Alan Axelrod, Business Book Juggernaut
Alan Axelrod has not one but two books coming out this month. That's actually not as impressive as it sounds. Both of these books are fewer than 30 pages long. And the hyperprolific Axelrod has authored dozens of books in the past 15 years, including two top sellers, Patton on Leadership and Elizabeth I, CEO. What does a former English professor with only a decade's experience in middle management have to say to the mainstream business-book audience? We decided to ask him.
Tell me about your two latest books, My First Book of Business Etiquette and My First Book of Business Ethics.
Quirk Books, the people who do the Worst Case Scenario books, called me. They're a very innovative publisher, and their latest idea was to produce a series of primers concerning the major topics in business that would be elementary in content and elementary in form, as well. They would look and feel like those little books that parents buy for preschoolers: thick, glossy cardboard pages. And very simple illustrations. But although the format is childlike, the content is rather serious and very concise, with concrete lessons. I'm very curious to see if they will catch on and become a kind of franchise.
Did you ever consider that, as a serious author, you might not want to do board books for grownups?
It's a risk I'm willing to take. People might say these books are frivolous, but I don't see them that way. I think they're very impressively designed -- just in an unconventional format.
How did you pick ethics and etiquette over other topics?
This was done in consultation with the publisher. We agreed that there were no good, concise treatments of those subjects out there.
What themes might come next?
I would do a first book of getting a job. I would do a first book of investment. I would do a first book of innovation. I'll keep doing them until they cease to be fun or useful.
It sounds like you think about the marketing of a book as much as the content.
Oh, absolutely. I wouldn't want to limit myself to producing something just because it sold well. But if it sells well, I ain't about not to do it.
You've been on a writing tear these past few years, with books on the management tips of Patton, Queen Elizabeth, FDR, and Truman. Why do you think role models from history appeal to business leaders?
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was very common for boys and young men to read about the lives of the so-called great men for the purpose of extracting lessons in how to be great themselves in whatever field they chose. I see these books as reviving that tradition by distilling ideas to their essence and putting them in a readily digestible form.
Any plans for your next biography?
I don't have a publisher yet, but I'm in the early planning stages of doing a book on Eisenhower. Not Ike as President, but as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II. The book will explore how he dealt with diverse and difficult people in a common, desperate high-stakes enterprise. This will be a more serious narrative study than some of the earlier books I've done, aimed at drawing very practical lessons for managers. I've also just completed a book called The Office Superman -- a quasileadership book that uses Superman as a role model. It has been written in conjunction with DC Comics and Running Press.
Is there a contemporary figure that could merit the same treatment as Truman or Patton?
I have to say with great regret and disappointment, no. I cannot think of any current head of state who has been highly successful. There are certainly a few that are grappling with almost impossible tasks. Paul Bremer in Iraq comes to mind. But I don't know how one would even begin to judge his success in that role.
What are the criteria you use in selecting a leader to study?
I think in the case of all of the leaders that I have discussed, they are figures who took on challenges that were of such an overwhelming nature that they quite literally threatened to destroy the very enterprise they were assigned to lead. But whatever they were faced with, they didn't evade it. They didn't soft-pedal it. They mined crisis for motivation and really built their careers on that. That's what they all have in common.
A Churchill book came out recently. Were you bummed that somebody else was copying your formula?
Churchill is another leader that can be studied very profitably. And that book was written by his granddaughter, so that's kind of hard to beat.
How many books have you written thus far?
I think it's about 63 or 64... I've been doing this pretty much full-time for about seven years.
What was your most prolific year?
In 1999, I published 14 books. I didn't write them all in that year, but they all came out then. And it was frightening because, you know, I wasn't sure that I read 14 books that year.
So why do you keep up the heavy publishing load?
Well, I've always comforted myself with what the novelist Honore de Balzac supposedly said: "Whenever I want to read a good novel, I write one."