Peer-Obssesed Academics

Today I attended a presentation by an important London-based business book publisher (ok I´ll give you a clue: one of my fellow bloggers has published recently with her).

She was quite informative and pleasant. Apparently, the average sales number for a business book is a meagre 400 copies. Clearly, the median must be much less than that (half?). So it turns out that the vast majority of published business authors only manage to sell a few hundred units of their tomes. Depressingly amazing.

But by far the most impacting comments came not from the publisher but from a would-be-published-author present in the audience. This individual, a quite senior academic at a top b-school, argued that business professors are discouraged from penning real-life-focused, practitioner-oriented books out of fear that their peers may stop "taking them seriously". We don´t write "soft books", the academic honcho said, because we don´t want to be seen as "unrigorous" and "unacademic". That is why, he went on, it is much safer for us to devote all our time to producing obscure, technical, theoretical, obstruse, only-our-peers-care-about-them papers.

I replied that people like Paul Krugman or Michael Porter probably don´t give a rat´s ass about whether other academics consider them true members of the sect or not. They are simply too busy writing yet another bestselling tome (that will, evil of evils, be glowingly present at every airport bookstore in the world) and influencing every top executive in the globe. Conversely, I suspect that many invory tower purists would give an arm and a leg to have their own regular column in the New York Times and to be seen as influential by real businesspeople.

After attending this event, I think that I understand much better why so few business academics produce truly innovative, impacting, and insightful books that help practitioners. It is not necessarily that there are few profs with the talent and vision to do the right work. Rather, I now believe, it is that extremely few have the guts to break free from the peer-imposed straightjacket that severely limits their potential creativity.

So, next time you encounter a business bestseller, by all means glorify the author. But not so much for his talent, as for his courage.

ptriana@profesor.ie.edu