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Inside the Longlist: The Best Marketing & Sales Books of 2017

November 22, 2017


Taking a look inside the best sales and marketing books published in 2017, and at the lessons they have to offer.

I don’t know of anyone who dreamt of going into sales when they were a child, and yet we all eventually do so, attempting to convince others or persuade them in some way or another, no matter what else we do. But the image of marketing and sales people in popular culture is, how can I put this, not good. It’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Death of a Salesman, Wolf of Wall Street, Tin Men. But there is one character, Danny Devito’s Phil Cooper in The Big Kahuna, that I think gets to the human heart of the matter. When he finds out that the new sales rep on his team got time alone with a big client they are trying to land, and opted to talk to him about Jesus rather than the product they were supposed to be pitching him, he offers this:


It doesn't matter whether you're selling Jesus or Buddha or civil rights or “How to Make Money in Real Estate With No Money Down.” That doesn't make you a human being; it makes you a marketing rep. If you want to talk to somebody honestly, as a human being, ask him about his kids. Find out what his dreams are—just to find out, for no other reason. Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it's not a conversation anymore; it's a pitch. And you're not a human being; you're a marketing rep.


Gendered pronouns and typically negative view of marketing reps aside, it contains a truth that makes it one of my favorite lines in film. Business relationships are human relationships. Yes, business has to be done, but most of the conversations we have at sales conferences and in other business settings are about simply getting to know each other, figuring out what makes us tick as human beings—and when it comes down to business, being focused on the other person’s needs and desires, not our own, is the best way to make a living that makes a positive impact on other lives.

Our sales support specialist Andrew Koenig curated this category for us this year, and led us to the five best marketing and sales books of 2017…

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson, Penguin Press

In his exploration of what drives popularity, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic takes us on a journey from a Brahms lullaby and 19th century immigration in America through the history of industrial design and modern pop music, and announces that “We are living through an industrial revolution in attention.” Doing so, he finds the intersection of art and industry, increases our understanding of the underlying forces at work on our attention, and explains why nothing truly “goes viral.” “Content might be king,” Thompson advises, “but distribution is the kingdom.” It is an entertaining mix of social science and a more recent cultural phenomena, with an excavation of the cultural history that preceded and inspired it. What he finds is that people are delighted by something familiar in the surprising, and something surprising in the familiar. Therefore, the “most important question for every creator and maker in the world,” he writes, is: “How do you make something new, if most people just like what they know? Is it possible to surprise with familiarity?"

The Lost Art of Closing: Winning the Ten Commitments That Drive Sales by Anthony Iannarino, Portfolio

The “industrial revolution in attention” Thompson refers to is also upending the sales profession. With more access to information and the digital word-of-mouth to spread it, customers are now increasingly able to change the way a company and its brand are viewed in a very real and immediate way. Because of this, Anthony Iannarino believes we have transitioned from a caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) to a caveat venditor (let the seller beware) world. And while the sales tricks of yesteryear won’t work, He builds his book on an insight gleaned from Neil Rackham’s 1988 book, SPIN Selling, that of gaining a commitment at the end of each interaction. It can be as small as setting another time to talk—the key is to stay focused on serving the customers needs, not your own, to move from the “self-orientation” salespeople are stereotypically known for, to the “other-orientation” espoused by Danny Devito’s Phil Cooper in The Big Kahuna. “Selling isn’t something you do to someone,” he writes, “It is something you do for someone and with someone.”

Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts by Ryan Holiday, Portfolio

Ryan Holiday’s Perennial Seller, like Anthony Iannarino’s, also has its basis in another, older book—Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly, which was “an inquiry into the problem of how to write a book that lasts ten years.” And, just as The Lost Art warns against sales tricks and gimmicks, Holiday warns us off publicity stunts and the advice of “top ‘thought leaders’ and business ‘experts’” that “deceive us with shortcuts and tricks that optimize for quick and obvious success” at the expense of making meaningful, truly creative work. This is especially important because doing that work is hard (“Like a long bout with a painful illness,” according to George Orwell. “Like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death,” says Elon Musk) and to make work that lasts you have to be in it for the long haul. Yes, he will teach you all about marketing and platform building, but it is first and foremost about immersing yourself in the creative process, and being able to make a living out of that process, and making work that matters.

The Transformational Consumer: Fuel a Lifelong Love Affair with Your Customers by Helping Them Get Healthier, Wealthier, and Wiser by Tara-Nicholle Nelson, Berrett-Koehler

Speaking of work that matters, think of the world’s biggest and most ubiquitous companies and brands. Most of their products are literally addictive. The fast food and sugary drinks we grab on the go, the junk food in our cupboards, the personal computers in our pockets; these are all things most of us wish we would (or could) consume less often. But the hit of instant gratification we get from them is built upon decades of research into how people naturally behave, and they understand how to keep us hooked. What if we used that understanding to make people happier, healthier, wealthier, and wiser? Tara-Nicholle Nelson explains how “businesses are in a position to understand how to change and influence people’s behavior, even the hardest ones to change,” admonishing advertisers and other business people that “There’s nothing that says companies can’t wield that influence for good rather than evil.” By focusing on transformational consumers (a full 50 percent of all consumers) we can begin enriching consumers’ lives, and become just as indispensable to them as if they were addicted to our product.

UnBranding: 100 Branding Lessons for the Age of Disruption by Scott Stratten & Alison Stratten, Wiley

We are living in "the age of disruption." But what does it mean for you and your business? Most likely, not that you need to change everything you're doing, but that you need to master some new skills while remembering not to forget what has always made businesses successful.

Scott and Alison Stratten keep us focused on the human fundamentals of business, on what really matters, even if how we communicate them may change in the digital era. They help us spot some of the traps that the digital age has inadvertently set, while remaining delightfully and entertainingly unimpressed with wider proclamations about the wonders of disruption changing the world. This echoes the sentiment of their first book, UnMarketing, that "Everything Has Changed and Nothing Is Different." In short, the means with which we build our brand may change—or at least multiply—but the ends are the same as they've always been: to build a good business that provides goods and services people want and need.

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