For years publishers have tried to make their books as easily recognizable as the golden arches of McDonald's. Except for travel, where lines like Frommer's, Fodor's and Rick Steves' have gone on to become household names, general series have seldom met with that kind of recognition.
Since it takes close to a decade for a brand to be established, it's only now that booksellers can begin to assess the many series that promise to simplify life's knottiest problems, from sex to computers and the Bible. The very first of these guides, DOS for Dummies, came out exactly 10 years ago in 1991 from IDG Books (now Hungry Minds).
Other simple series soon followed. In 1993, both Alpha Books and Adams Media launched their Idiot's guides and Everything series, respectively. Then last fall DK decided to enter the crowded fray with six KISS (Keep It Simple Series) guides. At the same time, Adams Media, which over the years has added more of Everything to its list—including mini-formatted titles and kids' books—initiated the fastread series, tag-lined "for those of us who don't have all day!"
Given the continued expansion of these series and For Dummies' 10th anniversary, PW spoke with publishers and booksellers about whether these books really translate into simple sales.
Keep 'Em Coming
As the new kid on the simple series block, DK launched its KISS guides by mounting an aggressive consumer campaign that more closely resembled one for promoting a new brand of yogurt than a fast and easy read. According to Chuck Lang, senior v-p of marketing, "Our whole emphasis in the fall was to get the books front and center. We put out 5,200 KISS floor displays." That was more than any other corrugated display for a DK title except Star Wars. DK also advertised in bus shelters, on subways and even in nail salons, and there were candy giveaways in selected cities. Commuters in Washington, D.C., for instance, picked up 250,000 pieces of candy kisses at Union Station one fall morning.
For Lang, who helped promote the Eyewitness Travel Guides, which in 1993 was another latecomer in a crowded market, KISS has given him a strong sense of déjà vu all over again. With series, he noted, "You're not selling the author so much as a level of trust. You really need three seasons to get a gauge, but we do know that the retailers are doing well with KISS books." The guides, which are illustrated in full-color throughout, a DK hallmark, have a suggested retail price of $19.95.
Before Everything started selling seemingly everywhere, in bookstores and gift stores alike, Massachusetts-based Adams Media focused most of its publishing energy on single-title books. That has begun to change with the recent appointment of Gary M. Krebs as director of series and single-title publishing. While Krebs intends to continue to publish 20 to 25 single titles each season, he acknowledges that "there's definitely a shift to series publishing that's gone on in the company, because we've had so much success with Everything. Our predominant growth is in series books."
In fact, Everything is largely responsible for propelling Adams Media from a relatively small press into a midsize one. Krebs attributes the series' success in part to the fact that "we positioned it to be a lesser price point than Dummies and Idiot's, and we don't have the negative impact of those two words." To minimize Everything's growing pains, he said, "We have regular editorial meetings where we brainstorm new directions. We look for categories that are our strength. We've had huge success in parenting. We've gone deep into weddings and nursery rhymes."
As far as the fastread titles are concerned, Krebs noted that "Finance is where we're starting, but we are absolutely looking for other areas of growth. We wouldn't go right out of the box with four in a new category." The series debuted last September with Rich Mintzer's fastread Investing. In April, Krebs plans to add more fastreads on building a home page and getting out of debt. All fastread books are very short, 128 pages, and priced to be competitive with magazines, at $5.95 suggested retail.
Although Idiot's guides started off with computer books, today, according to Alpha Books marketing manager Dawn Van De Keere, "We have 300 in the lifestyle category and 75 to 100 in computers. We're planning on 75 to 80 books this year." Surprisingly, the four top sellers—Complete Idiot's Guide to Learning Spanish, Learning French, the Bible, and Catholicism—aren't even connected with computers. "They are on topics that people don't have time to take a course on," said Van De Keere. "We make them easy to understand."
Not that Idiot's readers are in any way dumb. "The have college degrees," said Van De Keere, "but they recognize that they don't know everything." She admits that the line's tongue-in-cheek approach doesn't appeal to everyone, but they are popular with people who have a sense of humor about themselves. They are also people who care about price. "We're making a conscious effort to stay under the $20 price range," she told PW. "We're also very conscious to be under the price of a Dummies book by one, two, sometimes even three dollars."
Despite the popularity of these lines, For Dummies continues to be the one to beat. Hungry Minds chairman and CEO John Kilcullen regards For Dummies as a true brand unlike the others, which he terms merely "series."
"The brand is about getting 100 million copies off the press, the yellow cover, the chalk-like lettering and the Dummies character," Kilcullen said. "That truly sets us apart. Dummies is a term of endearment. We worked hard to get into Japan and China, where honor is important. You now see double-decker buses in Singapore, 'Dummies Rule.' Dummies is the highest level of comfort."
While computer titles continue to be at the heart of the For Dummies book publishing program, the series has branched out to include books by leading authors in areas from cooking (Charlie Trotter) to sexuality (Dr. Ruth) and baseball (Joe Morgan). Last fall Dummies also introduced its first line of travel titles, which began with popular destinations in the United States, like San Francisco and Disneyland, and major European cities, like London. As a true brand, For Dummies has also begun actively licensing its name for everything from Pressman Toy board games to Andrews McMeel calendars, TableTalk conversation starter cards, Simplicity sewing patterns and Centis office products.
Sellin' Like Hot Cakes
Susan Danner of 25-year-old Danner's Books in Muncie, Ind., also regards For Dummies as a real brand. "It's like Kleenex," she said. "People come in and ask for the Dummies. They know there are other 'made simple' books out there, but they know you'll know what they mean." Dede Teeters, manager of Armchair Books in Port Orchard, Wash., has experienced the same thing. "I don't think the customer differentiates between Dummies and Idiot's as much as we do," she commented.
John Kelley, co-owner of Avalon Books in Brenham, Tex., which is halfway between Houston and Austin, never intended to set up a permanent Dummies display. But, he said, "they just dominate computer books. So it looks like a Dummies section." For him, the price of both the Dummies and Idiot's computer books is part of their appeal. "As computer books go," he said, "they're inexpensive at $20 compared to more technical books from Que."
At Chapter 11, which has 13 discount stores in Atlanta, all the simple series books are popular. According to Brian Lapidus, director of communications, "They're usually the most requested books after bestsellers. They're sort of the chain restaurant of books. When people go to a different city, they'll go to Friday's or Chili's and order a burger. If they're getting married, they'll go into a bookstore and ask for The Complete Idiot's Guide to Weddings."
While the KISS guides are still very new, Vivien Jennings, founder and co-owner of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kans., is pleased with how the first releases have done. "The DK stuff is coming along," she said. "Maybe because visually they are a little more eye-catching, and catchy packaging is important."
She's done well with various simple series titles. Although computer books continue to be the most popular, Antiquing for Dummies, by Ron Zoglin and Deborah Shouse, is also a strong seller. "The authors live here, and they do a lot of presentations," she said, adding, "There are some good pointers in the book."
But with hundreds of simple series books coming out each year, Jennings can't possibly carry every one. "We can't afford to be everything to everyone," said Jennings, who fills in stock by ordering every day from several wholesalers. Whenever she sits down with a rep, she said, "I try to ask, 'How can this be marketed?'" In the case of Living Language's Instant Scholar CD sets, she's found a lot of corporate takers. "We have had calls from corporate clients who have a lot of Hispanic and multicultural employees, whose communication skills were poor. They wanted guides on grammar. So we recommended these tapes to them so they could listen to them in the car. They have a set called Good Grammar and A Short Cut to a Sophisticated Vocabulary." In addition, she's also done well with A Shortcut to Art and A Shortcut to Literature.
Literary stores like Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Miss., sell some Dummies titles, but not many. "We carry them," acknowledged desk manager Patrick McCarthy, who pulled up very few Dummies books on his computer: on investing, Windows, buying a car, wine, VCRs and crossword puzzles. The close proximity of chain stores like Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, B. Dalton and Borders, which stock more of the complete simple series, free up Lemuria to concentrate on other titles in fiction, history and children's. "We get requests for Dummies, but more often than not we special order them for our customers," said McCarthy.
Even without the added competition, many small stores have trouble finding shelf space for series titles. "Series can be wonderful and present a problem at the same time," said Pamela Giovannini, owner of Front Street Book Shop in Scituate, Mass., who won a complete collection of Everything titles at last fall's New England Booksellers Association convention. "Having won the Everything books, I experienced having more of them on hand than usual, and we sold a lot of them," said Giovannini. Even so, she has no plans to carry all of any series. "We're a small general store, and we touch a lot of different bases," she said. "So it would be hard to dedicate too much space to a series."
Even regional chains like the 10-store Books Inc. in San Francisco, Calif., have trouble accommodating full series. "We sell them and we sell them relatively well," said trade buyer Barry Rossnick, who is impressed by the caliber of the authors that Hungry Minds signs for its For Dummies books, especially the finance titles. "We've dropped some of the Idiot's. There are only so many we can carry." He's also decided not to carry the Dummies travel titles, just their sister line, Frommer's. Rossnick wishes publishers would "do fewer books. You could end up with a whole store in yellow and black."
Rachel Baker, marketing manager of Davis-Kidd Booksellers' Memphis, Tenn., store, finds that putting all the yellow and black, or red in the case of KISS guides, together is a good way to boost sales. "When we display them together, we do better," she told PW. She likes to use her co-op to do just that. "As long as co-op is available, that's when we get the most out of these books." In January 2000 she did a For Dummies display and drawing for an iMac in conjunction with the publication of The iMac for Dummies, by David Pogue. It was so successful that this winter she ran a similar promotion for a Palm Pilot to tie in with Palm for Dummies, by Bill Dyszel.
National chains, too, look for co-op to help build displays. Debra Williams, director of communications for Barnes & Noble, plans to make use of Hungry Minds' booksellers incentive program in April to do a special For Dummies display table with 35 titles. But, she noted, "We incorporate individual titles in various promotions throughout the year."
At B&N, many of the simple series titles are bestsellers for their particular category, such as Genealogy for Dummies or Philosophy for Dummies. Even so, said Williams, "our bestselling Dummies titles are Windows 98 and PCs for Dummies." Other series bestsellers include Complete Idiot's Guide to Learning Spanish and the Bible, Everything Wedding Organizer and Pregnancy Book, and KISS Guitar and Wine.
Linda Caine, senior marketing manager at Waldenbooks, also observed that "Individual titles with each series work very well. We shelve them by their category. The exception to this is Dummies books in the computer category. There are enough books that sell really well that we set up an in-section shop and group the books together within the category with special signage."
Although simple series titles sell well, what could make them sell even better, suggested Caine, is "advertising. Advertising outside of the book environment may help increase awareness of the series. Continuous promotion in-store helps as well." Other booksellers, like Rainy Day's Jennings, agree. "The media is the best way to reach consumers," she said.
The emphasis on consumers is no surprise for sets of books that rely on building a sense of customer loyalty and trust. If anything, that's the surest sign that booksellers are feeling the branding effect of these deceptively "simple" books. While Dummies are clearly ahead of the pack, the others may not be far behind.