Book sections in need of a thorough spring clean

As newspaper book sections reveal this spring’s must-reads, the book publishing industry’s propaganda machine is becoming sickeningly cosy, says George Pitcher

The “Spring Books” sections of the weekend newspapers make me laugh. For a start, the only people with the time to read these kinds of lists are the people in the books sections of other newspapers, so they’re writing for each other. It’s its own little micro-economy.

Then there are the celebrity recommendations, from which it is obvious that some lifestyle guru has asked a compliant Waterstone’s or Borders sales assistant (for free) for the sort of thing her client would read, and has then passed the information on for an enormous fee.

Jerry Hall reads Proust on the beach? Oh please. And the six books you should buy this month? I, and legions of readers like me, have a dozen half-read books from the past 12 months in our studies, not half a dozen new releases.

The whole exercise gives a completely bogus picture of the state of the book-publishing industry. It makes it look prosperous because the literary sections of the newspapers have a vested and conspiratorial interest in the publishers’ advertising, plus a wholly transparent desire on the part of their editors to appear well-read.

Most of the time, the book industry is flat on its back. Like authors and literary reviewers as it happens. That’s why business books are generally so bad. They aspire to discuss prosperity and the paths to it in an environment that is anti-prosperity.

Nevertheless, I fell to reading a new business book over Easter (plus Proust and a good deal of topical theology, of course, and some Philip Pullman, to show that I’m young at heart). So here it is – my “Spring Book” recommendation.

It’s The Seven-Day Weekend, by Ricardo Semler (Century, £16.99) and I recommend it not because I think it is very good – on the contrary, more of which in a moment – but because it raises the question of the future of the capitalist corporation in the 21st century.

Semler wrote a book a decade ago called Maverick! (Note: people who describe themselves as a maverick, aren’t – “I’m a bit crazy, I am!”). His Brazil-based company, Semco (it doesn’t matter what it does, but it’s a holding group in a bit of everything), has grown to a $160m (£101m) combine off the back of no formal structure and no rules for staff, who recruit their own bosses and decide their own pay.

It’s not so much a democracy as a co-operative. And it’s supposedly the way forward – the kind of company to replace the old command-and-control structures of the militaristic past that we Europeans are so accustomed to.

There are any number of points that could be made here, principal among which is that Semler inherited his business – albeit a much smaller one then – from his father. This always needs to be taken into account when judging entrepreneurs. One wonders, for instance, whether Lord Hanson would have been the corporate raider of the Eighties of the stature that he was had his father left not him a more than going concern.

Try starting a company with no structure, no rules and the first staff making the appointments of their bosses. Secondly, there is a lot of unreconstructed old-hippy tosh in this book: “We don’t want a crowd of brainwashed workers. We don’t want them to⦠memorise company mission statements and learn to speak only when spoken to.” To which one could add “man”.

Thirdly, this is a very Latin way to do business. Indeed, it’s the way a lot of Latin businesses have developed informally, without turning it all into a management philosophy. It’s what the Spanish call “mañana management.” It’s unlikely to migrate well culturally.

Fourthly – and most importantly – Semler’s thesis is based on a fundamental flaw. Behind most of what he has to say is the assumption that democracy works best in most other areas of our lives, such as politics, so it should be applied vigorously to the business model.

I wouldn’t argue with that. But democracy is already applied to business. Semler makes the mistake of assuming that the electorate of a business is its staff. It is not. It is its shareholders, who can vote in and vote out its management.

The proper equivalent of staff in a company is not voters in a democracy, but civil servants in government. And I, for one, don’t think civil servants should ever be in charge of anything commercial.

Furthermore, it is as much an abrogation of democratic responsibility for a manager to pass management responsibility to his or her staff as it is for a government to pass responsibility for governing to its civil servants. Voters don’t like the latter any more than shareholders should approve of the former.

Otherwise, Semler is regurgitating many of the management methodologies that are familiar to the post-modern manager. If you answer e-mails on a Sunday, why shouldn’t you go to the cinema on Monday? Why not, indeed – it’s called flexi-time.

Where Semler’s book is important is that it concentrates the mind on what we want our businesses to look like in a world in which we don’t need to go to offices to work, in which we can discuss and manage business with colleagues irrespective of geography and in an environment in which the old class hierarchies have been abolished.

These issues are raised by this book. But I wouldn’t start from here.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon


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