September 24, 2006
Essay

Dumbing Up

By RACHEL DONADIO

Few thirsts run deeper these days than the one for self-improvement, and few recent books have slaked it better than the ubiquitous bumble-bee-colored titles in the “For Dummies” series. Since it began in 1991 with “DOS for Dummies,” which helped computer neophytes navigate the user-unfriendly program that predated Windows, the series has swelled to more than 1,000 titles and sold more than 150 million copies.

The list of Dummies topics is like a parallel history of contemporary consciousness. Lawn care, Mormonism, golf, women in the Bible, Excel, auto repair. Wedding planning, digital photography, sudoku, bathroom remodeling, senior dogs, Chinese cooking. Fighting spam, TiVo, Nascar, Catholicism, yoga with weights, Sarbanes-Oxley and living with Hepatitis C, not to mention forensics, ballet, adoption, overcoming anxiety, gluten-free living, kittens, baking, eBay timesaving techniques, knitting, C. S. Lewis and Narnia, teaching kids to spell, and even sex (explained by no less than Dr. Ruth Westheimer).

“We have what we call a hit list — that would be unpublished topics — as long or longer than our actual list,” said Diane Steele, the publisher of the Dummies series. “Our challenge has never been ‘Is there anything left to publish on?’ ” Instead, it’s what to publish next. “It’s a very rare thing when someone suggests something we don’t already have on the list.” John Wiley & Sons, which bought the Dummies brand in 2001, cranks out 200 new Dummies titles a year. At that rate, there may soon be more Dummies books out there than dummies to read them.

Pitched middle- to lowbrow, the books all adhere to the same format: goofy chapter headings, bullet points, tips and lists, leavened with a laugh track of cornball, sitcom humor. Although Dummies titles have been translated into more than a dozen languages — an original French title, “L’Histoire de France Pour Les Nuls,” has sold more than 125,000 copies — there’s something profoundly American about the enterprise. Amiable and nonthreatening, the books are informed less by populist anti-intellectualism than by a bedrock belief that knowledge is democratic, that you too can master things — especially by ignoring those highfalutin experts who make you feel inadequate.

The series originated in California in the late 80’s. Dan Gookin, a technology writer and radio host, had the idea for a practical guide to DOS, with its constant “Abort, Retry, Fail” error messages. After being turned down by several publishers, he sold what became “DOS for Dummies” to IDG Books, a start-up subsidiary of the technology publisher IDG. The guiding idea was that “people don’t want to learn computers or love computers, they just want to get the answer to that one question and then get on with their lives,” Gookin said by telephone from his home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. There’s some debate about who first came up with the “For Dummies” name. “Success has many fathers,” said John Kilcullen, a founder of IDG Books who’s now president of the VNU Music and Literary Group. “Everyone has their own fine recollection.” (In 1976, a one-off book, “Auto Repair for Dummies,” appeared; IDG later bought the rights.) The first print run of “DOS for Dummies,” a cautious 7,500 copies, trailed the latest edition of DOS by a long six months. At first, Waldenbooks, then one of the top bookstore chains, declined to stock it. “They hated the color, garish yellow; they hated the title and thought it would insult their customers; and we were late,” Kilcullen said. Then word of mouth took hold. Around the 15th printing, Gookin said, the publisher “realized the sucker was just not going to stop.”

David Pogue, now a technology columnist for The New York Times, wrote the second title in the series, which also did well. “I bought a house on ‘Macs for Dummies,’ ” he said. “We call it the house that Dummies built.” (Pogue was also a co-author of “Opera for Dummies.”) Technology and personal finance books remain the Dummies top sellers — the different editions of “Windows for Dummies” have sold more than 10 million copies combined — while the No. 1 consumer title is “Personal Finance for Dummies,” by Eric Tyson, who has also written Dummies books about investing, mutual funds and mortgages.

Sometimes the Dummies editors approach authors, but to avoid opening the floodgates they now deal exclusively with literary agents. Authors are given an advance — some reported getting $12,000, others $40,000 — and royalties. The editorial team, based in Indian-apolis, gives authors a kind of “Dummies for Dummies” manual and a computer template. “Copy editors do the line editing and Dummifying,” Steele said. “It’s a word we use to talk about how to make text comply with our style guide.” The approach is strict. “We address the reader as you — you can, next you do this — we don’t talk about we,” she said. “We try to be funny, or at least lighthearted.” Furthermore, Steele said: “We don’t use future tense, we don’t use passive voice, we don’t have long chapters. A 26-page chapter is getting pretty long.”

Most authors must write their books in less than a year, sometimes in just a few months. “I think the biggest downside is that the schedule is killer,” said Maxine Levaren, a freelance writer in California and seasoned Dummies author who wrote “Science Fair Projects for Dummies” and is a co-author of “The ’60s for Dummies.” “You have to have a third of the book done each month.” Brian Cassity, the other co-author of the 60’s book and a professor of history in the University of Hawaii system, said it was tough to balance levity and gravity. It was hard “to write about the civil rights movement or the antiwar movement or the Vietnam War with a humorous tone,” Cassity said. “I didn’t give it any ha-ha at all.”

Dr. Alan Rubin, a San Francisco endocrinologist whose “Diabetes for Dummies” is the No. 1 title in the Dummies health category, said he had some friendly discussions with his editors about the passive-voice rule. “Sometimes I’ll write something like ‘the patient was comatose and was given thyroid hormone,’ and they’ll change that to ‘the patient was comatose and took thyroid hormone,’ ” Rubin said. “I have to tell them these are extremely sick patients, they can’t take care of themselves, they have to be passive whether Wiley likes it or not.”

A veritable Dummies ringleader, Rubin is organizing a conference of Dummies authors in San Francisco this fall, with Wiley’s participation. He also set up a Yahoo list-serv where authors can talk shop. “If your book has sold well and you want to write another Dummy book, although you may not be able to get a bigger advance, you may be able to negotiate higher percentages on your royalties,” one Dummies author wrote in, according to a transcript Rubin provided.

In general, the more practical the title, the better the material. “Wine for Dummies” teaches you everything about Puligny Montrachet (or “poo lee nyee mon rah shay,” as the book sounds it out) except how to afford it. “Alzheimer’s for Dummies” evaluates different drug therapies, “Beekeeping for Dummies” advises you to avoid perfume and “always wear your veil when you’re inspecting your hive,” and “Google for Dummies” explains how to buy advertising on the almighty search engine.

But the history books can be hilariously simplistic. “As you may imagine, Augustine’s ‘predestination’ proved controversial,” Peter Haugen, who’s identified as a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, writes in “World History for Dummies.” “Yet without the spiritual equivalent of a carrot or stick, keeping some people on the narrow path is impossible, so some moralists consider predestination a lousy motivator.” Before the Battle of Waterloo, “Napoleon appeared to make all the right moves, both on the diplomatic and military fronts,” J. David Markham, the president of a quasi-scholarly group called the Napoleonic Alliance, writes in “Napoleon for Dummies.” “He started strong, but in the end he had too little, too late.”

And then there’s “Dating for Dummies,” by Dr. Joy Browne, a radio talk-show host and psychologist. Clearly not aimed at a New York audience, it lists “political hot potatoes” to avoid discussing “at all costs” on a first date, including: police brutality, immigration, spanking, Sept. 11 and “any current war or conflict.” Browne also offers some pre-date tips. “If you have fingernail marks on the palms of your hands, you’re a little too tense.” Maybe the series really is for dummies.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company