It’s been nearly two decades since the first “For Dummies” self-help book hit store shelves, and judging by the volume of titles since then, we haven’t gotten any smarter. Consider just a few choice topics from the dizzying list of 200 books coming out this year alone, all based on the same rigid model of accessible writing, big icons and cartoons wrapped in a garish yellow cover. There’s everything from wedding etiquette and building chicken coops to photovoltaic design and quantum physics. While many booksellers struggle with dwindling sales, our stunted IQs continue to fuel a publishing frenzy that’s produced 1,600 titles and exceeds 200 million copies in print.
One might expect quirky instructional guides like the Dummies franchise to have withered with the Web, since there’s no shortage of Wiki-experts, bloggers and YouTube posters eager to share their thoughts for free. Instead, as Dummies nears its 20th anniversary next year, the brand is ambitiously extending into other industries like pet supplies and musical instruments through licensing agreements, while embracing media formats like smartphone apps. (As for fans of Wikis and social networking, there are Dummies books for them, too—four on the subject of Twitter alone.)
The franchise has come far since that first book, DOS for Dummies, which provided an introduction to the early Microsoft operating system. Under the catchphrase “A reference for the rest of us,” the book was launched out of a cramped office in San Mateo, Calif., and immediately hit a wall of scorn from booksellers who believed computer users were only interested in dense, serious tomes. “They said, ‘You guys are pathetic,’ ” recalls Marc Mikulich, vice-president of brand management. Yet, within weeks, Costco ordered 50,000 copies. “We published into a market that no one realized existed and it was bigger than the market everyone was already competing in.” By the time Dr. Ruth Westheimer penned Sex for Dummies in 1995, the brand was a household name with 10 million copies in print. The title’s former owner sold to publisher John Wiley & Sons in 2001 and today the books continue to sell well. Since 2008 Indigo and Chapters stores have promoted the brand with “Dummies Boutiques” and have seen double-digit percentage sales increases, according to Bahram Olfati, head of adult trade at Indigo Books & Music.
In some ways, the books were like the Internet before most knew what the Web was. After all, a Dummies book is somewhat akin to a Wikipedia entry on steroids, and their non-linear format, irreverent tone and page layout share much in common with what the Internet eventually came to look like.
But the brand has since stretched far beyond traditional publishing. Over the last decade, the company has ramped up a licensing program in which specialized For Dummies books and DVDs are sold with everything from hair trimmers and violins to tool kits and GPS devices. It also produces custom Dummies books for companies and organizations with a targeted audience, such as one that wanted to explain its benefits package to employees. Even Web giant Google put out a Dummies book in the U.K. to lure small businesses to its AdWords service.
In addition to publishing Dummies books on how to develop apps for the Apple iPhone and iPad, Wiley has pushed into that realm itself. Several Dummies apps are top sellers—at one point “Spanish for Dummies” was number seven among paid iPhone downloads. Meanwhile, the Dummies.com website, relaunched a year and a half ago with how-to videos and Web articles, now draws about four million users a month. As with all publishers, there’s the question of how much content to give away for free, especially since the books typically sell for around $25. But Dummies online marketing director Shauna Yule Brasseur says that since the Web content offers just a slice of what’s in the books, it’s helped drive sales. “There’s so much content online, oftentimes we don’t know the veracity of what’s there,” she says. “With For Dummies, there’s an instant trust factor.”
Observers say Wiley is smart to position Dummies for the future. “They’re making major investments to be well placed as people move online,” says Rowland Lorimer, director of the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing at Simon Fraser University. In the meantime, the sheer number of titles reinforces Dummies as the place to go for self-help materials. “The lesson for other publishers here is all about building the brand.” In other words, by being so pervasive, Dummies aims to be the first place people go any time they’re left scratching their heads.