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Dumb luck? No way. The billion-dollar smarts of the ‘For Dummies’ empire

The thing most people notice first about the For Dummies series, the how-to and instructional books that have become a global phenomenon, is how ugly the covers are. While the size of the books differ, the covers mostly consist of a block of black on a radium-yellow background. The black is meant to be a school blackboard, across which is scrawled, as if by some delinquent with yellow crayon, FOR DUMMIES.

In nature, yellow is the colour of danger. For Wiley, the publishing house which owns the For Dummies brand, yellow is the colour of money. Since the series started, in 1991, it has generated billions of dollars in revenue. There are more than 250 million For Dummies books in print and millions of e-books downloaded. “They are the undisputed leader in their field,” says Rob O’Hearn, category manager for academic and professional books at Booktopia. “I can’t think of anything that comes close.”

Next year is the 30th anniversary of the For Dummies series – a long time in publishing, especially for a franchise that has been constantly active. When the books were first released, some booksellers wouldn’t stock them, for fear of insulting their readers. But For Dummies soon became a bellwether brand, changing how we think about learning by simplifying the complex and empowering the amateur.

Thanks to For Dummies, I know that a man’s testosterone levels are higher in the morning (Sex For Dummies, 2019, by Dr Ruth). We also have the series to thank for a rich array of memes, including Stalking For Dummies (“How to stay in touch with people who don’t want you to”), and Breathing For Dummies (“Air and how to use it”).

But the most interesting thing to learn from For Dummies is how to build one of the most successful franchises in publishing out of the unlikely proposition that it’s okay to be a know-nothing.

For Dummies originated in the late 1980s, in California. At the time, technology was transforming the workplace, with people increasingly switching from typewriters and basic word processors to desktop computers. Users found the technology bewildering, but had nowhere to go for help.

“We had beginners’ books on how to use computers, but they sucked,” American tech writer Dan Gookin said in a television interview in 2013. “They were condescending and patronising. The author was arrogant, like, ‘You’ll never get this stuff anyway.’ ” Either that, or they were “dry and boring and not an interesting read”.

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In 1989, Gookin came up with an idea for a more accessible, user-friendly guide to computers, which he modelled on the popular 1969 book How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. His agent shopped the idea around but couldn’t get any bites.

In 1991, Gookin was at a computer book publishing conference when he met Mac McCarthy, an editor from IDG, a technical publisher. McCarthy told Gookin about an idea he had based on his uncle’s suggestion that someone write a simple guide on computers, something like “DOS for dummies”.

Gookin wrote the book in under a month, with an advance of about $US6000. The initial print run of 5000 sold out in a week. In just over a year, DOS For Dummies had moved more than 1.5 million copies. By 1993, IDG had 26 Dummies titles in print, all on tech subjects, seven of them written by Gookin, many of them bestsellers. “I made an absolute trash-load of money,” Gookin told Slate magazine in 2015, adding that he once received a royalty cheque for $US250,000.

The For Dummies guides are like the analogue equivalent of Wikipedia; they promise a short cut, a life hack.

The books inspired a slew of imitators, including DOS for Non-nerds, Windows 95 is Driving Me Crazy! and I Hate Word Perfect 6 (But This Book Makes it Easy!), but none of them made a lasting impact. Soon, IDG branched out into other areas, such as personal finance and lifestyle, producing For Dummies on red wine, alternative health and herbal remedies.

All the books had the same formula, with short, punchy chapters, lots of tips and lists, and a chatty writing style. Editors invariably commissioned leading experts as authors: Stephen P. Maran, who wrote Astronomy for Dummies, has received the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal, and had a minor planet named in his honour in 1992; Shakespeare For Dummies, which was first released in 1999, has a foreword by Judi Dench.

But IDG also had timing on its side. “The rise of For Dummies coincided with the development in the mid-1990s of the big box stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders,” says Mal Neil, a long-time book industry observer. “They were able to give the brand the kind of profile it couldn’t get in small indie stores.”

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Neil was running the Brunswick Street Bookstore, in Fitzroy, Melbourne, when For Dummies first appeared. “A small indie bookstore has about 30,000 total books, with, say, 9000 titles. Big box stores had maybe 600,000 books, and maybe 200,000 titles. That allowed For Dummies to get a whole shelf alone.”

The big box stores also spoke to the market in a different way. “The Barnes & Nobles were aimed at the general market, and so were For Dummies. They were for people who didn’t want to faff around reading a book, they wanted to get on with it, and For Dummies let them do that.”

For a long time, the books had a certain stigma. No one wanted to be seen reading a For Dummies on the bus or at the beach – or anywhere else, for that matter. But they accurately presaged a world that was increasingly information-rich but time-poor.

The For Dummies guides are like the analogue equivalent of Wikipedia; they promise a short cut, a life hack. And while some editors at IDG considered using the term “dummy” as a risk, it has become an implicit guarantee. Potential readers thought, “If a dummy can get it, so can I.”

How-to guides have been around since Moses. The 10 Commandments is a how-to, of sorts. So is the Kama Sutra, which also came with helpful diagrams. The following 2000 years saw a marked trend toward snootiness. Seth T. Hurd’s A Grammatical Corrector, published in 1847, claimed to be “a collection of nearly 2000 barbarisms, cant phrases, colloquialisms, quaint expressions, provincialisms, false pronunciation, perversions … and other kindred errors of the English language”.

Even as recently as the 1970s, how-to books, especially in the tech space, were essentially manuals: stilted, jargony and as dry as rock dust. Prominent experts in their field – photography, football – sometimes wrote how-tos, but they were invariably meant to show off the author’s expertise. If the reader got anything out of these books, then well and good, but if they didn’t, they shouldn’t blame the expert.

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According to publishing house Wiley, which bought the franchise from IDG in 2001, 6.3 million copies were sold in 2019 – one every five seconds.

For Dummies changed that. “It took the intimidation factor out of learning,” says US-based For Dummies executive editor Steve Hayes. “Our books say to the reader, ‘Okay, the reason you feel intimidated isn’t your fault, it’s because these other how-to books are not geared to learning.’ We say, ‘Come along with us, and we’ll guide you by the hand and make it accessible, and maybe even have a laugh at the expense of those who made you feel intimidated in the first place.’ ”

According to publishing house Wiley, which bought the franchise from IDG in 2001, 6.3 million copies were sold in 2019 – one every five seconds. There are now 2000 different topics covered, and the books have been translated into 30 languages. Probably the closest comparison is the Lonely Planet travel guides, the first of which was published in 1972. But even they can’t match For Dummies’ scope, with up to 70 new titles released every year on everything from caring for ferrets to exchange traded funds, coding for kids and passing psychometric tests.

This year, Wiley released Ghost-Hunting for Dummies, by the American paranormal investigator and television personality Zak Bagans, who explains, among other things, how to deal with unwieldy spirits and get messages from beyond the grave.

Coming up with new titles isn’t hard. “New things pop up all the time,” says Hayes. “Health trends are easy to pick.” In years past, the category editors relied largely on instinct. Now they monitor market data and track keyword searches on Google; Hayes, who specialises in tech, subscribes to a veritable library of trade newsletters and mailing lists. “So I get a steady stream of leading-edge content coming into my inbox every day.”

At 49, Hayes is pretty much a Dummies lifer. After a brief stint working in an independent bookstore in Bloomington, Indiana, he joined For Dummies in 1996 as an editor’s assistant. In 1998, he became an acquisitions editor, a position he has held ever since.

“I am a curious person, and like looking for answers,” he tells me via the phone from Indianapolis, where the brand is based. “I’m always the first one who has to google something in a group and to figure out the answer for my own edification, so For Dummies totally appeals to me. I like how I help create something that will improve readers’ lives and help them learn something.”

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According to Hayes, the top five all-time best-selling titles include Windows For Dummies, Personal Finance For Dummies and Beekeeping For Dummies. But sales can be country specific. Buying and Selling a Home For Canadians For Dummies has been popular, as has Personal Finance For Canadians For Dummies.

In the UK, favourites include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy For Dummies and Ukulele For Dummies. In France, meanwhile, L’Histoire de France Pour Les Nuls (“History of France For Dummies”) has been a huge hit, and would probably be in the 30 all-time top sellers. Australians, who buy more than 100,000 For Dummies a year, have favoured Getting Started in Shares For Dummies, Cryptic Crosswords for Dummies and Dog Training For Dummies.

Are there topics that Wiley wouldn’t touch? What about Heart Surgery For Dummies or Cooking Meth For Dummies?

“We tend to steer clear from controversial topics or publishing anything that can be damaging or illegal,” says Hayes. “Even when we do address a controversial topic, the goal is to offer the reader both sides. A good example is Cats For Dummies and the topic of declawing indoor cats. The two authors of the book had different views of the matter and the book offered them space to present both their viewpoints.”

Of course, times change and values shift. “If you’d have asked me 20 years ago about the chances we’d publish Cannabis For Dummies, I’d have bet a lot on ‘never’,” adds Hayes. But decriminalisation in some US states opened the door for that title, which was published last year.

The For Dummies brand covers 2000 topics and the books have been translated into 30 languages.

The For Dummies brand covers 2000 topics and the books have been translated into 30 languages. Credit:AFP

Notwithstanding their expertise, For Dummies authors are known within the company as “Dummies”. Being a Dummy can be hard work. Books take as little as nine months from signing the contract to publication, a blink of an eye in publishing terms.

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The process works on an assembly-line model. The author is given a style guide, a sort of “How to Write a Dummies For Dummies”, which outlines the approach to the audience, the use of humour and how to break out the section headings. The author never writes a full manuscript before turning it in. Rather, they submit chapter by chapter. Each chapter is copy edited, reviewed by subject matter experts, and fact checked by what Wiley calls “tech editors”. Deadlines are brutal and inflexible.

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“It can be a wild ride,” says Denise Sutherland, a Dummy who lives in Canberra. “Intense but really rewarding.” Sutherland, 55, has authored four For Dummies books, including Word Searches For Dummies (2009), Cracking Codes and Cryptograms For Dummies (2009), and Solving Cryptic Crosswords For Dummies (2012).

“I am a puzzle writer by trade,” she tells me. “I was first approached by Wiley in 2008 to be a tech editor on a puzzle book, which basically means that you’re solving all the puzzles and checking that they’re fair.”

In August 2009, Sutherland got a frantic call from an acquisitions editor at Wiley in the US. The company had just learnt the release date for The Lost Symbol, the follow-up book to author Dan Brown’s wildly successful The Da Vinci Code, much of which involved cracking arcane codes and symbols. Brown’s book was coming out on September 15, 2009, and Wiley wanted to ride on its coattails. “I remember the editor saying: how fast can you write a whole lot of cryptograms?” Sutherland recalls.

Writing cryptograms isn’t particularly difficult. “It’s usually just straight transposition. You put in a transposition code into a computer and it spits out cryptograms. But what we decided to do was much more complicated.”

Wiley put Sutherland in touch with a New York-based author called Mark Koltko-Rivera. As well as being a psychologist and academic, Koltko-Rivera was a senior Freemason. “What we did was have Mark write three conspiracy stories, and I then turned them into cryptograms.”

For Dummies is what is known as a “category killer”: not many rivals can survive in its shadow. But the internet has presented a serious challenge.

Some of the stories used a Masonic cypher, and some used codes that Sutherland generated. She also had to write the chapters on how to solve them, using strategies such as frequency analysis, plus an account of the use of cyphers and encryption through history.

“I did 250 hours of work in a fortnight,” she says. “I delivered the last chapter with 15 minutes to spare.” Eleven years later, Cracking Codes and Cryptograms For Dummies is still in print.

For Dummies is what is known as a “category killer”: not many rivals can survive in its shadow. But the internet has presented a serious challenge. “People now, if they want to learn how to fix their fridge or something, they watch a DIY video on YouTube,” says Mal Neil. “Wiley has seen that and they have changed their model. They are taking less of a how-to approach and more of an under-the-hood approach. Rather than give you a step-by-step guide, they want readers to actually understand the topic.”

Not surprisingly, For Dummies was noted in the early days for being proactive with emerging technologies. When Microsoft launched MS-DOS 6.20, in 1993, there was a special edition which came with three floppy disks loaded with software. These days, Wiley attracts massive traffic to its For Dummies website, and has a broad offering of e-books. And they are agile: within days of the sudden boom in working from home, the publisher had commissioned Zoom For Dummies, which is due in early September.

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Yet some blind spots remain. Wiley only launched a For Dummies podcast last year and hasn’t fully come to terms with the threat posed by YouTube. “We have some ground to make up there,” says Steve Hayes. “We have in the past worked to support the books with digital content but we haven’t as yet pushed For Dummies onto video as a stand-alone. Once we start on that though,” he says, only half-joking, “we can kill that category as well.”

Booktopia’s Rob O’Hearn says the For Dummies brand has entered the vernacular and “crossed generations”. In an interview in 2013, Dan Gookin spoke of the impact For Dummies had on the entire how-to and DIY genre. “If you look at technical books these days, even the propellerhead books that are really nerdy, there’s still that personality in there. It’s not the old way where everything was dry and boring, and just the facts.”

When it comes to learning, then, it seems we’re all dummies now.

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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