Call me fifty shades of confused! Why is it that so many books have numbers in their titles?
This question popped into my head the other day, sparked in part by the response by many independent bookstores to Amazon’s publication of Tim Ferriss’ latest book in his “4-hour” franchise: first workweek, then body, now chef. So I went over to the Amazon site and searched for books listing the numbers one to ten and found Ken Blanchard’s classic One Minute Manager; several “fives” (love languages, dysfunctions of a team; and a whole slew of “sevens” (habits, principles, spiritual laws, myths, steps, pillars, wonders….). Other than some books about the management approach known as “six sigma,” that number doesn’t appear to be hugely popular—or 2, 3, and 9 for that matter. But the trend doesn’t stop with the number ten. What, I wondered, would be the outcome if John Kador’s 301 Best Questions to Ask on Your Interview got together with Vicky Oliver’s 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions?
Author Vicky Oliver has established quite a “numbers” trend with her books over the years, moving up from 201 smart ways to handle tough people to 301 smart answers to give during interviews, and now 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions (by Skyhorse Publishing, who more recently published a book of hers with an even bigger number, “millionaire”).
Having had cause to read a number of business etiquette books recently, I agree with what’s alluded to on the back cover of Tough Business Etiquette Questions: Most of them are as topical and fun as a Victorian tea party! What Oliver has going for her is a witty take on 21st century etiquette concerning topics such as “Casual Friday,” handshaking when abroad, and who gets mentioned first when introducing your ex-boss to your current boss. She’s right, they probably don’t teach this stuff in business school (any school, come to that) and more’s the pity!
There’s not just wit but wisdom too within the book’s 370 pages (and Skyhorse has done such a great job of the layout, it’s a very easy and accessible read…the kind of book you can dip in and out of as circumstances crop up). I especially liked what Oliver wrote about that annoying habit of some folks to respond in a different medium every time, as in “You leave your client a voicemail message. He replies with an email. You email him back. He responds with a text message. You text him back. He sends you an IM. The two of you have had six communications yet still can’t find the time to meet in person. What’s going on?” As Oliver rightly points out, “Your relationship is strong” (otherwise you would have gotten zero response!), “but your closure skills are wobbly.” Perhaps it’s time to break the project down into parts that can be dealt with electronically, given that a face-to-face meeting looks unlikely any time soon, Oliver suggests.
But back to my original question. Why are we (authors and readers) so enamored with having books with numbers in the title? What is it about the “ten rules for…” format that nine out of ten blog posts and a significant number of magazine and newspapers articles offer these days? Is it, as Jillian Steinhauer bemoaned in a recent article, that “We risk becoming masters of our own triviality,” because of this seeming obsession with lists? Then again, maybe having “42 Rules for Your New Leadership Role” makes a honking big responsibility feel more under your control and less chaotic. And knowing you can become a 10-Minute Virtuoso for the instrument you have always longed to play, feels more manageable and accessible.
There’s the potential for an interesting debate here, but it’s one I don’t have the time or space to address. Suffice it to say, in the spirit of offering you—as an aspiring nonfiction author—pointers to making the book development process as clear and successful as possible, the “numbering” format is a very useful one. From what I continue to see when consulting with writers who are attempting to write their first book, it’s organization that scuppers them every time. Their material tends to be all over the map, with no discernible route for readers to easily follow and understand.
So, even if it ends up not being the way your book is finally structured, it’s always useful to come up with a list of core principles, steps, habits—or whatever is most appropriate—when brainstorming the content for your nonfiction book, and use those to organize your chapters. After all, it worked very well for Stephen Covey, Deepak Chopra, and Napoleon Hill. And given all those book awards, it looks like it has too for Vicky Oliver!
—Liz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website