There’s something distinctly democratic about the how-to guide, whose schtick is selling confidence to the amateur. You don’t need to be an expert, or spend years apprenticing under one, the genre promises. Just read these instructions, and voila, you too can make a quilt or write a screenplay or repair a Honda Civic.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the “For Dummies” brand, the black-and-yellow king of the modern how-to. Today there are 1,950 Dummies titles and counting: Jazz for Dummies, Canadian Wine for Dummies, The Internet for Dummies, Homeschooling for Dummies, Sex for Dummies, Congress for Dummies. Is your house a mess? Buy Feng Shui for Dummies. Have cancer? Try Chemotherapy and Radiation for Dummies. Are you a dummy? Critical Thinking for Dummies could help. The blurb on the cover of Iguanas for Dummies says it all: “If you only get one book on iguanas,” says a noted reptile veterinarian, “this is the one to choose.”
The punch lines write themselves, but so do the checks. According to the publisher, 300 million books are in print, and the brand adds about 200 new titles a year.
Carrying around a Dummies book always makes me feel like, well, you know. But I swallowed my pride to become a fan of the series long ago. My husband and I are using Home Buying Kit for Dummies to guide us through the process of buying our first house right now, and I recently checked out Vegetable Gardening for Dummies from the library to start planning a tomato patch in our new backyard. I used the Dummies guide for personal finance in my 20s, and in a burst of crafty ambition that ultimately fizzled, Window Treatments and Slipcovers for Dummies. I think of Dummies guides like an analog Wikipedia: the perfect place to start when all I know is that I know nothing.
A Dummies book promises a few things. It is a reference work, and not a tutorial; that means you can skip right to the bits you need without getting bogged down in material you don’t need. It is written by established experts—Sex for Dummies is by Dr. Ruth!—in a light, jokey tone. The text is broken up into small chunks, with bold headings and marginal icons (“Tip,” “Warning,” etc.) ensuring the reader rarely encounters two uninterrupted paragraphs without handholding.
Most importantly, a Dummies book assumes the reader is starting with zero knowledge on the topic. This is not a universal quality in the how-to world; I still regret purchasing a guide to growing herbs that casually suggested I needed to install a 4-foot-long fluorescent tube fixture. (Really?! And also: Where? And finally: How?) Glimpsing that book on my shelf still makes me seethe with annoyance and inadequacy. A Dummies book pulls this off without talking down to the reader, or judging her for not knowing that she’s supposed to pinch off the flowers blooming on top of her basil plant, duh.
I’ve never mustered enough interest in technology to use a Dummies guide for hardware or software, but back in 1991, the Big Bang of the ever-expanding Dummies universe was DOS for Dummies. At the time, computers were landing in the offices of non-technophiles in greater numbers, and PCs were being marketed for home use. The existing guidebooks were terrible: heavy, confusing, and alternately jargon-y and patronizing. Books for beginners existed, but they usually just slapped a condescending first chapter onto an impenetrable manual. IDG, the publisher of tech magazines like PC World, was getting into the book business and saw an opening. The book was an immediate hit, and over the next two years, IDG produced another 17 computer-based titles. From there, they expanded into other topics, starting with personal finance. The rest is history.
That is the official Dummies origin story, per the company’s website and a conversation with marketing director David Palmer. But talk to Dan Gookin, who wrote DOS for Dummies, and you get a saltier version. “There was a lot of ego involved, and a lot of petty bullshit that always happens when you have something that’s a success,” he told me from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where he is a city councilman. “They would have wrapped that title around newsprint and it still would have sold.”
His version of the origin story goes like this: In the late 1980s, he was shopping around a book proposal for The Idiot’s Guide to DOS, patterned after the popular 1969 hippie-tinged guidebook How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot.* Meanwhile, at a conference he met an editor from IDG who told him about a title rattling around in his head based on his uncle’s complaint that no one would write a book on “DOS for us dummies.” The editor read Gookin’s proposal and had just one big suggestion, in Gookin’s recollection: “This level of user doesn't want to learn anything. They want to get the answer to the question, close the book, and move on with their life.”
Gookin wrote DOS for Dummies in about a month on an advance of about $6,000. The main note from the publisher on the first draft was that it was too short. (Gookin: “It’s Mozart being told there aren’t enough notes.”) Some bookstores refused to carry the finished product because the title sounded insulting to readers, and Gookin says the publisher orderered cautious print runs of just 5,000 over and over for months. But skyrocketing sales numbers changed everyone’s minds.
In Gookin’s view, the brand faltered as it grew. “For a while in the late 1990s, they would put out any piece of shit that had ‘For Dummies’ on it, and the thing would sell,” he told me. He recalls a meeting in this era with the series’ then-publisher and several top early Dummies authors, including tech writer David Pogue, at which the writers begged the publisher to maintain the integrity of the brand. “Dummies books are special,” Gookin recalls saying. Wiley bought Dummies from IDG in 2001.
The family of Windows for Dummies titles, including the original DOS book, is still the series’ best-seller over time. Gookin has now written about 30 individual titles, not counting those that have gone through multiple revised editions. He recalls getting one royalty check for $250,000 and driving it straight to the bank, where he was told the check was too big to accept. He claims DOS for Dummies broke the royalty calculation software at IDG. “Historically speaking, yes, I made an absolute trashload of money,” he said.
So, presumably, has Wiley, although the company declined to share annual sales figures. There have been a few changes over the years—Rich Tennant’s single-panel cartoons were a staple until 2012—but mostly the brand has simply grown. There are now Dummies apps, products like “The Complete Home Haircut Kit for Dummies,” and vanity Dummies titles commissioned by corporate clients for trade shows and marketing. Dummies.com features supplementary videos and other content, much of it accessible only to those who buy the books. The books have been translated into more than 30 languages, including French; brand recognition for Pour Les Nuls rivals that of Dummies in the United States.
The books are undergoing a spruce-up this spring. Over the next few months, typefaces will be refreshed, and the “Dummies man”—the series’ cheerful triangle-head emblem—has acquired stylish thick-framed glasses and thicker, wavier hair. More substantively, the basic Dummies format will become more visual, relying less on verbal instructions and more on diagrams and illustrations.
The Dummies man may have gotten a hip makeover, but it remains to be seen how he’ll fare over the next quarter-century. The technological revolution that inspired the series has also spawned its most threatening rivals; why pay $20 for a book when there’s so much free advice online? For one, because trust and simplicity go a long way when one is embarking on an intimidating, potentially expensive new project. And also because it’s still easier to hold a book than an iPad when you’re brewing beer or breeding dogs; you don’t have to worry about dropping a book, hauling it into the garage or the garden, or turning its pages with hands covered in mud or cake batter.
The real threat to the Dummies franchise strikes me as more philosophical. The self-help fads of the current moment are all about absence and simplicity: Cleanse the body, purge the inbox, Kondo the home. A Dummies book, with its fat paper presence and corny gestalt, is made of humbler stuff. It has no grand ideology other than the pleasure of trying something new; if anything it encourages acquisition, not self-abnegation. But unlike the self-help consumer, a Dummy isn’t trying to become an entirely different person. They’re just trying to become the kind of person who knows how to use an iPhone, or care for a cat. For many of us, that’s aspiration enough. I know that my garden this summer may fail, but right now it’s still spring, and I have Vegetable Gardening for Dummies to guide me. Let 1,000 Dummies bloom.
Correction, April 4, 2016: This article incorrectly identified the decade in which Dan Gookin was shopping a book proposal. It was the late 1980s, not the late 1990s. (Return.)
See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.