Dummies For Dummies
The 1,000-title series from John Wiley & Sons spans everything from puppy care to personal finance. Here's how the company manages its how-to empire.
(Business 2.0) – Ten years ago the publisher of the Dummies brand of advice books decided to branch out beyond its then-successful line of personal computer titles. Many in the publishing industry doubted that nontechie consumers would buy how-to books with titles that insulted their intelligence. But the conventional wisdom was for dummies. Now a division of publishing company John Wiley & Sons, the brand encompasses nearly 1,000 yellow-and-black-covered guides on subjects from Christian prayer to robotics. With almost 150 million books sold worldwide and licensees using the brand on everything from exercise videos to sewing patterns, sales of Dummies titles are up nearly 50 percent since 2001. Here's our Dummies-style summary of how the business works. — ROBERT LEVINE
Give 'Em What They Want
"Any subject can be tackled by a Dummies book," says Diane Steele, vice president and publisher of the Dummies division at Wiley. That may be true, but specific criteria are used to evaluate which topics are likely to be strong sellers:
•Intimidation. Does the topic seem confusing enough that people need a guide?
•Curiosity. Is it something many people want to know about? Are they passionate about the subject?
•Involvement. Is the topic robust enough to fill a book?
•Currency. Is it relevant today? For example, Forensics for Dummies might not have worked before the success of the C.S.I. shows, but it does now.
Industrywide, advice books that sell more than 10,000 copies are generally considered profitable. One of the most successful recent Dummies books was Starting an eBay Business for Dummies, which sold 75,000 copies in the past two years. Catholicism for Dummies sold 35,000, according to Nielsen BookScan.
Before tackling a topic, the Dummies team uses one title to open up a category. In the religion category, the brand began with Spirituality for Dummies. Once a few initial titles have been published, "we get feedback, do research, and find out where our customers want to go," Steele says. In religion, that led to a host of volumes, with topics from the Bible to Buddhism. In the pets category, books on dogs and cats paved the way for volumes on specific breeds.
"Dummies is an info-delivery system," Steele says, meaning that the brand is bigger than any individual author—even celebrity Dummies writers like Joe Morgan (on baseball) or Stephanie Seymour (on beauty secrets). The goal of the production effort is to make sure that the familiar style of Dummies books remains consistent from title to title.
Writing a Dummies book requires a unique editing process. In traditional publishing, there's little conversation between writers and editors before a manuscript is complete. The Dummies team asks authors to submit chapters for review, one at a time, to identify problems early on. The collaboration is so intensive—and unusual—that writers are given examples of typical feedback in advance so they'll know what to expect.
Publishing a Dummies title is very much a team effort:
•Find the Talent. When recruiting writers, Steele looks for demonstrated expertise. Writers are usually hired as independent contractors, with Wiley retaining all copyrights.
•Don't Skimp on Support. The writer is backed up by three or four editors who shape the prose to fit the Dummies style and format.
•Get the Facts Right. Every title is given a "tech editor," an outside expert who works with the in-house team to ensure that everything in the book is accurate.
Think Globally, Publish Locally
"Brands are promises," says Marc Mikulich, Wiley's VP for brand management. "Dummies promises efficient learning made fun and easy." That may be, but like many companies, Dummies initially had a hard time delivering on its promise when expanding overseas. It's easy to see why: Customs are different, expertise gets overstretched, and the subtleties of language are easily lost in translation.
"Some of our early translations were timid," Mikulich says, and the line's international sales suffered accordingly. Today the Dummies team works with local partners to ensure the most colloquial translations possible. When a French-rights deal for the first book was completed, it was published as The Essentials of DOS. Sales were decent, but the second edition was reprinted with the title Pour les Nuls (literally, "for zeros"). It sold more copies in three months than the previous edition had in a year.
Although the Dummies team keeps its brand consistent internationally, it doesn't let the tastes of the U.S. market limit opportunities abroad. For instance, Wiley's U.K. branch publishes Buying a Home in France for Dummies—a successful book there that would be hard to imagine in the United States.
As the books' popularity has grown, Wiley has authorized the creation of roughly 200 branded Dummies products that are sold in video stores, supermarkets, and hobby shops. In almost every case, Wiley doesn't make or directly control products other than books. Instead, it licenses the Dummies name, receiving a royalty for each product sold.
Wiley works to ensure that licensees maintain the integrity of the Dummies franchise:
•Style Counts. To make sure that design and iconography remain consistent, all Dummies licensees receive a strict style guide.
•Provide the Personal Touch. To help licensees exploit the brand's value, Dummies maintains a separate editorial team to provide guidance on video scripts, product instructions, and packaging.
•Be a Control Freak. Since the Dummies brand is so valuable, licensees that use it must always submit final versions of their products for review.
There are some places Dummies just shouldn't go—it can't be everything to everyone all the time, Mikulich says. For example, the brand's self-deprecating humor appeals only to adults. "To kids, 'dummies' is a hurtful term, so I don't see us doing grade school exercise workbooks," he says. "The essence of strategic positioning is conceding territory."