A true story...
The other week, I was on a busy flight out to the West Coast. It was a cold, winter's day on the east coast and as the plane started to board, the flight attendants were already making announcements about how crowded this flight would be and where to best stow our cabin luggage. I'm one of the fortunate few that was upgraded to business class. Being able to board first, sit down, make oneself comfortable and get ready for the six hour journey makes the long flight that much more tolerable. As people were attempting to stuff their winter jacket's away and power down their smartphones, I spotted a well-dressed business executive one row ahead in the aisle seat reading one of those For Dummies guides. You know the ones I am talking about. They make them for everything these days. From Social Media Metrics For Dummies to Weight Loss Surgery Cookbook For Dummies (and everything in between). It seems like our world is full of dummies. I couldn't make out the title, but the form factor of the physical book and the yellow and black design of the cover was a dead giveaway. I felt somewhat embarrassed for this individual. On one hand, good for them for having the self-confidence to read a For Dummies book in public. On the other hand, I couldn't help but wonder what passengers would think as they walked by this person. Who reads a For Dummies guide in public? After decades of being in the workforce, this was my first encounter with one of these books out, in the wild... as it were.
That story was a lie.
I made that story up. The truth is that I have never, ever, seen an individual reading a For Dummies book out in public. And yet, these books have sold millions and millions of copies over the years and is one of Wiley's most popular and lucrative publishing imprints. In fact, I own a ton of these books and often find myself buying more and more as topics of interest come to mind. That trip out west that I described above? True story. I was in Las Vegas speaking at the New Media Expo. As I was wandering through the tradeshow floor, I noticed a Wiley booth where they were selling books. They had many of the For Dummies guides on hand as well. As I was scoping the bookshelves, I came across Scrivener For Dummies. It stopped me dead in my tracks. Scrivener is a word processing software specifically designed to help writers put their books together. After writing my upcoming book, CTRL ALT Delete with it, I have no idea how I wrote my first book, Six Pixels of Separation, on Microsoft's Word. If I ever run into someone working on a book, my first question is usually, "are you writing it with Scrivener?" As someone who didn't have the time or resources to dig deep into what Scrivener could really do, I watched a quick video tutorial and went at it. Now that book number two is off to the publisher's, I had made a note to myself to familiarize myself better with the software. Scrivener For Dummies came into my zeitgeist at just the right moment.
Don't be a dummy.
As I was speaking to the Wiley professionals manning the booth at New Media Expo, I begun talking about all of the scenarios that I find myself in where their For Dummies guides have been helpful to me (as if I was attempting to justify why I was buying a book that most people think are just for dummies). It occurred to me, that over the years, the For Dummies guides have been an integral part of learning and development (along with everything from blogs and podcasts to more traditional business books and trade publications). I'm often asked by individuals where they can go to acquire specific skills and knowledge about a unique topic in the new media landscape. More often than not, the For Dummies guides are the best place to start. When I am asked to speak on a specific topic or give a more formal training session, I always refer to the For Dummies guide's table of contents on the topic to ensure that I have not left out some core components. When a question comes up in a meeting about a unique feature or function of a specific type of technology or area of interest, I usually defer to my For Dummies guide when Google fails to deliver a substantive answer (which is more often than one might imagine).
This is no infomercial.
Don't worry, this is not a case of native advertising gone wrong. While the good folks at Wiley often offer me complimentary copies of their trade publications, I'm probably buying four times the value of those books for friends and business peers when I'm asked about information on a varying array of topics. The Scrivener For Dummies book is sitting right here on my desk as I type out this column, and acts as a reference book as I manicure and stress over another long-form piece of content that I'm nursing. And, while I would probably never take one of these books with me on a flight, this book series has been my default destination to either get-to-know a topic or ensure that I have covered all of the bases. So, while they're obviously not the coolest books to trotting around (wouldn't you much rather be seen reading Malcolm Gladwell or Susan Cain?), perhaps the time has come to change all of that and embrace the fact that we're all dummies about something. Because sometimes, the best media hack is to go back to a trusted and simple book that covers all of the basics in a way that a bunch of random articles or video tutorials on YouTube (from people whose level of experience is hard to quantify) can never fully satisfy.
The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post called, Media Hacker. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:Tweet
I'm the same way. I think the subject nature of the book has more to do with the willingness to read it in public, however. For instance, I'd have no problem reading a PHP For Dummies, or Web Design For Dummies in public. However, given the personal nature of the book you described in your example, I'd be a little more hesitant. Nothing wrong with a little knowledge to help you master something new!Reply
I do beg to differ about the unsheathing of the Dummies books in public...would it not stand to reason that a desire to want to improve skills on some relatively non-mass subject (I count Scrivener's in that category, MJ) bode well for the reader's left impression with the spotter of said Dummies title in airplane fuselage?
I thought intelligence was sexy...Reply
:-) I bet many people reading 'Dummies' books in public these days do so on their e-Readers. There could have been a plane-full of those folks!
E-readers must be a godsend for publishers of 'embarrassing' books like 'Dummies' and 'mommy porn'!Reply
I love the Dummies books. A few years ago, when it became clear that content marketing was having a good impact on SEO, I decided I wanted to know all of the "other" ways of working SEO to complement my content marketing. "SEO for Dummies" was exactly what I was looking for. It gave me all of the basic SEO information as of the publication date of the book. And then I could add that "backlist" of information to my own content marketing experiences.
I'm never afraid to admit I'm at the beginners level. They could have called the book "Beginners Guides", but what great marketing the yellow Dummies title has been!Reply
I agree--I frequently use Dummies guides as I start out learning about subjects new to me. I think they're great introductions to new topics as well as valuable ongoing "go-to" resources.
But...one of my idols, Seth Godin, often disparages them in his writings and speeches and I'm not sure why. I've resolved to ask him when I meet him.
Great post, Mitch and it reminds me of a friend who has been a psychologist for 25 years who says asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. The "dummies" part is probably why the millions sold are rarely consumed public. But thank-you for sharing Scrivener for this dummy.Reply
This post reminds me of my favorite quote: In the the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's there are few."
Remembering that we don't know everything is an opportunity for curiosity and innovation.