We're not Pollyanna enough to think that there aren't any bad business books out there. But I think the problem oftentimes isn't that the book is actually bad; I think the problem is normally that you didn't find the right book to provide the solution to your problem. I think that's why most of the time, people are disappointed. We want to provide people the third book and the fourth book and the fifth book and the tenth book to read. We would recommend any one of these hundred to anybody. We think they're all that good. I also feel that after you read the reviews, you get a pretty good idea of the solution provided.
A big problem, though, is that people don't really know what problem they need solved.
TS: Sometimes, it's not until you read the book that you actually get to the point where you know what your problem is or was.
It makes the case for reading more rather than less because sometimes you don't know what you're looking for.
TS: A business book takes about two hours to read.
You're fast readers.
TS: Most people can get the vast majority of the learnings from a business book within two hours. That's a plane flight. It's an audiobook on the way to work.
Tom says that if he gets just one idea from a book that costs 25 dollars, that's still one of the best deals around.
TS: Yes. Business books sit at this wonderful crossroads between, "I know nothing," and, "Let's go hire a consultant." Right? And for the 25 bucks, and the two hours you're going to spend, I just think that's an incredible value proposition for the average business leader.
Okay, what else?
TS: We do a lot of things on the site, at 800ceoread.com. We do four to six reviews every month. So every month, we're saying "Hey, out of the thousand books that came out this month, here's five or six that you should check out." Once a year, we sit down and look back over the last year and come up with, say, 14 winners that are worth going back and reading across a variety of categories.
What we've never done before this book was to say to our customers, "These are the best of all time." And now we've done that. That was the point of the book. We've put our stake in the ground and said, "These are the 100 Best."
One of the reviews, Todd, that you wrote begins with, "I love it when Jack tells stories about the beginning of 800-CEO-READ. I always listen rapt, wondering how three shelves in the back of a bookstore could have turned into a 15-person, multimillion dollar operation, wondering what it was that Jack did ..."
And so, Jack, I want to ask you about the early days.
JC: Well, let me tell you about the first time I met Tom Peters. It was at an American Booksellers Association book convention. He had just written A Passion For Excellence and he was at the Random House booth. We met each other and ended up sitting in the corner of the booth, on the floor with our backs against the wall, just shooting the breeze. I had a really great time; I think Tom did, too. It was just us talking. I honestly don't remember what we talked about. But, you know, we probably talked about business books and what was selling and what wasn't selling. That was my face-to-face introduction with Tom. It was really quite an experience and I'll never forget it.
But there was this moment when 800-CEO-READ was just three bookshelves in the back of a Harry Schwartz store. What happened?
JC: I was hired in '83 or '84, somewhere along there, in February. I was hired to sell, buy, and return business, technical, computer, and medical books. When David [Schwartz] had bought the business from his father ten years earlier, his father had said, "That's where the money is, in the business community."
David was a Luddite. He was a socialist, had a Jewish afro, and really had a hard time communicating with businesspeople. I was a gray-haired guy who really had no fear. And he hired me to do this. And I did not have sales experience, except I'd been a merchant all my life.
What were you doing before 800-CEO-READ?
JC: I had a record store, Dirty Jack's Record Rack. I sold music. I'm a sales guy. I sold newspapers before you were born, Erik.
What is it that got you outside the bookstore? Why would you leave the three shelves in the back of the store? Why didn't you just keep selling books there?
JC: Because I got bored. Within the first, probably, three months, I went to the Wisconsin Electric Power Company, which had a librarian. She was this matronly, elderly woman. She was very kind to me, because I didn't know a thing about what I was doing. I asked her, "Where do you buy your books? Why don't you buy them from me?"
We talked all morning. She connected me with the Special Libraries Association. In those days, pre-Amazon.com, every major corporation had a library and a librarian who did the company research.
I talked to the Special Libraries people a couple times about new business books. And that connected me with some of the other major corporations in Milwaukee. I started going outside the city. We have this section in the center of the state which was big in paper products, Kimberly-Clark and folks like that. It's close to the Great Northwoods.
They're about 120 miles up the road. I would do a day trip. In the back of David Schwartz's pickup truck, I'd have four boxes of brand new business books. I would go meet these people with a handtruck, and I'd truck these books in. Then we'd sit down and we'd go over the books.
At that time, there was no place to get information on new books. And here I was bringing in actual books that these librarians could physically touch and feel and look at.
TS: In bookselling, we call that hand selling.
So you were sitting down with them and saying, "This is a cool book because ..."
JC: All I did was hand them the book. But then I would talk about it. I would talk about the editor, the publisher, the subject matter.
Okay, so you wrapped some information around it.
JC: Yes. I would not, however, say, "This is a good book." I would say that people are saying this is a good book. I did not have the confidence to say, "This is a good book." I would do maybe 8 hundred to 12 hundred dollars a day out of the back of the truck. And, you know, that was pretty good money in those days.
TS: And you were taking in business cards.
JC: This also timed perfectly with the quality movement. There would be these quality conferences, and I would be the bookstore at the quality conference. I got to meet Peter Senge. I got to meet some pretty heavyweight people in the quality movement.
It was just getting out and meeting with people. Then suddenly it got to be too much for me. We hired some people. I started to send information out to people instead of carrying books. I would send them a listing of what I called my new acquisitions, or listings of brand-new business books.
Which you were compiling on a typewriter.
JC: You got it. In the early '90s, Ingram created a catalogue and I finally liked it. I took it to the person who was doing the IT work at our place and I said, "I want to steal this." So we made our first catalogue out of that.
TS: And in five years, that went from 10,000 to—
JC: We did a quarter of a million, 36-page, four-color. That probably was about one-third of our business at the time. Then one dreary day in 1995 or '96 ... it evaporated. It just disappeared. I accused a mailing house of not mailing the catalogues. They showed me that they had. I called Jossey-Bass in San Francisco and said, "What the hell?" They said, "Yeah, our catalogue died, too. We think it's this new place in Seattle." It was Amazon.com. Amazon totally destroyed my catalogue business in three weeks. Because I was no longer the person supplying the information. And when I was supplying the information, I could set my own prices, because I was the supplier of the information. Amazon had the prices. Amazon had pictures. We had to change the business model.
So how quickly did you shift?
JC: Not as quickly as we should have. But we shifted fairly quickly. By the end of the '90s, we started to brand me as the authority. We started "Jack Covert Selects" in 2000. Just about the time Todd started, which was five years ago, we started getting digital with blogs and websites and things like that.
You've got a thriving site now.
TS: Yes, there's a lot of good stuff there.
JC: Wait until you see what we've got in the next six weeks. That's Jack the salesman right there.
Would you compile another list of the hundred best?
JC: We're going to do the hundred best albums from 1996. That's the next project. Only kidding.
So when are you going to get back to the music stuff?
JC: For twenty-five years, I've been trying to figure that out, Erik. And when I do figure that one out, I will die a happy man.
Well, I do love your bit of advice in there, which is to never buy the "best of" albums.
JC: Yes. Never, ever. Except for Peter Drucker's.
Thank you, Jack and Todd, for your time.
JC: Our pleasure.
Emails: jack (at) – 800ceoread (dot) com
todd (at) – 800ceoread (dot) com