A boom in the books of the profits

PAMELA YOUNG August 18 1986

A boom in the books of the profits

PAMELA YOUNG August 18 1986

A boom in the books of the profits


When a book attracts enthusiastic attention even before its publication date, it is one sign that its publishers may be on to a trend. After The Financial Post weekly began publicizing its upcoming book, The Financial Post Selects the 100 Best Companies to Work For in Canada,

Post reporter Eva Innes, one of the three authors, started receiving phone calls at home. Indeed, one MBA student who had read about the book’s March, 1986, release called Innes at 8:15 a.m. one day to ask her advice on choosing between job offers from two banks. The demand for help through the corporate jungle has turned 100 Best Companies, now in its fourth printing, into the best-selling Canadian business release of the 1986 spring season, with 27,500 hard-cover copies sold. Following closely are other books that explore the corporate landscape and describe its overlords. Said Nick Harris, president of William Collins Sons and Co. Canada Ltd., which published 100 Best Companies: “The market for good business books has grown signficantly. If a book is good, word travels very quickly.”

There are many reasons for the bullish market for insights into the world of moneymaking. Competition for

places in commerce and MBA programs is fierce: the School of Business Administration at Queens University in Kingston, Ont., receives roughly 700 applications per year for 100 places. And the graduates of the programs are hungry for information about their chosen field. Meanwhile, the media are

making the once-dry subject of business more accessible and colorful than before, stimulating the market further. As a result, more authors are attracted to the field. When the accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand and the Torontobased business weekly the Financial Times of Canada organized the first National Business Book Award competition, held in June, jurors privately said that they expected about 25 entries. In fact, they received 63 books on business-related subjects—all published in 1985. Colbert Agency founder Nancy Colbert, the literary agent who negotiated the sale of the National Business Book Award’s book of the year—A Matter of Trust by Maclean's business editor Patricia Best and Ann Shortell—says the appeal of business books is easily explained: “To some of us, there’s nothing sexier than business. It’s all about money and power, and the stakes are so big.”

For years inexpensive books that

deal with such subjects as income tax writeoffs and stock market strategies have been popular. What is expanding is the market for ambitious, dramatic studies of executives, corporations and issues that affect the world of capitalism. Anna Porter, president of Toronto-based Key Porter Books, credits the

increasing popularity of business writing to a shift in attitude. She said: “It used to be that people would never think of telling you how much money they made. Now it happens all the time. Money-grubbing has become respectable.”

Business books are such hot properties that new partnerships have formed in the publishing world to produce them—and to split the costs. In 1984 the publishing house Collins and the Financial Times weekly joined forces to publish Public Money, Private Greed, by Times editor Terence Corcoran and staff writer Laura Reid, which was an account of the Crown, Seaway and Greymac trust company collapses. The Times invested money in the project and paid the writers’ salaries while they worked on the book. In return, all the royalties went to the newspaper rather than to the authors.

This year Collins published The 100 Best Companies in a similar collabora-

tion with the Times's chief competitor, The Financial Post, owned by Maclean Hunter Ltd., which also publishes Maclean's. Until the 1970s few Canadian business books achieved best-seller status: sales of more than 5,000 copies in hard-cover. Then, in 1975 Peter C. Newman transformed business writing into big business by profiling the country’s corporate elite in The Canadian Establishment—a book that transcended best-seller status to become part of the national vocabulary. It has sold more than 250,000 copies in hard-cover and paperback. Newman, Maclean’s senior contributing editor, continued to chronicle the lives of the rich and powerful in popular books on the Bronfman family of Montreal, Toronto financier Conrad Black and, in 1981, in The Acquisitors, the second volume of The Canadian Establishment.

By the early 1980s the stock of other business writers also began to soar. Among them were Peter Foster, who wrote an oil industry exposé, The Blue-Eyed Sheiks, and Walter Stewart, author of Towers of Gold, Feet of Clay, a book about Canada’s five most powerful banks. Meanwhile,

American imports also traded briskly.

Iacocca, the autobiography of the chairman of the Chrysler Corp., has sold more than 2.6 million hard-cover copies worldwide, including 135,000 in Canada. And the managerial guide In Search of Excellence by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. has sold 1.2 million hard-cover copies worldwide and 77,000 in Canada.

Such figures have convinced Canadian publishers to risk ever-larger stakes. In June Toronto Globe and Mail reporter Linda McQuaig received the largest advance yet paid in Canada for a nonfiction work by a first-time author: $88,000 from Penguin Books Canada Ltd. to write about the fairness and efficiency of the nation’s tax system. The author herself said that she had “no idea” her in-progress work would sell for such a high figure. She added, “When I realized how much interest there was in the book proposal, I was really thrilled.”

Penguin also gave Newman $500,000, the largest-known advance ever of-

fered to a Canadian author of nonfiction, to write a two-volume history of the Hudson’s Bay Co. The first volume, Company of Adventurers, appeared last fall and has already sold 135,000 copies worldwide. But it has also generated a critical storm. Historians who specialize in fur trade studies have charged that Newman’s book is inaccurate, and that it sensationalizes its subject with gratuitous accounts of cannibalism and of traders’ sexual relations with native women. For his part, Newman dismissed the criticisms, saying that academics are quick

to attack any popular historian who ventures into their realm.

Still, the academics’ charges against Newman highlight one of the problems facing business writers: the urge to popularize sometimes produces superficial treatments of complex subjects. Some critics charge that many authors do too much lionizing and neglect analysis. Michael Bliss, a Canadian history professor at the University of Toronto and a former book reviewer for the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business magazine, said: “We don’t need to know what Brascan chief executive Trevor Eyton’s desk looks like. But we do need to know about the really tough issues swirling around Brascan.”

But rigorous investigations tend to fare better with the critics than with the book-buying public. Best and Shortell’s A Matter of Trust, a critical examination of Canada’s trust and loan companies and the government’s failure to regulate them, won the 1985

$10,000 Business Book of the Year award. But its sales of 5,000 copies are relatively modest for a major business publication.

Many of the likely competitors for next year’s award will be appearing in bookstore windows within the next two months. This fall’s titles include The Master Builders, a study of Toronto’s Reichmann family, owners of the massive Olympia and York Developments Ltd., by Blue-Eyed Sheiks author Foster. Key Porter, the book’s publisher, promises that The Master Builders will offer “an interesting analysis of the brothers’ true financial status.” Penguin will release James Fleming’s Merchants of Fear, an investigation of Canada’s insurance industry. Arthur Johnson’s Breaking the Banks, a Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd. release, is described by the publishers as a disclosure of “manipulation and incompetence at the highest levels of Canadian finance.” For its part, Macmillan of Canada will publish Diane Francis’s Controlling Interest: Who Owns Canada? which profiles the 32 families and five conglomerates that control onethird of the nation’s industries, resources and real estate.

Those titles represent major investments, and publishers will be nervously watching fall sales to determine if the business market has already peaked. Morton Mint of Penguin Books Canada says that his firm is committed to publishing a minimum of two business books a year, but he acknowledges that “the basic books on business have been published.” Author Foster still smarts from the fact that Other People's Money, his 1983 book on Dome Petroleum, shared the limelight, and the market, with Jim Lyon’s Dome: The Rise and Fall of the House that Jack Built, a book on the same topic. Because Canada has a limited pool of business subjects, Foster warns, the book publishers “might be overexpanding.”

But others maintain that public demand for business books is strong enough to support the industry’s expansion: indeed, some say an interest in enterprise is part of the national character. Bliss, who is now writing a book that he describes as a history of Canadian business “from the fur trade to free trade” declared: “In Canada, we have been plagued by an excess of entrepreneurial zeal on the part of people who have persuaded us to build more railways than we could use, or convinced the government to pour money into Bricklin or Dome Petroleum. We Canadians have a promotional mentality.” And this season the business book publishers are poised to capitalize on the public interest in capitalism.