The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dummies

Thursday, August 24th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Congratulations! You may already be a Dummy. Or an Idiot. More likely - if you're anything like millions of American readers - you're already both. If your bookshelves sport anything glaringly orange and blue (Idiot!) or yellow and black (Dummy!), consider yourself one of the fashionably clueless.

The Complete Idiot's Guide

Number of titles: Approximately 300, about 50 computer-related

Number sold: About 3 million annually

Signature colors: Orange and blue

Recent titles: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Sunken Ships and Treasures, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Teen Spirituality, The Compete Idiot's Guide to American History, Second Edition, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Biblical Mysteries

Publisher: Macmillan Lifestyles (Alpha Books)

Web site: (launches by September)

For Dummies

Number of titles: Approximately 700, about 500 computer-related

Signature colors: Yellow and black

Recent titles: Car Buying Online for Dummies, CCNA for Dummies, Sex for Dummies, Success for Dummies, PCs for Dummies Quick Reference, Cruise Vacations for Dummies 2001 (September), Italy for Dummies, Getting Your Book Published for Dummies

Number sold: More than 100 million in the last decade

Publisher: IDG Books

Web sites: and

SOURCES: Macmillan Lifestyles and IDG Books

The Complete Idiot's Guides and Dummies books have become a verifiable social phenomenon: Combined, the series have sold more than 100 million books and feature more than 1,000 titles. Take that, Harry Potter.

Caroline Bauscher of Richardson considers herself a proud crossover - she's an Idiot and a Dummy.

"I've probably got at least 15 of those books," says the 28-year-old stay-at-home mom. "I've learned everything from how to feng shui my bedroom to how to sell my old china on the Internet.

"They're terrific; they tell you exactly what you need to know and nothing more, and it's boiled down into easy-to-understand tidbits. They're fun - not at all like some instruction books, where you feel like you're reading someone's master's thesis."

One might consider the Dummies and Idiot's Guide books a sort of grown-up version of Cliff's Notes, only with far-reaching topics. Coincidentally - or perhaps not - IDG Books, the publisher of Cliff's Notes, also publishes the Dummies series. And yes, there's The Complete Idiot's Guide to American Literature for adults whose fear of Hawthorne remains disabling.

So which came first, the Idiot's or the Dummies? That distinction belongs to the stoplight-yellow-and-black Dummies series, which kicked off in the early 1990s with a handful of computer-related titles.

The Dummies books have stayed heavily computer-oriented, with more than 500 titles (including revisions) in that arena and about 200 in the noncomputer, lifestyles area, says Kathy Welton, vice president and publisher for IDG Books.

More than 100 million Dummies books have sold in the last decade, Ms. Welton says, with between 50 and 75 new noncomputer titles each year. She didn't have figures on how many computer-related titles are published annually.

The Idiot's Guides jumped on the "clues for the clueless" bandwagon in 1993. "We saw what they (the Dummies) were doing, identifying a market niche and really seeing it take off, so we decided to get
into that as well," says Marie Butler-Knight, vice president and publisher for Macmillan Lifestyles, under whose Alpha Books imprints the Idiot's Guides are published.

As with the Dummies books, the first Idiot's Guides were computer-related: The Complete Idiot's Guide to DOS and The Complete Idiot's Guide to PCs.

But the Idiot's Guides soon turned their emphasis to more lifestyles topics. Of about 300 current titles, only about 50 are computer related, Ms. Butler-Knight says from her office in Indianapolis.

"It just made sense for us," she says. "Once we saw that people were so receptive to this style of learning on technical subjects, it was a very short step to take it to any other subject that seems complex or difficult. We see the books as avenues for people who are learning a topic for the first time and also for those that need to brush up on old skills.

"And the concept works for any subject that people might feel intimidated by at first - they see us as someone who's going to hold their hand as they're leaning into a subject."

The next wave

More than 100 new titles in the Idiot's series will be published this year, Ms. Butler-Knight says. Since the series debuted, the books have sold about 3 million copies every year - 7 million in the last 24 months alone.

While some readers might take offense at being lumped in with the Idiots and Dummies, Ms. Butler-Knight says, "If you're offended, these probably aren't the books for you. No learning style works for everyone, and we're assuming a certain sense of humor. You'll see a lighthearted approach on nearly every topic with us."

That has occasionally caused some reader backlash, she says. "We had one reader who took exception to our approach with The Complete Idiot's Guide to Beating the Blues, which was about depression.

"But, really, if you're already depressed, couldn't you use a little humor in your life? And the information is completely valid and well-researched; just because it's presented in a certain way doesn't mean it has any less credibility." She says another reader took exception to the point of view in The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Middle East Conflict.

Ms. Welton, publisher of the Dummies series, says those books also "have a sense of humor, but we haven't pushed some of the envelopes they [the Idiot's Guides] have.

"We've made a conscious decision that we're just not going to do anything that might not be in good taste to some readers," she says from her Chicago office.


They might be less edgy, but the Dummies' continued emphasis on tech subjects has made them icons of the computer world.

Carey Stephenson, a 35-year-old free-lance computer consultant who lives in Garland, says the Dummies guides have saved him more than once.

"I've had times where I'm doing a project and the person on the other end is talking a completely different [programming] language.

"I can usually take a Dummies guide and get up-to-speed pretty quickly, at least enough to get started, and then go to other sources as I need to."

The Idiot's series has had its greatest success in personal finance, health and fitness and relationships, Ms. Butler-Knight says. "We've had a great success with The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Kama Sutra, for instance," she says.

"And our Learning Spanish is a top-seller month after month. We've also done really well in spirituality, new age and religion titles, like The Complete Idiot's Guide to Catholicism and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Judaism."

Ideas for new books come from readers, editors and writers. "We have a whole staff of editors working on this, tasked with keeping their finger on the pulse of popular culture," Ms. Butler-Knight says.

"Last year, for instance, our book on feng shui took off like a rocket - they saw the trend, and by the time the book came out, it hit the wave just right."

Writers say it takes someone who's . . . well, neither an idiot nor a dummy . . . to successfully break into the series.

"It's exhausting, like writing 26 books in one," says Dr. Judy Kuriansky, a clinical psychologist and popular call-in radio hostess, who has written two Idiot's Guides on dating and relationships.

"They want so much information in each book - really, everything you're going to want to know about a given subject. It's an enormous amount of work - each chapter is really like a little book in itself."

Idiot and proud

The books' reputation has made being an "idiot'' a good thing, she says. "It says that you're someone whose time is valuable, that you want the information quick and down and dirty without wasting your time."

Both series have become so popular that when a title goes out of print, you're likely to find it on eBay or other online auction sites, often fetching more than the original cover price.

A recent eBay search under "For Dummies" titles returned more than 500 items. A similar "Idiot's Guide" search turned up more than 100 hits.

Dr. Kuriansky says she's an Idiot in more ways than one.

"I have a whole library of them," she says with a chuckle. "I've got the ones on organizing your time - I desperately needed that - making money on Wall Street, yoga, winning through negotiation, alternative medicine. I've probably got about 30 altogether.

"I'm like most readers, I love them because I know what I'm going to get. You don't have to go to 100 different places on the Internet or whatever, it's all condensed in one neat little inexpensive package. People feel overwhelmed by all the information that's available, and this is easy and accessible."

Laurie Rozakis, who has a doctorate in English literature, has written more than a dozen Idiot's Guides, including titles on Shakespeare, grammar and style, buying and selling collectibles, dealing with in-laws and public speaking. Ms. Rozakis, who has written more than 200 books in varying genres, says she enjoys the humor and wit the Idiot's Guides allow and encourage.

"They have this irreverent, cheeky, sophisticated tone that you could never get away with in a textbook," she says.

"Heck, you can't get away with it in real life sometimes. But here, it's expected."

Joy Dickinson is a free-lance writer based in Corrales, N.M.