Bad times are good times for business books

By , David R. Francis is the Monitor's business and financial editor.

Bad times can be good times for publishers of business books. "When times get tough," notes Thomas Miller, a marketing manager with Reston Publishing Company, "people want to know what to do to make thier money go farther. Right now people are confused. . . . They buy certificates of deposit , and they lose money. People are realizing that inflation is real and is cutting into their investment, and they want to do something about it."

So, to find out what to do, they buy a book.

In recent weeks three of the top 10 on the New York Times list of best sellers have been business-economic books, and No. 7 this week on the trade paperback list is a personal-finance guide.

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Peter Grenquist, president of the trade book division of Prentice-Hall Inc., indicates that one reason for a current boom in business books is what he calls "the worry factor. People are desperate to know which way to turn," he says.

Another influence is the "back-to-basics movement" on college campuses, as Robert Wallace, senior editor of business and economics at Macmillan Publishing Company, calls it. The "flower children" of the '60s are gone. Many of today's students are turning away from the arts or public-service areas to enroll in business schools or prepare for other professions that promise a lucrative future. "They want to go out and get a job at $50,000 a year as a general manager," Mr. Wallace says.

These kinds of concerns have resulted in increasing popularity for three types of business books:

* The book advocating a "new brand" of economics. In times of money troubles , people tend to blame the system. They are more receptive than usual to unorthodox or radical views. Some of the new titles in this group are doomsday books, painting the economic prospects in the blackest tones. Others outline unorthodox approaches with an academic, reasoned tenor.

* The how-to or advice book. Sylvia Porter, Jane Bryant Quinn, and others have written popular books touching on the spectrum of financial concerns -- inflation; family budgets; saving money at the supermarket; home loan financing; costs of transportation, education, clothes, vacations; banking; credit; wills; trusts; stocks; mutual funds; bonds; commodity markets; real estate; and so on.

Since the real estate boom of the '70s, advice books dealing solely with this subject have also zoomed. David Goehring, sales manager of Simon & Schuster, notes that one such book published by his company has been "incredibly successful," selling over 450,000 copies in three years. Last February Simon & Schuster brought out another real estate book that has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 36 weeks.

There are plenty of advice books for more exotic tastes as well. "People want to know how to invest their money in unconventional things -- such as gold, " notes Adrian Zackheim, an editor at Doubleday, who can point to a load of books from various publishers on precious metals and even diamonds as investments.

And, of course, since spring is the season for tax guides, this year several new ones are being offered along with the perennials.

* Books on management. These include advice books and other types. Doubleday recently published a guide for women managers. Macmillan anticipates strong sales for a new management book by a writer who teaches at the Harvard Business School. Also popular are corporate profiles written by successful executives such as former General Motors head Alfred Sloan and CBS chief William Paley.

Thus two things are clear: there is a strong demand right now for books critiquing the economy and offering financial and investment advice. To meet that demand publishers are offering a vast array of titles.

Less immediately clear, but apparent from reading several of the current books, is that, while some are helpful, many are simply capitalizing on the wave of reader interest. Readers will do well to approach the bookstore financial shelf with healthy skepticism -- looking carefully at an author's credentials, weighing whether or not his message is self-serving, and remembering that even the experts aren't always right.

Reading between the lines, one might even conclude that the most reliable financi al advice is: Go write a financial book.

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