Mouseketeers at the gate.

Commentary about business and finance.
Feb. 10 2005 5:41 PM

Mouseketeers at the Gate

Why this business scandal book will sell, and the others don't.

James Stewart's DisneyWar promises to be the buzziest business book of the year. Simon & Schuster is printing 200,000 copies. The book, which comes out next week, has been excerpted in TheNew Yorker,plugged in the Los Angeles Times,and reviewed in the New York Times. James Cramer has suggested that its publication would so tarnish Disney's dysfunctional leadership that it might revive Comcast's foiled takeover effort.

It's likely DisneyWar will prove one of the definitive accounts of recent executive hubris. But a bigger question surrounds its publication: Can DisneyWar rescue the boardroom drama as a genre?

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These past few years should have been a golden era for boardroom dramas. After all, the go-go '80s produced a series of best-selling scandal and he-said/he-said books: Barbarians at the Gate, on the RJR-Nabisco takeover, by Wall Street Journal reporters Bryan Burrough and John Helyar; and Stewart's own Den of Thieves,about Michael Milken and his circle—each book sold more than 300,000 copies.But despite the business thrills and chills of the past decade, the genre has gone fallow.

The 1990s and its unhappy aftermath certainly provided plenty of fodder: Tyco and Enron, Worldcom and Global Crossing, Vivendi, AOL-Time Warner, and the Wall Street scandals. The raw material was unbeatable. When things started to go sour in 2000, business book editors—who probably longed for relief from the bromide-laden management volumes and smug rich-guy memoirs that populate the New York Times business best-sellerlist—invested in scandal books. Millions were spent on advances for books that would lay bare the devastating back-stories behind the headline-grabbing scandals. The books came out. Some were quite good. But almost all failed in the marketplace.

Consider the Enron books first. As Matthew Flamm reported in Crain's New York Business recently, the excellent Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, written by three Fortune writers who collectively received $1.4 million for their troubles, has probably sold around 70,000 copies. Power Failure, penned by Mimi Swartz and whistleblower Sherron Watkins, sold fewer than 30,000 copies. According to Nielsen BookScan, which counts about 70 percent of U.S. sales, 24 Days: How Two Wall Street Journal Reporters Uncovered the Lies that Destroyed Faith in Corporate America has sold 16,765 copies.

But the Enron books were blockbusters compared with those about the botched AOL-Time Warner deal. According to Bookscan, Fools Rush In: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Unmaking of AOL Time Warner by Nina Munk, sold 5,000; There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle and the Quest for a Digital Future by all-star Wall Street Journal reporter Kara Swisher, sold 3,744; and Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner by Alec Klein of the Washington Post, sold 9,176.

Why didn't these books sell well? One reason is that there were too many scandals, many of which seemed to morph together. Readers generally like success stories better than they like failure stories. More significantly, the culture today processes and spits out events faster than books can be written and published about them. Agonizing months can pass between the time a book is completed and the time it hits bookstores. (One of the better volumes on the 1990s, Andy Kessler's Wall Street Meat, was self-published because the author was impatient with the timetable of New York publishers.)

Writers thus face a dilemma. Try to get ahead of a business story and you might arrive too early. George Anders' book about Carly Fiorina, Perfect Enough, which came out in 2003, sold 8,081 copies, according to Bookscan. But wait too long and you're writing history. The Man Who Tried To Buy the World, a post-mortem on Jean-Marie Messier's reign of error at Vivendi, sold 654 copies, according to Bookscan.

Book authors today also suffer from greater transparency. Most of the recent books cover events at publicly held companies. Thanks to SEC filings—and our ability to access those filings instantaneously via the Internet—we don't need book authors to tell us how much Bernie Ebbers was paid and what kind of planes companies leased. And the business press is bigger and better than it was a decade ago. Many events are publicized by company investigations and legal proceedings long before an author can write about them. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer released incriminating Wall Street e-mails. The video of the Dennis Kozlowski Sardinia party was played at his trial. Last summer's report on Conrad Black's shenanigans at Hollinger has made a book on the subject superfluous. Ultimately, the success of business narratives rests in part on the ability of the author to take readers where they haven't been, but readers have been everywhere from Tyco to Enron.

So, any boardroom narrative today faces a host of obstacles. But if anyone can bust on to the bestseller lists despite them, it's Stewart—an elegant writer, able to tell human stories with nuance and sympathy. And in Michael Eisner and his crew he's got a subject that never ceases to delight, horrify, and surprise.

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