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Dummies vs. Idiots: Two lines of books that will hold your hand

December 15, 1996

These days, you _ yes, even you _ can learn to design a Web page, cook a tasty beef stew or woo a sweetie in style by browsing through books for the instructionally challenged.

Led by ``The Complete Idiot’s Guides″ and the ``... For Dummies″ series, reference publishing has taken a big step back to the basics.

Bookstore shelves are overflowing with guides on how to do nearly everything easier. Not sure which wine to order during dinner with a client? Check out ``Wine for Dummies.″ Baffled when your computer-savvy child says she needs a new mouse? The answer lies no further than ``The Complete Idiot’s Guide to PCs.″

Which, by the way, stands for personal computer.

``These books have found quite a niche,″ said Pete Reynolds of the American Booksellers Association. ``Basically, they answer the questions people are reluctant to ask, and they do a pretty decent job of it.″

The industry pioneer, experts agree, is IDG Books Worldwide, which publishes the Dummies books and has sold more than 30 million copies of them.

The company’s first title, and its best seller to date, is ``DOS for Dummies,″ a guide to the disk operating systems that run many computers.

The idea, said John Kilcullen, IDG’s president and chief executive officer, came from a friend’s offhand remark.

``This guy who ran a computer store said his customers would often ask for an easier reference book, something like `DOS’ for dummies. The concept sort of clicked with me,″ he said.

Kilcullen signed computer writer Dan Gookin and, in November 1991, 7,500 copies of `` `DOS for Dummies″ rolled off the presses. Five years later, the book has sold more than 2.4 million copies and the company has expanded into 230 more titles covering a wide range of technology and ``lifestyle″ topics, such as personal finance, gardening and even sex.

Far too smart to miss a growing trend, along came the ``Idiots.″

``We saw the phenomenon begin and realized there was obviously a niche,″ said Theresa Murtha, a vice president and publisher at Macmillan Publishing’s consumer information group. Like IDG, Macmillan launched the ``Idiots″ series with computer books, then tackled personal finance with ``The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Making Money on Wall Street.″

``The topics for those early books were no-brainers,″ Murtha said. ``We went after things that require some technical skill and that have an intimidation factor.″

That logic, Murtha and Kilcullen agree, makes the Internet a prime target and, this Christmas season, it made New Jersey accountant Joe Parisi a prime customer.

``My kids asked for Internet access for Christmas,″ Parisi said, as he scanned ``Internet for Dummies″ at a Barnes and Noble store in Edgewater, N.J. ``How the heck you put Internet access under the Christmas tree, I don’t know. So I’m doing a little homework.″

The publishers say Parisi’s story is common.

``The books are extremely popular with parents who want to converse with their children about computers,″ Murtha said. Also, the Baby Boomers, today’s 32- to 50-year-olds, boast considerable income and a fierce desire to keep up with their peers.

``Many people in this generation want to cultivate new interests, or backtrack and learn more about something they studied years ago,″ Murtha said. ``The Baby Boom group is full of hobbyists who want to know something about everything.″

If indeed the content targets the Baby Boomers, the packaging is aimed squarely at the twentysomethings: Generation X. Like a grade-school textbook, the ``Dummies″ and ``Idiots″ series use plenty of illustrations and cartoons, with helpful hints and trivia bits set off in boxes.

Type rarely fills an entire page. And lest readers find a lengthy table of contents too daunting, both series offer ``contents at a glance.″

Encyclopaedia Brittanica, it’s not. And that’s the way the publishers want it.

``These books are perfect for the ’90s lifestyle,″ Kilcullen said. ``People don’t have a lot of time. They don’t have to take a class. They don’t have to get an MBA. They can read these at home and gain some solid knowledge.″

There are, to be sure, those who scoff.

``I still hear naysayers,″ Kilcullen said. ``It does kind of violate a cardinal rule of marketing to call your readers dummies.″

And Murtha admits that the upcoming ``Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Perfect Marriage″ may not be what a blushing bride really wants to read.

``But you know,″ she said, ``The guide to a perfect wedding is one of our best sellers.″

Reynolds, who ran a bookstore before joining the booksellers’ association, said he had doubts before purchasing the books for his store.

``I really did think people would shy away from them,″ he said. ``But they sold very well right out of the box.″

Call it Publishing 101. After all, Kilcullen noted, ``Everyone has something to learn.″

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