Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction books’

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-AlexanderLiz 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
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Thought Readership #17: Rock Your Business by David Fishof

by Liz Alexander on November 19, 2012

I’ll come right out and say it: The ideas that most first-time authors’ have for their books suck. Because they’re derivative, unimaginative, and pedestrian. So it’s hardly surprising that most of these uninspiring books die an early commercial death, relegated to a few purchases during that self-employment staple, the “back of room” sale. Now, that’s just fine and dandy if you simply want to say you’ve published a book. Or you’ve bought into the “book as the new business card” hypothesis.

But what if you want to write a good book? One that truly differentiates you?

Well, you might not like me harping on about David Fishof’s Rock Your Business: What You and Your Company Can Learn From the Business of Rock and Roll (BenBella Books). But it’s for your own good.

Forget the fact that for the past 25 years Fishof has been a music industry mastermind, the man who founded and is the CEO of Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp.

Look beyond his ability to count on the likes of Roger Daltry (The Who), Vince Neil (Mötley Crüe) and former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms to write advance praise for his book.

Stop thinking that if you only occupied the glamorous world of rock ‘n’ roll, rather than consulting to rubber manufacturers, that writing a compelling book would be a slam dunk.

Because while it certainly helps to be able to share the story of how he came up with the idea for Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band to celebrate Pepsi’s twenty-fifth anniversary, that’s not what elevates Fishof book out of the Amazon swamps.

It’s because he incorporates simile, cleverly leveraging the comparisons between rock ‘n’ roll and other forms of business.

For example, Fishof (with co-author & professional writer Michael Levin), does something very cool with the Table of Contents. Each one of the 14 chapters is linked with a song title. Want to know how to barter your way to business (Chapter Six)? Their musical theme is the Bill Withers hit Lean On Me. Keen to stand out in a crowded marketplace (Chapter Eight)? They’ve tied that in to the Eagles’ New Kid in Town. And what’s the perfect anthem for dealing with the competition (Chapter Eleven)? Of course, it has to be the Queen classic We Will Rock You.

Throughout this book Fishof draws parallels between the music entertainment industry and the world of business. In Chapter One he shares how, needing to find a million dollar tour headliner for the previously mentioned Pepsi bash, Fishof’s response to his own question of “Who are some of the greatest musicians of all time?” brought to mind The Beatles. Trouble was, that more loveable member of the Fab Four, Ringo Starr, hadn’t toured since the band’s break up in 1970. But what, thought Fishof, if you took inspiration from the Beatles hit song “With A Little Help From My Friends” and teamed Ringo with classic greats like Nils Lofgren, Dr. John, and Billy Preston? In that flash of inspiration, Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band was born.

And the guidance that Fishof provides for readers in relation that story? How to find a big idea!

Yet it was a fairly lame and considerably overdone idea that one aspiring author presented to me recently during a consulting session. As part of my pre-discussion research on his topic of relationships, I discovered (because you can’t copyright a book title) three competitive books all entitled How to Treat a Woman. And nothing that I read in his treatment led me to believe that this guy was offering material that was much different. Interestingly enough, he did have a cool metaphor he could have leveraged (which I discovered mid-way through our conversation), but there was no sign of it in his proposal or sample chapter. He had absolutely no clue that to successfully market and sell this book he needed a strong, uniquely distinguishable “hook.”

On the back cover of Rock Your Business the reader is asked if they would like:

  • To burst into public awareness like Lady Gaga?
  • To have the long-lived success of the Rolling Stones?
  • To demonstrate the creativity of the Beatles?

To which I would add:

  • To come up with a book idea that truly deserves publication?

Read Fishof’s engrossing book and you just might find the big idea that could rock your reader’s world. Otherwise the chances are they’ll just Go To Sleep (Radiohead, 2003)

Liz-AlexanderLiz 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
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Daniel Markovitz’s A Factory of One

Imagine you’re a performance coach or consultant who wants to write a book. You’re aware of the “competition” in the form of well-known efficiency experts including David Allen, Julie Morgenstern, and Tony Schwartz. You also know that the basic advice of scheduling rather than constantly checking email and keeping your desk organized has been done to death. What can you contribute to the conversation that’s not only new – but truly transformative for the reader?

What would you do when faced with that challenge? Throw in the towel?

Not necessarily. You could do what Daniel Markovitz has so deftly done in A Factory of One: Applying Lean Principles to Banish Waste and Improve Your Personal Performance (CRC Press, 2012). You could turn your topic on its head and ask: If it were that easy, why aren’t we all more efficient? Maybe it’s not more tools that people need, but a different strategy? One that’s focused on the root cause of poor performance, not just its effects.

Markovitz has successfully illustrated one of the approaches every nonfiction author needs to consider today, unless you’re content to languish among the “me-too” authors whose books are gracing the remainder tables; combine your core topic with something no one else would think of associating with it.

In the case of A Factory of One, it’s Lean principles, a concept that originated in Japanese manufacturing to “dramatically boost quality by reducing waste and errors.” As the back cover of Markovitz’s book states, “(U)ntil now, few have recognized how relevant these powerful ideas are to individuals and their daily work.”

By cleverly combining personal performance, Lean principles, and self-awareness exercises inspired by the Japanese concept of gemba, this author has succeeded in offering a compelling read that actually works. Shortly after closing this quick and entertaining book I was eagerly on the hunt to spot “waste” in my own working day. And, yes, there was plenty – which otherwise would have remained invisible had I not reviewed this book.

You may already be familiar with the international best seller, Blue Ocean Strategy, which focuses on ways to make the competition irrelevant. This is an issue for all thoughtful authors, many of whom worry that with so many books being published these days it’s becoming harder to produce anything truly unique.

Not so! For a start, most authors (self-published or otherwise) have no clue how to market themselves, so their books don’t even come to their target audience’s attention, which reduces the competition somewhat. But by taking the approach that Markovitz so powerfully illustrates, you need never worry ever again about someone else duplicating or even “stealing” your book idea.

This question is part of my 7-step book development process: What other idea(s) could you combine with your basic concept to strengthen your book and make it uniquely yours? When you think of the permutations, you’ll realize there are endless opportunities for anyone creative enough to do this.

Just think of the ways in which this approach has produced innovations in daily life:

  • Journaling + computer technology = blogging.
  • Coffee + Italian café culture = Starbucks.
  • Wizards + school + and childhood rites of passage = Harry Potter series.
  • Ginger + chocolate + wasabi peas = Terry’s Toffee Asian Accent.™
  • The Roman republic + Montesquieu’s checks & balances + John Locke’s philosophy + English common law (Magna Carta) = The US Constitution.

If you want to avoid worrying about whether someone, in your industry or field, is writing a book identical to yours, you need to adopt a “Blue Ocean Strategy.” Which means going that extra mental distance to come up with unusual concepts – as Daniel Markovitz and others have done – that will make your book uniquely yours.

Next Up: The Teenager’s Folly: The author who only thought he had something new to say, and how to avoid making the same mistake.

To read interviews with many of the authors I’ve reviewed for this Thought Readership column, please go to my Articles page.

Liz-AlexanderLiz 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
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