There is No Such Thing as THE Book on China Business

In the Hutong

Reading myself to sleep

2217 hrs.


In early May, Forbes’ Beijing correspondent wrote a scathing review of Jack Perkowski’s book Managing the Dragon.

(Full disclosure: I have met Jack, and I have good friends who work closely with him now or have in the past. I think it would be presumptuous of me to call him a friend.)

Forbes uses Jack’s book as an example of a stream of tomes that have emerged from the laptops of businessmen in China over the past several years. The reviewer’s issue with this flood of ink and pulp is that the books offer little in the way of original insight. He also believes that the people who really know what they are doing are not writing books about it.

“When it come to the actual business of making money in China, the real problem with today’s legions of experts is that the best ones are likely not selling their snake oil on television, the lecture circuit, or the bookshelf. The Masters of the Universe who are making (or losing) enormous sums in China now aren’t talking much about how they’re doing it; they’re too protective of their turf, and they’re too busy making the next deal.

The article also suggests Juan Antonio Fernandez and Laurie Underwood’s book China CEO and James Kynge’s China Shakes the World as being better reads.

Why read?

I agree with Forbes’ broader points (and not just because they serve to justify my own failure to write a book.) At the same time, I think the reviewer is perhaps over-dismissive of the body of literature on doing business in China.

The book did suffer from some of the issue the reviewer notes. And as a longtime resident in China, I can sympathize with the reviewer’s exasperation: the longer you live here, the more difficult it becomes to find a book on business in China that adds much to your own store of observations and conclusions.

But that does not mean we stop reading those books. Most of us want to hone our understanding of this vastly complicated place, or if nothing else compare our own ideas with those of others. Trust me, even the most jaded of China hands needs the occasional sanity check, some of us more often than others.

Even so, for most of these books are not meant for us, or for people like Forbes’ reviewer. They are aimed at the massive majority of business people in the world who know little or less about doing business here, and yet find themselves having to (or wanting to) contend with China in their daily work.

And for that reason this review, like so many others, misses the point: what the reader is – or, should be – looking for in a book about China.

Talkin’ bout my edjamication

When it comes to learning about China and doing business here, there is no substitute for actually planting yourself on the ground, struggling through Chinese lessons, and running a local business. Sadly, not everyone either directly or indirectly responsible for their company’s China operations is willing or able to do that.

There is also a silent legion of hopeful young people living in the Americas, Europe, and indeed elsewhere in Asia who want to pursue a business career – or part of one – in China.

These two groups want and need every drop of wisdom and experience they can absorb from a distance. And with respect to greats like Orville Schell, Bob Scalapino, the late John King Faribank, and our much admired James Kynge, the “big picture” can only serve as the most basic foundation of such knowledge.

And we need a more robust corpus of literature than a single study like that of Fernandez and Underwood.

Because here is the problem: too many of us in the middle- to upper-ranks of the China operations of multinational companies, in agencies, or in consultancies spend a mind-bending amount of our time explaining the very basics of doing business in China to individuals who lack even a fundamental foundation in the subject (or worse, who don’t and think they do). Believe it or not, a book on doing business in China – even a bad book on doing business in China – is a step in the right direction – as long as it is just the first step.

My problem, then, is not with the books, but how they are marketed and reviewed.

First, book marketers have got to stop selling their tomes as the “the bible for business people in China.” There is no such thing. China is far too large and complex (and doing business in any large country is far too large and complex) to be distilled into something you can comfortably carry through an airport metal-detector.

If you are going to auto-educate on China and not come live here, you had better be working your way through a shelf of books, a stack of really good articles, and a handful of decent blogs.

Second, book reviewers need to help manage the expectations of their readers. Tell people that, jacket copy to the contrary notwithstanding, the best book on China should be the starting point for anyone serious about China, and that any business person who is not sufficiently serious about China to read a half-dozen or ten good books about the place probably shouldn’t even bother. Then take the time to dig into every book and come up with where and how that book might find value on an executive’s shelf.

Because I can’t speak for anyone else, but I often find remarkable pearls in books that smart, knowledgeable, and incisive reviewers have scorched so badly that they wind up relegated to the bargain table, all hope of the paperback destroyed. It makes me wonder if the craft of book reviewing has gone horribly wrong someplace.

The Masters of the Universe Fallacy

Let us turn to the other suggestion Forbes makes, that the real smart guys are keeping their mouths shut, because anybody who REALLY knew anything is going to keep it to themselves and make money off of it.

I’m sure there are a lot of smart people holding fire – especially in the dealmaking side of the business. But there are a lot of wise people in the advisory professions who find it both smart and lucrative to give away some of their wisdom for the price of a hardcover because it is a great way to build up the value of their companies and to gain prestige both inside and outside of their organizations that they can turn into cash.

This is what I call The Heroin Model of Consulting. Give away (or sell at a low price) the first bit of really smart advice, and they’ll pay through the nose to hook into a stream of it.

One good example of this is Tom Doctoroff, Greater China Chairman of ad agency JWT, and his book Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer. Tom packs – squeezes – a lot of thoughtful insight into a thought-provoking 217 pages. You can read this book and walk away better prepared to conduct marketing or product development in China, and at the same time feel like “man, if I wanted to build an advertising program to sell to Chinese, I’d sure as hell give Tom and JWT a shot at my business.”

Another example is Cyrill Eltschinger, founder of Beijing-based technology outsourcing firm IT United, and his book Source Code China: The New Global Hub of IT Outsourcing. Cyrill could have simply made the case that China was every bit as attractive a destination for IT outsourced work as India. But he didn’t stop there. He gives advice on everything from outsourcing strategy to the nuts-and-bolts of outsourcing in China.

These are just two that jump off my shelf, but they are examples of a growing genre of books by businesspeople who are successful in China and who are sharing a decent part of their hard-earned wisdom as a way to enhance their business.

Two real plagues

The business literature on China does face two other significant problems: subject matter and the publishing cycle.

As to subject matter, I think it is time that businessmen who would write books about China follow the lead of Doctoroff and Eltschinger and begin to write books that deal not with China or China business broadly, but take a narrower, more focused approach.

Part of the problem I suspect the reviewer has with the business books he is reading is that they are trying to be all things to all people. Arguably, when the China market was a backwater with more potential than real opportunity, this was probably the safe approach to ensure you would have an audience of sufficient size to justify printing 10,000 copies.

I would argue that the Chinese economy has grown to a size and diversity that will support books that deal with specific functions (human resources), sectors (retailing, fashion, technology, energy), and issues (environmental stewardship, ethics, etc.) in the context of China business. Given the environment on the ground today, this is where the need – and where the opportunities – lie.

The other huge issue is the publishing cycle. The speed at which China is changing and business is developing is simply not compatible with the amount of time it takes to move a book from a lightbulb in the brain of the author to the customers bookshelf. All too often, books that are timely when they are drafted are obsolete before they are available at Amazon.

A wise publisher ready to take a little gamble would do well to explore ways to slice the publishing cycle in half – or by 75% – and use books on China as a test bed for such an approach. Imaging having a book to market 20 days after the finished first draft. And if the book was, say, a Seth Godin-like 40,000 words instead of much longer, there might be a way to deliver something on China that is both insightful and timely.

Books in context

I deliver a training program on reading for young Chinese and foreign executives beginning their careers in China. Rather than teaching them how to read (I take that skill as a given), I try to help them find an answer a question that is incredibly common among the ranks of time-challenged businesspeople: what do I read, why, and how much?

A key takeaway in that course is that in the end, there is no such thing as bad reading – as long as you read critically and read for perspective as well as for content.

The key challenge for those of us in business in China is to stop looking for fast-food answers to perennial problems. Most of us who have read a few general business titles have learned that despite their own claims, at best a business book like Blue Ocean Strategy, Built to Last, In Search of Excellence or any similar “Guru Lit” is a new perspective on challenges that gets our brains thinking about a given subject in a new way.

Every book you read on China will add to your overall store of information, but in the end it is how you swish that soup of facts, insights, and perspectives into your own conclusions that give those books value. Selling or judging a book on its own is a worthy endeavor, and reviews of books by themselves must and should continue. But such reviews should recognize that even mediocre, biased, or bad books are valuable in the context of a long reading list and a wide shelf.

Otherwise, we run the risk of perpetuating this idea that somewhere out there is a bible on doing business in China.

And it just ain’t there.