Why Bloggers Shouldn’t Write Books

I recently read two non-fiction books that read like extended blogs and have somewhat crankily come to the conclusion that bloggers shouldn’t write books.

The problem isn’t with the authors themselves; it’s with using the writing style of a blog in a book-length piece.  Most blogs are written in a casual, informal style (with plenty of attempts at cute, parenthetical asides) that work well when consumed in small amounts but become cloying and tiresome in a longer work.  I suspect that the author can get away with it when the book is a collection of independent essays anchored on a common theme, but as part of a single narrative it makes me want to stop and scream “Enough already!”  I’m tempted to blame the editors for not being sufficiently ruthless in looking at each word and deciding if it adds to the book’s thesis.

The first book – Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt – is a well-researched and interesting book that is undermined by its turgid style.  The second book – Do you matter? by Robert Brunner and Stewart Emery – is simply dreadful, and in so many ways that I feel compelled to catalog them as you might repeatedly brush your teeth in an attempt to remove a bad taste from your mouth.

With “Do You Matter?”, some of the trouble is simply bad editing, the most glaring example being misspelling John Sculley’s name inside the book when his name is correctly spelled in the blurb he provides on the book’s back cover.  And this in the book’s second printing!  There are also numerous examples of the type of parenthetical excess I describe above, and a repeated lack of understanding of the proper use of “capitalization” and Quotation Marks.

But even if you can get past the poor editing, there is so much more that is wrong.

You would not be mistaken in viewing the book as an extended advertisement for Apple; the book refers to the company so much as its icon (no pun intended) that by the end of the book even the authors are apologizing for it.  And they undermine their case for making design an intrinsic part of the corporate culture at Apple by stressing how important Steve Jobs’ role is in the design process there, causing you to question whether Apple’s success in this area could (or can) be sustained without this one individual at the top of the organization.

When discussing design, the book focuses on high-end brands; not just Apple, but BMW and W Hotels, and criticizes Wal-Mart, but doesn’t acknowledge its choice of brands that rely on exclusivity as part of their appeal.  There are logical flaws as well:  In holding BMW up as a design leader because the company pays attention to the sound its cars’ doors make when they close, it neglects to mention the critical drubbing the company has received for the design of its iDrive controller.

The book takes the risk of presenting anecdotes in second person, e.g. in describing the ownership experience of a Lexus RX 400h.  Writing stories in the second person is risky because the writer needs to connect quickly with the readers so that the readers buy into the premise and allow the writer to plant thoughts in their heads.  When done well, it is devastatingly effective, but here it simply feels manipulative, that one of the authors has had a bad experience and wants to force the readers to see it through his own eyes.  Had the anecdotes been presented in the first person, as in “here’s something that happened to me/us that illustrates this point,” or in the third person, as in “let me tell you about John Smith’s experience”, the readers could have accepted the premise gradually instead of being told how to think.

The only quantifiable data the book presents to support its case is the companies’ market capitalization, which seems like a dubious way to measure a company’s success in design.  It does mention various awards that products and companies have won, but doesn’t provide any way to determine if those awards are recognized as meaningful within their respective industries.

Ultimately the biggest failure of the book is that its central premise – emblazoned on the cover as “How great design will make people love your company” – is undermined by the contents of the book.  Because the book’s real (and excellent) point is that the way to make people love your company and succeed as a result is to create a customer-focused corporate culture.  Great design is an important part of doing this but is far from the only part.

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