Computer books and detergent and bodice-rippers, oh my!
Date: Wed, 7 Sep 94 13:20:49 PDT
Subject: Computer books and detergent and bodice-rippers, oh my!
Forwarded-by: bostic@CS.Berkeley.EDU (Keith Bostic)
Forwarded-by: email@example.com (Gene "Chief Yuckster" Spafford)
> When did computer how-to books come to be colored and lettered like
> detergent boxes? [. . .] I was in Wordsworth's the other day and there
> was *row* after *row* of orange and black striped book spines with
> titles like "New Improved DOS for Dummies!"
IDG's "* for Dummies" series has to take much of the blame for this. It's
been wildly successful, with the original DOS for Dummies having spawned
not only a vast legion of IDG books with increasingly ungraceful titles
("Word for Windows for Dummies" springs to mind), but also whole copycat
series from other publishers who want to cash in on the trend. There is,
for example, a "Big Dummy's Guide to..." series; I saw "Big Dummy's Guide
to the Internet" last week.
Has anyone on this list read one of the "...for Dummies" books? (And
would one of us admit it if we had?) Recently, a friend at Ziff-Davis
press -- who publish their own fair share of series, but no "Dummies"
ripoffs -- was talking with me about the Dummies phenomenon. "Would you
buy a book titled for dummies?" she asked. Those of us around the table
couldn't imagine it. And I would be even LESS likely to buy a book titled
"Big Dummy's Guide to Anything." A book written BY a dummy is even less
appealing than one written FOR them.
It may not remain confined to computer books, however. My representative
(I'm sorry, I moved OUT of L.A., I can't get used to saying "my agent")
talked with me recently about the Dummies craze and mentioned that IDG
was thinking of expanding the series into non-computer-related topics --
car repair, home improvement, other do-it-yourself projects. The mind
But it *definitely* calls for a list of potential titles. (No, Chris,
not "F1 for Dummies.") My own thoughts on the matter range from the
serious (I'll bet you could buy a small Caribbean island with the
royalties from "VCRs for Dummies") to self-parody ("Toast for Dummies").
We could combine popular software titles with the black-and-yellow covers
and end up with things like "Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing for Dummies."
And of course eventually we have to go from the ridiculous ("Arbitrage
and Leveraged Buyouts for Dummies") to the sublime ("Ventriloquism for
And of course, the political arena is a natural. Democrats can howl over
the antics of Dan Quayle's contributions to "Speling for Dummies" (sic,
of course). And Republicans can overwhelm the U.S. Postal Service by
mailing copies of "Decision-Making for Dummies" to 1600 Pennsylvania
Avenue. Finally -- not to wish anyone ill, of course -- given the
advanced years of the author, someone should arrange for ex-President
Reagan to begin work soon on what would be his magnum opus, "Dozing for
Oh, and if anyone is interested in a serious discussion of the competition
for shelf space in the computer sections of nationwide bookstores, I heard
a panel made up of the chief buyers from Ingram's, Barnes & Noble, and
Border's Books last March. The basic cut there is that B & N usually has
more than 40,000 square feet of floor space, so they try to make a point
of having one of everything. If this means there are 45 books on Word
for Windows on the market, they'll have 45 books on Word for Windows --
maybe not in every store, but at least in crucial areas. Same for Borders,
only they are trying to have one of everything everywhere. (The Borders
in Rochester, I understand, has a copy of my book, for instance...)
Combine this with the disproportionate sales and profitability of computer
books -- they make up something like 5% of the titles and 18% to 20% of
the revenue for many vendors -- and you have a fierce desire on the part
of the publishers to make the books visible from the street while stacked
on the back shelves.
(Ingram, of course, doesn't care -- they're a distributor, but they're
the reason you can order a book and get it in two days instead of three
weeks. They have several cases of just about everything in each of their,
um, five warehouses across the country. Or maybe three warehouses.
With CD-ROMs and software titles increasingly being marketed as though
they were books, or in many cases along with books, small bookstores are
starting to wonder where they'll find the room to put new titles on the
shelves. The whole thing leads to doing anything possible -- including
marketing books as though they were soap -- to try to catch the consumer's
attention. Hence high-contrast covers, interminable series from hell that
leverage off mindshare from the previous 25 titles in the series, and of
course, that stalwart fallback position of Madison Avenue since time
immemorial, shameless, slavish imitation of others' success.
BTW, another friend mentioned the newest trend in socially-acceptable
romance novel covers. Demographically, buyers of romance novels tend to
be overwhelmingly female, but with more and more of said women taking
professional positions, the publishers were seeing resistance to covers
with the traditional look -- that is, shirtless dark-haired man hefts
breathless bosomy woman in bare sinewy arms while regency/antebellum
mansion burns merrily in the background. So apparently the new signal is
to put flowers on the cover. "No guy is gonna buy a book with flowers
on the cover," Shel tells me, "but a woman in a suit won't be embarrassed
to be seen reading it in business class on a flight to New York, or
carrying it under her arm as she checks into a hotel for a trade show."
An excellent piece of self-selecting user-interface design, that, and a
Obviously, this leaves the bodice-ripper cover type available for computer
books (though the diversity of genders and orientations in the computer
world present some interesting problems to the art director). I'll mention
it to my editor when cover design comes up on my current project...
--Scott "Sweet Savage QuickTime for Windows for Dummies" Fisher
© 1994 Peter Langston