Between the Covers: “Syrup” is Your Antidote to Boring Business Books. And Klingons.

"I write business books for a living. What do you do?"

by Freddy J. Nager

I’ve read too many awful business books, including some I believe are actually alien invasion plans written in code.

Take the textbooks of N. Gregory Mankiw, the Harvard professor who advised George W. Bush on the economy (there’s a claim to fame). Mankiw’s baffling prose and Earth-inappropriate ideas lead me to suspect that he’s really a Klingon. Though in case his lawyers are reading this, I’m just speculating.

Then there’s the book I recently read that makes Mankiw sound like Marcel Proust: “Strategic Business Forecasting” by Ronald Sugar and Simon Ramo. In an L.A. Times book review entitled ‘Strategic Business Forecasting’ is Wittier than Its Title, so-called reviewer Peter Pae claims:

“Much of Ramo’s witty writing style is intact, with Sugar providing detailed analysis. Ramo became legendary for capsulizing complex ideas into wry witticism.”

Now I love humor in business, because sometimes humor is the only way to cope with it. (I consider “The Dilbert Principle” mandatory reading for office dwellers.) But to my galaxy-sized disappointment, I didn’t find a trace of wry wit in “Strategic Business Forecasting.” Indeed, “SBF” is so dry, I’m using it as a dehumidifier.

The book’s first half describes how to predict the future with an approach that’s essentially educated guessing. The second half consists of the authors’ predictions and reads like a collection of Wikipedia articles. Excuse me, Mr. Pae, but did you actually read this book? No, really, did you?

Now, I might not have minded “SBF” so much if:

  1. I had not expected business insights with a heady dose of levity, like the choice treats cooked up by my business-writing role model Dan Neil; and
  2. It had not cost me $23 and two hours of my time. For that much time and money, I could have bought the “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” DVD and learned how to make hundreds of millions of dollars from a story based on toys fighting.

After swallowing “SBF,” I needed an antidote.

So I reached to my bookshelf and pulled down my prized hardcover copy of “Syrup” by Max Barry, which was written over a decade ago and remains the best novel about marketing ever. Yes, a romantic comedy about marketing. It could only appeal to a geek like me, right?

Well, “Syrup” has also attracted an international readership and even Hollywood. And that’s because it’s actually witty (Peter Pae should read it to learn what actual “wit” looks like). “Syrup” centers on a young marketer in L.A. and contains the world’s most vivid definition of marketing:

“Marketing is the biggest industry in the world, and it’s invisible. It’s the planet’s largest religion, but the billions who worship it don’t know it. It’s vast, insidious and completely corrupt. Marketing is like L.A. It’s like a gorgeous, brainless model in L.A. A gorgeous, brainless model on cocaine having sex drinking Perrier in L.A.”

Now compare that to this witticism from page 108 of “Strategic Business Forecasting”:

“Having predicted the range, we then can examine the possible consequences to the future of our own particular activity at each limit with confidence that we probably have covered the situation, certainly not completely, or maybe not even adequately, but at least somewhat usefully. If either of the two limits were to occur and if we had earlier concluded that we could not survive with one, or worse, with either, then the forecasting process already will have been of some help to us in our management duties because we might have acted earlier to better the future as a result of our prediction attempts.”

Damn Klingons.

Freddy J. Nager teaches courses in social media, entrepreneurship and marketing at AULA. The founder of agency Atomic Tango LLC, Freddy has over two decades of professional experience in marketing and media, including 17 online. He previously worked for music label MCA Records and major ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, and served such clients as Nissan & Infiniti, the NFL on Fox, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, National Lampoon and numerous startups. He holds a BA from Harvard University and an MBA from the University of Southern California.