The business of books

If I were to guess when the National Business Book Award went off the rails, I would pick 1999 when Ingeborg Boyens won for “Unnatural Harvest.” The topic was genetic engineering and the book was about science, not business. Since then, there have been many books nominated that should have won but have not. And there have been many other books that shouldn’t have been nominated but went on to win. Gord Pitts is a good example of an excellent author who has been nominated a record four times and should have won at least once but hasn’t.

(Conflict of interest declaration: I won in 1996 for “Who Killed Confederation Life?” and I’ve been shortlisted three times since. I don’t expect ever to win again, I don’t even want to. Others should collect the money and enjoy whatever publicity is generated.)

Last week, Andrea Mandel Campbell wrote an op-ed piece on this topic in the National Post. Beyond her whining because she wasn’t nominated for “Why Mexicans Don’t Drink Molson,” she made a valid point by asking why Don Tapscott’s “Wikinomics” wasn’t shortlisted (strangely, none of Don’s dozen best-selling business books has ever been shortlisted), where was Seymour Schulich’s “Get Smarter” and what about “The Opposable Mind” by Roger Martin. This year was Martin’s last chance now that he has replaced former Ontario Premier Bill Davis as chair of the award jury.

Sponsors PricewaterhouseCoopers and BMO Financial Group have certainly done their part by doubling the prize to $20,000 and putting on a pleasant lunch for several hundred in the book business every year.

But aside from who wins (always a contentious point no matter what the award), I think the real question is this: does the National Business Book Award sell books? I’d be happy to be proven wrong but I think the answer is no. As this year’s winner, William Marsden, author of “Stupid to the Last Drop” put it at the ceremony today, “My hope is that this award encourages business people to read.”

So far, there is no proof that such an epiphany has occurred. The third leg of the stool to go along with authors and prizes is marketing. The National Business Book Award badly needs a national retailer to thump the drums about the winner and finalists in the months following the lunch. It’s only good business.

2 Responses

  1. Peter Rehak says:

    I wondered about the National Business Book Award after reading that Bill Marsden won it this year. He is a good author but a book knocking the oil sands seemed a strange choice.

    Where were all the ones that you listed?

    The sponsors should re-examine what they are doing. They would do well to examine what and how the Giller Prize does it. It has been on the map and a great promotional vehicle since the day that Jack Rabinovitch set it up in memory of his wife Doris Giller. True, he blew a big wad on the by-invitation-only parties but he hired top people to handle the promotion. In recent years Scotia Bank has kicked in and the event has become even bigger.

    The biz book aeward is twnety grand. Nothing to sneeze at and could and should be doing a lot better!

    UPDATE: I have now given away two copies of Fantasy in Florence — one to my chiropractor who is moving to Italy at the end of the month to take up practice there. I suggested that he start a blog like this one. The other went to a lady in my coffee circle at the Caffe Doria (Yonge and Roxborough — they spell cafe with two ffs) who spends several weeks in Italy each year. She immediately commented that it was a handy size for travel. I will post any comments these two new readers make.


    Peter Rehak

  2. Rod McQueen says:

    I’m halfway through William Marsden’s “Stupid to the Last Drop” and can report that it is an excellent read, filled with new information (to me, at least) about how Canada is selling off our resources on the cheap. This polemic is a worthy winner of the National Business Book Award. Some of the other finalists this year seemed unlikely. I agree, the profile achieved by the Giller is a worthy goal. Jack Rabinovitch has provided true leadership. Thanks for your support on Fantasy in Florence!
    Rod McQueen

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