Dummies 101

How writing for the not-so-smart set became a publishing phenomenon.

September 26, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,sun reporter

Welcome, friends, to the wild and wacky world of reporting. In this story, you will learn the basics of the trade and how to apply those skills to create - Voila! - a perfectly acceptable newspaper story. Let's begin.

Chapter 1, The Assignment: Go to the Baltimore Book Festival, your editor might say, and write about the For Dummies tent, sponsored by the people who have pumped out a gadzillion yellow and black, reader-friendly how-to books on everything from sex to scrapbooking.

But it's the weekend, you might whine. (Warning: Don't. The editor is your boss. Accept the assignment graciously and get to work.)

Chapter 2, Research: A good reporter does his or her homework. He or she gets on the Internet, which is the world's largest computer network, and on the telephone, which is a device that enables people to converse over long distances through a system of wires attached to poles.

First, find out who publishes the For Dummies books. Next, call that company, Wiley Publishing Inc. Most likely you will be referred to a publicist, but try to reach at least a vice president.

Someone like Marc Mikulich, vice president of brand management, should be able to provide you statistics backing up the company's claim of being the world's best-selling reference series, such as how many For Dummies books are in print - 150 million.

(Technical stuff: That, while an amazing figure, is considerably less than a gazillion.)

Mikulich can also tell you that there are more than 900 For Dummies titles, that the books are in 64 million homes, and that the average "Dummies household" has 3.25 Dummies books.

Don't get bogged down in numbers, though. To be readable, your story will need some quotes. Like:

"The whole point of Dummies is to enrich people's lives by making knowledge accessible in a fun and easy way," Mikulich said. "That's what we're all about."

Mikulich should be able to tell you a little bit about the history of the publishing phenomenon.

"You can map the growth of the Dummies series to the evolution of technology in our lives. If you think back to 1991, that was pretty much the point when corporate America was throwing out its IBM Selectric typewriters and putting personal computers on everybody's desk. All these people who thought they were reasonably intelligent suddenly started feeling threatened and intimidated and, dare we say it, dumb."

(Technical Stuff: Actually, IDG Books was the original publisher of the For Dummies series, which began in 1991 with DOS for Dummies. Wiley Publishing later bought IDG.)

(Interesting Stuff: Wiley is also the publisher of CliffsNotes, those slender yellow and black volumes students use to, shall we say, provide additional understanding of their reading assignments.)

Chapter 3, At the Scene: Whether it's a homicide or a clambake, there's no better way to capture an event than to go.

Remember to use your senses. You should have five. Let's review:

Sight. Describe what you see - the big Dummies tent with stripes in the brand's trademark yellow. Tables decorated in yellow and black. A chalkboard for a classroom feel.

Sound. Listen as Dummies representatives use free key chains and "Dummies Rule" rulers and bookmarks to lure people inside the tent, stocked with hundreds of books - Feng Shui for Dummies, Astronomy For Dummies, Card Games for Dummies, Holiday Decorating for Dummies, Bartending for Dummies, Crocheting for Dummies.

Touch. Pat the big foam head of the Dummies mascot, a pointy-chinned bespectacled nerd who appeared at the tent all weekend.

Smell. There's really nothing to smell in the Dummies tent, but a nice aroma is wafting over from the pita vendor nearby.

Taste. Grab a crab melt pita, because reporting is hungry work.

Re-energized, find the person in charge of the Dummies tent, and find out how they became such a large presence at the book festival this year. In the past, they sent a few authors. This year, though, they had an entire "stage." It was P.J. Campbell's idea. She proposed it to book festival officials last year. She is Wiley's director of events.

Talk to some of the 15 authors here this year - perhaps Jack and Wendy Volhard, the Culpepper, Va., couple who wrote Dog Training for Dummies. Note that both are wearing blue blazers - not relevant, but descriptive. Include the fact that Jack Volhard is a retired federal judge and his wife is British and still has the accent, making it all the more pithy when you ask her how she felt when asked to write a book "for dummies." She says: "I was offended enormously."

(Technical stuff: The Volhards first wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to A Well-Trained Dog, published by a Wiley competitor. Later, they redid it as a Dummies book. The Idiot's Guide series began two years after Dummies. The Dummies series has twice as many titles and has sold about six times the books.)

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