Fast Company

Support Groups for Dummies

What happens when experts in home theater, acne, and GURPS collide?

At the first-ever conference for authors of For Dummies books--an "unconference," its puckish organizers declared--there were no step-by-step instructions on how to register. No boldface WARNING signs about diving in the hotel pool. No easy-to-read tips on hailing a taxi.

That's because Dummies writers, unlike their readers, are accomplished experts in their fields. Their know-how has been packaged into a series of more than 1,000 titles that together have sold more than 150 million books nationwide since the seminal DOS for Dummies in 1991. So this assemblage of 50 Dummies authors in San Francisco was a most eclectic, most authoritative affair.

"I'll never sit at such an interesting table again," said Branding for Dummies author Barbara Findlay Schenck, who broke bread with experts on astronomy, weather, insurance, reiki, and buying a car. Nina Paul, the woman behind Living With Hepatitis C for Dummies, swapped nutrition tips with the writer of Lowfat Cooking for Dummies. The Home Theater for Dummies maven warned colleagues off high-definition TVs with VHS technology. Experts on subjects from acne to GURPS (look it up, dummy) traded strategies for boosting book sales.

Advice came from unlikely corners. Stephen Maran, author of Astronomy for Dummies, told how to land a speaking gig on a cruise ship; a podcasting primer came from, of all people, Napoleon for Dummies author J. David Markham. (The creators of Podcasting for Dummies, alas, weren't present.)

This weekend-long gathering said a lot about a world where technology and globalization increasingly conspire to make us all dummies, on some level, about a lot more stuff than we'd like. How to install a wireless home-computer network? How about choosing the right back-care regime? "One week I'm an expert on sewing, but by the next, I've forgotten it all so I can fill my head with chess gambits," said Rich Tennant, who has drawn the cartoons for every single Dummies book.

Even the experts need help. Alan L. Rubin, the author of Diabetes for Dummies and three other Dummies titles, put together the unconference to fulfill a long-held dream of spending a weekend in the company of "so many other smart people." But ultimately, the confab was really all about Dummies book publishing … for dummies.

The authors compared notes on royalties and heard from the executive director of the Authors Guild about contract clauses they might want to renegotiate. There were sessions on picking the right agent and marketing best practices. And Dummies publisher John Wiley & Sons Inc., though not an official unconference sponsor, brought in execs to explain how books happen. (It also underwrote the Saturday-night rubber chicken dinner, which could have benefited from the expertise in Cooking for Crowds for Dummies.)

For many writers, this was their first face-to-face contact with anyone from Wiley. "We live in an era where authors and editors now have decades of experience working together by phone and email without ever meeting," said Calculus for Dummies author Mark Ryan.

We also live in an era where jokes about Dummies books are as legion as the books themselves--such as, why isn't there a Rocket Science for Dummies or Brain Surgery for Dummies? But attendees dismissed any suggestion that their works might be lightweight.

"The books are based on good, serious knowledge," said Markham, who has written three more academic books on Napoleon. "I'm presenting it in a conversational mode, but that doesn't detract from the scholarship." Any guff he gets from academic colleagues, he reckoned, is mostly born of jealousy.

Because, really, what do these envious scholars know about writing books that actually help people? The dummies.

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