Business is a dog-eat-dog world, and so is the publishing of business books. Consider two competing titles about Carly Fiorina, CEO of computer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard. In 2001, when Fiorina announced the Palo Alto, Calif.—based company's merger with Compaq, Walter Hewlett, son of one of the company's founders and a board member, dissented publicly. The battle between the two heated up in March 2002, when a shareholder vote approved the merger, and Hewlett filed a lawsuit to block it. As the story became a business soap opera that generated headlines for months, publishers took notice.
Portfolio, the business imprint launched at PenguinPutnam last fall, published Perfect Enough: Carly Fiorina and the Reinvention of Hewlett Packard by Fast Company senior editor George Anders on January 27, while Wiley released Backfire: Carly Fiorina's High-Stakes Battle for the Soul of Hewlett-Packard by BusinessWeek correspondent Peter Burrows on February 14. Although Backfire had the larger first printing—50,000 copies vs. 35,000 for Anders's book—Perfect Enough was #11 on the New York Times nonfiction hardcover bestseller list for February 16.
Though Anders and Burrows approached Hewlett-Packard within weeks of each other, only Anders was granted access. But that wasn't all that was involved in his winning performance. Perfect Enough was originally scheduled for April, but was rushed to press when its publisher got wind of Wylie's schedule for Backfire. (Both books cover events through late fall 2002.) Early demand for Anders's book was spurred by a January 13 excerpt in the Wall Street Journal, on the opening page of the "Marketplace" section, which triggered features and reviews in the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle, according to Portfolio publicity director Will Weisser.
"This book was important to an audience that buys online, so reaction was instantaneous," explained Adrian Zackheim, Portfolio's founder and publisher. Though it didn't rank among the 35 titles listed on the Times extended list for February 23, even a brief bestseller showing is heady stuff for Zackheim, since the book is the imprint's third title. Its second, a management book about achieving high productivity without layoffs, Less Is More (Nov.) by consultant Jason Jennings, ranked #11 on the BusinessWeek bestseller list for February 3.
There's no discounting the muscle behind Portfolio: on February 13, some stores had yet to receive their Wiley orders. "Perfect Enough is definitely outselling Backfire, because we haven't gotten Backfire yet," said Barry Rossnick, buyer for Books Inc., an eight-store chain in California. Books Inc. had already sold 60 copies of the Portfolio title when PW called.
Reviews have impacted sales as well. At the Stanford University Bookstore in Palo Alto, trade book buyer Marilyn Smith ordered 300 copies of Perfect Enough and only eight of Backfire. While those numbers reflected Anders's planned in-store appearance in late February, Smith also mentioned that the San Jose Mercury-News favored the Portfolio book, while a February 7 Wall Street Journal review that paired the two books also cast its vote for Perfect Enough.