Indeed, For Dummies books were all about simplifying computer technology in an era when the personal computer was only a decade old and Windows was an add-on to MS-DOS.
DOS For Dummies was not an instant hit with booksellers; in fact, “most bookstore chains didn't want to carry the book at all, claiming that the title insulted their customers and readers in general,” reports Wiley. But then-publisher IDG Books convinced bookstores that consumers would embrace the term and be relieved that someone was making technology easy to understand.
Twenty years later, For Dummies is a dynasty that won’t die. Name the most esoteric subject and it is likely to have its very own For Dummies book. There are more than 1400 titles in the series and over 200 million books in print in 30 languages. For Dummies is an international publishing brand franchise like no other. It dwarfs even the remarkable Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, which has nearly 200 titles in print and 112 million copies sold.
Technology subjects are still addressed in the For Dummies series, but so is everything else in the world. Subjects range from the ridiculous to the sublime. Here’s just a sampling of titles published in 2009: Index Investing For Dummies, Grant Writing For Dummies, Piano Exercises For Dummies, Pregnancy For Dummies-Third Edition, Google Blogger For Dummies, Sustainable Landscaping For Dummies, Mixed Martial Arts For Dummies, and Macrobiotics For Dummies.
Despite the vastly varied subject matter, every For Dummies book follows a carefully crafted formula that represents nirvana for brand consistency freaks. Each volume has the distinctive black and yellow cover, the chalkboard-style FOR DUMMIES type, and a cartoon illustration of “dummy man,” who looks like a triangular version of a character from the Simpsons.
The interior of the book is just as rigid. Virtually every For Dummies book carries cartoons by the same illustrator (Rich Tennant), uses the same graphic style and symbols throughout, and is organized into “Parts,” including the standard “Part of Ten” that lists ten tips, items, or resources. The writing is always simple, direct, and often humorous.
The books themselves have become so culturally iconic that knock-offs always appear from one year to the next. The publisher walks a fine line between allowing the brand to be publicized and protecting against damage to its intellectual property. “…what happens when universal recognition turns to parody, unauthorized use, copyright and trademark infringement?” writes Lynn Andriani in Publishers Weekly. She says Wiley’s legal department will leave well enough alone if the usage is “an acknowledgment of the strength of the brand and its place in the culture.”
That’s why Wiley looked the other way when, in the movie “Evan Almighty,” the main character consulted the book “Ark Building For Dummies.” And why a Facebook application that lets users create their own For Dummies book covers goes unchecked. Of course, if anyone other than Wiley publishes a For Dummies book, that’s a different story. What often goes unnoticed, however, is the company-sponsored For Dummies books and guides sanctioned by the publisher. For a price, Wiley’s custom publishing division will publish For Dummies guides that include company logos, specialized content, and other company-specific information.
Beyond the book series, Wiley publishes For Dummies software and videos. It also engages in a broad brand licensing program. The publisher is happy to license use of the For Dummies brand on accessories, apparel, automotive products, computing hardware, software and accesscories, consumer electronics, domestics, food and beverage, gifts and novelties, stationery, toys, video games, and more.
Wiley hasn’t missed the online market, either, though it may have come to the party a little late. Launched in January 2009, the Dummies.com website is a supplement to the For Dummies books, “where you’ll find our proven experts presenting even the most complex subjects in plain English,” says Wiley. The site is supported through advertising. For Dummies is also on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Apparently, consumers can’t get enough of dumbed down information. Three years after the first For Dummies book appeared, a similar series called “The Complete Idiot’s Guide” was launched. The series has also resulted in a multimillion dollar business, but nowhere near the level of For Dummies.
Seems that Wiley’s acquisition of the For Dummies brand a decade ago was a pretty smart move.