Should you author a “For Dummies” book?

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If you hope to write a book and get it traditionally published, one option is to write for an established publishing franchise, like Wiley’s “For Dummies” series. If you’re a fast writer and are ready to follow the series format and instructions carefully, it’s one of the quickest ways to get yourself into print.

To research this post, I spoke with Phil Simon, who was already the accomplished author of eight traditional business books before he wrote two “Dummies” books coming out soon: Slack For Dummies and Zoom For Dummies. (If you wanted to pick the two fastest-growing tech tools to write about, you couldn’t do much better than Slack and Zoom.) I also spoke with Steve Hayes, the editor who is in charge of acquisitions for a large chunk of the Dummies franchise at Wiley. Even before this, I knew two Dummies authors: John Levine, who wrote The Internet For Dummies (which sold 7 million copies) and Laura Fitton, who cowrote Twitter For Dummies.

The mindset you need for about all parts of this process is that you are a partner with Wiley and the Dummies franchise. Moreso than with a traditional publisher, you will have to write to a specific format and carefully collaborate on content. You’ll also keep a smaller share of the royalties per copy, since a lot of the value is being provided by Wiley putting the book on the shelf with a recognizable brand name.

How do you become a Dummies author?

The Dummies website (dummies.com, of course) includes a page describing how to propose a Dummies book. According to that page,

It is Wiley’s policy not to accept unsolicited proposals for books in the For Dummies series. You may send us a copy of your credentials for our files or contact a literary agent to submit a proposal on your behalf.

That sounds a lot like pitching any traditional publisher, and it’s one way in. However, it’s not the only way in. Phil proposed the Slack book by reaching out to Steve with an introduction from another Dummies author. Steve confirmed that he’s open to recommendations from other Dummies authors.

Steve, the Dummies editor, may also reach out to someone and propose that they become an author. That’s how he found Laura Fitton to coauthor Twitter for Dummies.

What is your topic? Two things are quite important. First, you need a new topic — Wiley is not going to publish another Slack For Dummies book now that’s Phil has written one. And second, you need a big market. I’m guessing that TikTok for Dummies is in the works (and sure enough, Steve has now confirmed to me that it is). But Partial Differential Equations for Dummies probably isn’t.

Be ready to write fast, and to spec

Want to know what goes into a Dummies book? Buy (or borrow) one. When Phil was ready to write Slack For Dummies, he got copies of two similar titles from the library to immerse himself in the format. A Dummies book has room for not just step by step instructions, but tips, top tools, myths, and so on. These are the elements from which you will build the book, so you need to learn about them.

There is a 200-page style guide. You’d be a dummy not to pay attention to it, since if you fail to match your content to the Dummies style, they will reject it. As Steve explained to me, “the selling point is consistency.” Your job is to fit your ideas to their format, not the reverse. You must write in the Dummies Microsoft Word Template — not in Google Docs or Scrivener. But they’ll work closely with you to get the table of contents and the chapters into the right format.

You’ll typically write an early chapter and get feedback from the editors to help you learn how to write in the Dummies style. Phil told me that they objected to certain words he used — like eponymous — because they were too sophisticated for the Dummies audience. “It’s a learning curve,” he says.

For a book about a technology product, most of your graphics will be screen captures. (Outside of tech, Dummies uses photos and illustrations.) Phil generated 120 screen captures for Slack For Dummies and a comparable number for Zoom For Dummies.

Not all Dummies books are on a crash schedule, but if you’re writing about something hot and new, expect to go fast. Phil wrote 100,000 words for the Slack For Dummies book in 10 weeks. Given how hot Zoom is right now, you can imagine the pressure to complete the Zoom For Dummies book quickly, especially with Zoom changing so many of its features. Even less urgent titles are written on a 16- to 20-week schedule, which is months faster than other commercial titles.

This is one reason that Steve likes repeat authors — they understand the style guide and the process, which eliminates the learning curve and speeds the process.

Promotion is still the author’s responsibility

Dummies books will appear in bookstores. That’s not always the case with other books, even those with traditional publishers. And they’ll stay there as long as the topic is relevant, which is typically quite a while. That’s a big plus about writing for a series like this.

Just like any other book, you can turn a Dummies book into speaking engagements or consulting, but you’ll have to do the work. The author of a Dummies book is instantly a recognized expert. I expect this will be helpful to Phil when it comes to people who need a Zoom or Slack expert, but he’ll have to do the promotional work to turn that into revenue.

The commercial model is less lucrative than many business books

Think about it for a minute. The Dummies book series is guaranteed to get on the shelf and sell. They can pick any authors they want; if it’s not you, there’s always somebody else who could do it. So of course, the financial model is not the same as with traditional business books.

There is an advance, of course, typically calibrated to match what you’d get in royalties for one year’s sales. Steve pegged the advances at $8,000 to $15,000, depending on the book’s sales estimates. And the royalty rates are quite low, starting around 10% of the net (that’s a percentage of the publisher’s take, which is about half the cover price), and topping out at 12% or 15%. That works out to about $1 per book, which you’d get paid only after the advance is earned out (a year, if their estimates are correct).

Wiley is also offering more “work-for-hire” contracts for Dummies books, in which they control all the content after it’s written. You’ll get paid a flat fee to write the book, again in the range of around $10,000, and after that you’ll get an even lower royalty rate with no earnout, maybe $0.50 per book, maybe nothing. These work-for-hire contracts may not pay you at all for for foreign translations or audiobooks.

Don’t like it? Write a different kind of book. Wiley owns the franchise, you’re just writing in it.

Despite the low royalty rate, you can get rich writing a Dummies book if it’s extremely popular. Even at $0.50 or $1.00 a book, a book that sells a million copies will earn you a nice payday. Of course, that only works if you’ve signed up for a topic that has huge potential. Quarantining For Dummies, anyone? If you suspect you’re about to write a huge seller, check the contract for per-book royalties, or get an agent involved to maximize your compensation.

Should you be a Dummies author?

If you can type up a book on a popular topic quickly — which requires both fast writing skills and expertise on the topic — this might be a nice way for you to establish yourself both as an author and as an authority on the topic. Dummies books might be the fastest way to get published, carried in bookstores, and into the hands of readers in your target market.

But recognize that both the advance and the royalty rate are going to be lower than for other business books. You’ll get paid for doing the writing. Your name will be on a popular book. Whether you can turn that into an opportunity for yourself is up to you.

6 responses to “Should you author a “For Dummies” book?

  1. I’ve written one. It was way harder than I expected. But I think I have a tendency to rebel against format, and the Dummies format is rigid.

  2. I ghost co-authored Twitter Marketing For Dummies back in 2009, and it led to three more social media marketing/personal branding books for me. I highly recommend it. If you’ve got a specialist topic, and can write 80,000 – 100,000 words in 4 months, do it.

  3. I wrote one in my specialty: White Papers For Dummies. In my experience, the editing was professional. The format was rigid, but they didn’t make me include a lot of dumb jokes. The promotion was non-existent. I wrote my own cover blurbs and press release, mailed out 50 review copies, and worked full-time for weeks doing interviews and guest blogs. Not complaining, but a book like mine sells on Amazon, not in bookstores.

    As Josh suggests, the best Dummies book is about some hot software or computer topic. The rest of the world (dogs, food, wine, marketing) is already pretty much covered.

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