A SCANT FIVE YEARS AGO, BUSINESS books were a musty group of volumes relegated to the back of the bookstore. It wasn't a conspiracy on the part of store owners, sticking them there between Cookbooks and Fitness. That's just where they seemed to belong. The hot business books back then told you how to invest in real estate or start a mail-order company. Heavy on practical advice, and no threat to James Michener.

Now, this was the early 1980s, and business itself was fast recapturing the hearts and minds of Americans. That shouldn't have been surprising: the Japanese were walloping us on the factory floor, old smokestacks were crumbling, a hot new microelectronics industry was on the rise. And people wanted to know about it all. But publishers, who typically take two to three years to shepherd a book from conception to marketplace, were slow to catch up -- or to catch on. Not until September 1982 did William Morrow & Co. publish a slim volume called The One Minute Manager. And two months later, when Harper & Row brought out the pretentiously titled In Search of Excellence, the publisher anticipated a customarily modest sale. The initial press run was less than 10,000.

The rest, as they say, is history. Boosted by a series of effusive reviews, Excellence began to climb the charts almost as soon as it was published; by now it has sold in the neighborhood of 3.5 million copies. One Minute's sales are also "in the millions," according to the publisher, and the book has spawned a whole host of soundalike titles, right down to -- no kidding -- The One Minute Manager Gets Fit. By the time Iacocca: An Autobiography came out, in 1984, bookstores had rearranged their shelves and their marketing strategies. Featured in the window, stacked high on tables right up front, Iacocca became the top-ranking nonfiction best-seller for 1984 and 1985.

From the book industry's perspective, all this was like alchemy -- from lead into gold in a mere five years. "Everyone was saying, 'We've got the next In Search of Excellence," remembers Jim Frost, an executive editor at Warner Books Inc. And if it wasn't Excellence, it was something else. "Next we'll be seeing In Search of the One Minute Megatrend," another editor told Publishers Weekly.

But not all these books were knockoffs of their predecessors. With the boundaries of the category opening up, publishers began discovering the people and the stories of business as well as its practicalities. Soon there were books about (as one title had it) life and death on the corporate battlefield -- megabuck deals, heroic start-ups, catastrophic collapses. Such well-respected authors as Ken Auletta and David Halberstam turned their attention from the old glamour of politics to the new glamour of business: Auletta's Greed and Glory on Wall Street chronicled the sordid fall of Lehman Brothers, while Halberstam's The Reckoning told the definitive tale of Detroit's drubbing by Nissan and friends.

All these developments have been good news for readers. Books on business are suddenly plentiful, and among them are some first-rate works. Winnowing the good from the bad and the ugly, however, is a chore no reader should take on alone -- like watching 200 consecutive sitcoms in hopes of finding a "Cheers" or a "Cosby Show." Then too, there are some classics that shouldn't get lost in the avalanche of new titles. Add them into the mix, and you can find yourself browsing through a small library just to find a weekend's reading.

With that in mind, INC. will begin a regular column next month on management resources -- books, tapes, newsletters, and so on. This month, we have made some not-entirely-random selections from the business bookshelf. They include some books that we (and a sampling of our readers) deem very much worth reading, along with some duds you'll do well to avoid. You will also find a few tidbits about the industry that produces and markets all these titles -- an industry that, besides being slow on the uptake, may now and then underestimate the intelligence of the American business reader.

We'll try not to make either mistake.