By Peter Sinton, The San Francisco Chronicle – 02/17/1999 – 12:00am
Book Execs’ gamble on self-help primers has paid off royally
Calling your customers dummies might not sound like the best marketing strategy. But it has worked wonders for IDG Books Worldwide.
The Foster City company has sold more than 60 million copies of its 700-plus “For Dummies” titles since 1991. One key to IDG’s success has been its decision to stick to a common name on its books. In addition, its insistence early on to sell keep-it-simple books that demystified complicated computer topics struck a chord with those consumers who wanted to grab only the information they needed rather than wade through thick technical manuals.
“We wanted to develop a brand for the masses, to talk to people who were smart but didn’t understand the technical babble and felt left out,” said John Kilcullen, IDG’s co-founder and CEO. From technical subjects, IDG Books branched into business, finance and a broad range of self-help and personal-interest books.
Last year, the company saw revenues rise nearly 20 percent to $141.5 million and profits soar 30 percent to $10.2 million.
“For Dummies” books now account for nearly two-thirds of IDG’s book business, including close to 400 new titles and editions this year. The company also is expanding into other areas including delivering information through the Internet and selling games and toys.
Last summer, IDG used an initial public offering to raise $49 million and spent $14.2 million of the proceeds in December to buy Cliffs Notes.
It was a logical addition. IDG Dummies titles covering business, technology and general interest subjects are designed to help customers conquer the frustration of learning a new skill. Cliffs Notes on classic works of literature have been a crutch for generations of students stumbling over term papers and preparing for exams.
An easily recognizable color scheme also has played a big role in IDG’s success. Emblazoned in yellow and black, the covers of both the Dummies and Cliffs brands have become a magnet for shoppers in bookstores and superstores like Costco, Staples, Office Max and Office Depot.
The company was created a decade ago as a unit of International Data Group, which produces 290 trade magazines and newspapers including Computerworld/Infoworld and Macworld. “We wanted to start a book company to increase revenues per reader,” said Kilcullen, 40, who spent the previous nine years in marketing and management posts at other publishers.
IDG’s first books — software and hardware buyer’s guides, and tips for playing video games — “failed miserably,” he said. Then Kilcullen came up with the title “DOS for Dummies” to help average schmoes understand Microsoft’s operating software.
The parent company, which still owns about 78 percent of IDG Books, had no problem with this populist approach. But editors accustomed to writing for engineers and other cognoscenti were nervous about addressing prospective customers as dummies.
Some big distributors such as Waldenbooks (now part of Borders Group) also balked. But Kilcullen pressed on with his contrarian, Don Rickles-like fixation on dummies.
It paid off. The first 7,500-book run of “DOS for Dummies” sold out, and subsequent editions have sold about 4 million copies. Dozens of other books took off, too.
“Everyone’s a dummy at something — doing taxes, working on the car, installing computer memory,” Kilcullen said. “Our goal is to be the first choice for people who want to learn just enough about computers, personal finance, selling and a host of self-help topics to get the results they need and get on with their lives — and have a few laughs along the way.”
“People feel comfortable with our brand; they know they won’t get overkilled with information,” added IDG Books President and Publisher Steven Berkowitz, also 40, who came to the company in 1994 and helped lift annual sales from $30 million to more than $140 million.
IDG Books has 430 employees including about 200 editorial and production staff. They are split between headquarters in Foster City and Indianapolis, which Kilcullen notes has both a great Midwestern work ethic and an employment pool of talented English grads from nearby universities.
IDG takes great care in matching subject matter with well-known personalities who are authoritative but have a down-to-earth style.
Not every author has taken immediately to the notion of writing a book for dummies. Sexpert Ruth Westheimer, for example, was offended by the request to write a book until she understood the concept. Then she became an ardent advocate of Dummies books, declaring “a lesson learned with humor is a lesson retained.”
“We look for authors who are great trainers,” Kilcullen said. For instance, golf commentator Gary McCord wrote the best-seller “Golf for Dummies” with a forward by Kevin Costner, whom he coached for his role in the movie “Tin Cup.”
David Pogue, author of four Dummies titles on Macs, magic, opera and classical music, helped celebrities such as Dianne Sawyer, Mia Farrow and Stephen Sondheim master computers.
Experts who have the right stuff but not writing skills are paired with proven authors. Joe Morgan, Howie Long and Kristi Yamaguchi took this route for their Dummies books on baseball, football and ice skating, respectively.
IDG Books offers writers advances from $5,000 to a little more than $100,000. That’s a fraction of what many other publishers pay. The royalty payments are about 10 percent of what retailers pay for the books, which also is less than other publishers’ standard royalty payments.
But IDG Books attracts a stable of thoroughbred authors because its name often guarantees high sales volume.
For example, even though IDG is not known for expertise in taxes, Kilcullen said its brand recognition has carried “Taxes for Dummies” to the third spot in tax-guide sales volume.
IDG’s familiar brand, pervasive book racks and online presence have helped launch other best-sellers. These include Eric Tyson’s “Investing for Dummies” and “Personal Finance for Dummies,” Zig Ziglar’s “Success for Dummies” and McCord’s golf primer.
This year, IDG will introduce or revise close to 400 titles and eventually plans to launch a line of travel and language books.
Besides the Dummies lines, IDG Books has a large selection of technology and 3-D visual books that are full of color graphics. It also has licensing agreements for toys, board games, CDs and calendars and is working with Lotus, Siemens and other companies to provide printed- product documentation.
IDG Books is not ignoring the Internet, either. New titles, computer tips, cartoons, newsletters and quizzes are accessable at http://www.dummies.com
Most of the $4.95 Cliffs Notes titles also are available online. Students who put things off until the last minute can download most of the 220 book summaries any time, any day for $6 (www.cliffs.com).
COMING ATTRACTIONS FOR DUMMIES
These are some of the new titles, including several by Bay Area authors, that IDG Books Worldwide will publish this year and the month they will be released:
— “Mortgages for Dummies,” by San Francisco real estate writer Ray Brown and former Bay Area personal finance expert Eric Tyson. March.
— “Human Resources Kit for Dummies,” by Max Messmer, chairman and CEO of the Robert Half International staffing services firm in Menlo Park. March.
— “Shakespeare for Dummies,” by John Doyle, former artistic director of four theater companies in the United Kingdom. April.
— “Franchising for Dummies,” by the head of Wendy’s, Dave Thomas. August.
— “Leadership for Dummies,” by Marshall Loeb, former managing editor of Fortune and Money magazines. August.
— “Aromatherapy for Dummies,” by Kathi Keville, Nevada City author of nine books on herbs and healing. August. — “Birds for Dummies,” by Sacramento’s Gina Spadafori, director of America Online’s pet-care forum. August.
— “Art for Dummies,” by Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. September.
— “Etiquette for Dummies,” by Sue Fox, founder of Etiquette Survival. September.
— “Diabetes for Dummies,” by San Francisco physician Alan Rubin. September.
— “Vitamins for Dummies,” by Christopher Hobbs, Santa Cruz herbalist and author of 18 books. September.
— “Mexican Cooking for Dummies,” by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, hosts of Food TV’s “Too Hot Tamales” show. September.
Source: IDG Books Worldwide