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.