Is Reading a Book Market Research?

Yes. Wait no. Well, you decide.

How do you figure out how to design your product, market it, sell it, and constantly improve on it. In other words, how do you ideate?

Research. The bedrock of ideation.

So two days ago, I wrote about conducting research and the magical number 30 as a sample size. Then yesterday I wrote about “think different” by hacking software, citing InboxCollective’s usage of Google Slides as a CMS. (Sidenote: with the departure of Jono Ivy, has Apple moved from innovator to status quo-holder?).

Writing about research was enlightening just because I realized how little I knew about how to do it according to a structured framework.

Reading Books as Research

Historically, my typical approach with regards to research for client work is to read, scoping the volume of reading to the length and duration of the engagement. Ideally, I read a “starting point book” and hopefully use that book’s bibliography to conduct further reading.

When building a marketing and recruiting platform for a Big Pharma client for example, I read a book about the history of the clinical trial industry (as depicted in the racy HBO series) and another about Alzheimer’s and genetics. Along with a great deal of “further reading”. But that was an enormous project.

For a small engagement, my reading may be limited to a handful of articles, summaries from peer-reviewed research projects, or excerpts from books. The last of the three is ideal, I think, because who puts more effort into what they say than a book author?

Books as Evidence of Research

In some books (anything by Richard Francis Burton, for example), the footnotes comprise further reading in and of themselves, almost like Talmudic commentary, though this is a sadly infrequent occurence. In Burton’s A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, for example, we hear not just a travel tale, but an entire lifetime of study and research into “the Orient”, as the Middle East was known -its food, economy, government, customs, and more, along with study of Islam, the Haj, etcetera.

Consider what another writer, W. H. de Winton, once said of another of Burton’s books, a translation The Scented Garden (sort of a Middle Eastern variant of the Kama Sutra):

So far as I can gather from all I have learned, the chief value of Burton’s version of The Scented Garden lay not so much in his translation of the text, though that of course was admirably done, as in the copious notes and explanations which he had gathered together for the purpose of annotating the book. He had made this subject a study of years. For the notes of the book alone he had been collecting material for thirty years, though his actual translation of it only took him eighteen months.

And if you ever read one of his books, you will think the same – the enormity of Burton’s research becomes obvious, and the annotations start to form a parallel novel within the novel. The sheer enormity is erudition is so overwhelming as to be disorienting, as is the case with Jacque Barzun’s Dawn to Decadence.

These two unusual authors did much broader research than any Nobel Prize-winning scientist ever has. And maybe more research period, in the case of Barzun, who seems to have never to have been without a book until he died at the age of 102 (he wrote his best and largest book, Dawn to Decadence, at 95).

Two problems though – these writers, for all the research they did, is it the kind of research we need to do to get business insight?

Because business insight – into (A) how to reduce risk ( hat tip to Philip Morgan) and (B) how to ideate solutions – is the goal here.

And with that goal in mind, Richard Francis Burton levels of research seems impossible. We don’t have time. Also…

Does Reading a Book Actually Comprise Research?

Like me, you probably don’t have 30 years to research your market. Or even time to read a book.

But is reading a book really the best way to “research” with the goal of gaining business insight?

Is “reading” even research per se?

Technically, no it is not research. It’s the interpretation of someone else’s research, usually. And some business books are a fantastic example of the value of conducting one’s own research.

Think of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson. What makes the book so compelling, whether you agree with its conclusions or not, is that it’s based on original research conducted by the author himself.

Ericsson cites, for example, the research he did with Berlin musicians, from music school students to virtuoso soloists in one of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He finds a strong correlation between ability (expertise) and time spent practicing in solitude. In fact, regular solitary practice is a stronger indicator of expertise than total hours of practice per week.

Having established solitude as an indicator of expertise cultivation through his own research, he goes on to explore other walks of life for more evidence of the same, sometimes not even using structured research to do so.

Can you imagine if he’d written two hundred pages of opinion not backed by original research? It would fall quite flat. Somewhat less offensive is using others’ research. This can work very well, or very poorly, depending on how often that research is used.

Be it fiction or non-fiction, any book editor will tell you that original research is fundamental.

In Conclusion:

  • Research is essential to cultivating business insight
  • Reading a book is a great “starting point” for research
  • But reading a book is not research in and of itself
  • But many non-fiction books (“business books” or not) are excellent examples of the value of research
  • Original research > secondary research > no research

So where does that leave us? We need a way to conduct lightweight, structured research. If you have any ideas about how to do this, let me know.