News & Opinion

The 2015 800-CEO-READ Business Book of the Year

January 14, 2016


After a long and deliberative process, a lot of reading and a lot of discussion, Kevin Ashton's How to Fly a Horse emerges as our winner.

Drums rolled tonight, trumpets sounded, flocks of doves were released, and we announced the 800-CEO-READ Business Book of the Year.

The honor went to Kevin Ashton's How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery, and while most of the pomp and circumstance—the doves and drums and trumpets and such—happened only in my head, it was a nice party.

But why How to Fly a Horse? Our General Manager Sally Haldorson recently wrote a little bit about our pick, our process, and the philosophy that governs it:


800-CEO-READ’s primary expertise is in selling and promoting business books, but we have a lengthy history rooted in the independent bookshops we were born in, and our philosophy still echoes that of our second owner, A. David Schwartz (son of the bookshops' founder, husband to one of our current owners, and father to the other):

"Bookselling was and is … a search for a community of values which can act as an underpinning of a better world. The true profit in bookselling is the social profit; the bottom line, the measure of the impact of the books on the community.”

If we were to sandwich the word “business” between “better” and “world,” that philosophy reflects what we go to work every day hoping to achieve. We believe that good business books help create a better world through their impact on the business community. Whether that impact is on a large company, a start-up, a mom-and-pop, or an individual, what we are looking for is an impact that has the potential to stick and to spread.

When we choose the best books of the year, we look at 3 criteria:

First, the books need to be accessible. This is largely determined by the quality and clarity of the writing. After all, if you can't make it through or understand a book, it's useless to you.

The second and most important criterion is the quality of the idea. As mentioned above, what we are looking for is stickability and spreadability, for an idea and a book that can still be influential in the world a generation from now. 

The third factor in choosing these books is the applicability for someone working in business today. As much as we are booksellers, we are also business practitioners.

These three considerations are applied to the hundreds of books submitted every year to come up with a longlist of 40 books—five books in eight different categories. Each member of our editorial staff is responsible for picking the top books in a category (or two) that falls within their specialty. For example, as 800-CEO-READ's General Manager, the Leadership & Management category is mine. This means that the books are read and chosen by someone with an active interest in how they can be put into use in their field. (It is also an excellent way for me to leverage the information found in each book to better my own qualities as a manager.)

We then narrow the field to the eight books we think are the best of their category, which is perhaps the most difficult set of decisions we make each year, because it is these eight books that make up the shortlist from which our overall winner will emerge.

And after a lot of additional discussion and extra reading to better aquaint all of us with the final eight, we settle on what we will call The 800-CEO-READ Business Book of the Year. To do this, we look back to our company’s philosophy. Which of these eight books, in its entirety, as decided by our whole editorial staff, can act an underpining of a better business world? What impact can we expect it to have on the business community? Is it simply a trend (and if so, how important and impactful is that trend?), or does it contain an idea and an applicability that can make an immediate, yet lasting, impact?

At the end of a long process and a lot of conversation, the winner of the Creativity & Innovation category, How to Fly a Horse, emerged slowly but clearly (as so many great ideas do) as our choice for 2015.

We believe it is a book that will leave a positive, lasting impact on the life of a lone creative striver, on the thinking of the most traditional business practitioner, and on everyone in-between. Because of that, we believe it has to have a great impact on the lives of organizations large and small.

The speed at which the modern business world changes demands creativity at every level, and this book’s broad content reassures business leaders and on-the-ground workers alike that new ideas can be found and progress created, as long as the hard yards are put in at all levels. Ashton affirms that:

The human race’s creative power is distributed in all of us, not concentrated in some of us. Our creations are too great and too numerous to come from a few steps by a few people. They must come from many steps by many people. Invention is incremental—a series of slight and constant changes. Some changes open doors to new worlds of opportunity and we call them breakthroughs. Others are marginal. But when we look carefully, we will always find one small change leading to another sometimes within one mind, often among several, sometimes across continents or between generations, sometimes taking hours or days and occasionally centuries, the baton of innovation passing in an endless relay of renewal.


Throughout How to Fly a Horse, Kevin Ashton marries history with modern innovation, fact with inspiration, making his book a joy to read, and exemplary story-telling at it’s finest.


Our Special Pojects Manager, Michael Jantz, who brought the book out of the Innovation & Creativity category to the conversation, wrote:

It can be refreshing to take a break from the books in celebration of the rogue genius. The outstanding narratives like that of Steve Jobs tend to mislead us into thinking of creation as a practice reserved for an elite few. How to Fly a Horse is the smelling salt to your fantasies of genius creativity. Ashton cites examples spanning centuries and demonstrating the intense collaborative nature of creation. In an age of increasing inequality of all stripes, it provides a well-researched reminder that our world is pushed forward not by a few geniuses, but by millions of hard-working people.


I'd like to wrap up by saying that we are forever grateful to work in an industry with so many individuals putting in that hard work on the ground to push the world forward. As we have our awards meetings every year, we are always struck by how the conversation in, among, and between books is evolving and contributing to the world we go to work in. To have all these books flood into our offices, giving us a front row seat at this meeting of minds in print from our regional outpost here in Milwaukee, is something we cherish. As booksellers, we will continue to do our best to amplify that conversation, increase "the impact of the books on the community," and contribute to that "community of values which can act as an underpinning of a better world."

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