How to Brand a Book: 9 Rules From "Dummies"

The dummies man discusses brand building for books.

Wiley Dummies Man
Wiley / For Dummies

What does it take to develop a “brand” as an author or a line of books? 

To answer that question, we posed that question to one of the most successful “author-brands” we could think of. No, we’re not talking about James Patterson. We’re talking about the Dummies Man.

Twenty-five years old, with 250 million+ books in print and counting, the Dummies brand is still going strong as one of the most well-known and go-to book series for people wanting basic information about just about any topic from accounting and beekeeping and cookbooks to YouTube and Zoho.

Spokesperson David Palmer allowed this reporter rare and exclusive access to the very busy Dummies Man. Remotely from the Wiley* headquarters in Hoboken, he answered my questions about what drives a best-selling series of books and what keeps a brand alive for two-and-half decades.

Here's the Q&A and the important takeaways:

1. Have Your Brand Fill A Need

Valerie Peterson: Thanks for meeting with me, Dummies Man. Let’s go back to that very first title on your list. Would you tell us about the first Dummies book and how it began your journey into the international brand it is today?

Dummies Man: The first title was DOS For Dummies in November of 1991. John Kilcullen*, then-president of IDG Books (our then-publisher), hearkened back to a comment he’d overheard from someone in a software shop complaining about the lack of resources to help people learn the basics. Kilcullen acknowledged that he’d sometimes felt like a computer “dummy” himself and wanted to do something about the frustration that was increasing with the proliferation of computers in every office.

So we saw a need and took a chance and the author, Dan Gookin delivered. 

And I was tapped to be the face of the brand, so to speak, on the book covers.

We felt people needed a resource they could open, find the answer to their question, close the book and use it. And they did! We quickly published more books on a variety of topics using the same, easy-to-follow model.

Today, there are more than 300 million books in print and we add roughly 200 titles per year. The first German Dummies title published in 1992, the first Canadian title published in 1995, the first Australian title in 2001 and the first UK title in 2003.

2. Follow Your Authentic Instincts and 3. Stand Out from the Pack

VP: You’ve done what most book marketing people would consider counter-intuitive — pretty much called people “dummies" — and yet they flock to your books. Can you explain the thinking behind that and why that brand strategy was so successful in the books reaching their audience?

DM: At first, most bookstore chains didn’t want to stock DOS For Dummies — book buyers worried that the title would insult their customers.

Our publishers' sales staff countered these arguments with the confidence that the Dummies branding method would strike a chord with readers and that readers would feel an instant identification with the series’ mission. The rest is history. DOS For Dummies sold out its initial print run of 7,500 copies in less than two weeks, and in the first 14 months, the book sold more than 1.5 million copies.

And then, of course, we followed that model for other computer programs, then other topics.


4. Establish — And Follow Through On — the Brand Promise

VP: What other factors do you credit for the brand's longevity and success?

DM: Our customers have come to count on Dummies to provide authoritative, easy-to-understand information, no matter what the topic or format.

Our commitment to meet their needs and expectations is at the forefront of every stage of the process.  With Dummies, you get a full range of technical and general interest topics, a brand name with near-universal recognition and expert authors.

But it’s also much more. It’s about the power and the confidence that comes from the reader knowing that he or she has the knowledge and is able to tackle whatever new challenge comes next. The Dummies brand gives permission to learn, to experiment, to reinvent and — that ultimate expression of power — to create.

Whether it's getting the job you always wanted, becoming an expert in the latest software release, just days after it’s launched, learning to write a love letter in Farsi — even facing down a healthcare challenge with your eyes wide open — we enable everyone who wants to learn to achieve career, academic and personal fulfillment. That’s because Dummies makes learning easy across thousands of topics from generalist to specialty, primer to expert.

5. Keep Your Branding Recognizable and Consistent

VP: Dummies Man, tell us how you find and keep readers for your books. You — like James Patterson — can’t do all that writing yourself. Tell us a bit about how you keep that consistency over the books.

DM: Well, as you know, you see my face in or on every book — that and the recognizable book jacket design helps readers "find us more easily." And the interiors of the books are consistent with the same, simple and easy-to-follow iconography — kind of like step-by-step maps to guide the reader through whatever process we're teaching him or her. 

Plus, as you mentioned, despite having different authors for each book, we have guidelines in order to keep the consistency. Every Dummies author is a subject expert who must know and understand what information readers need about their topic — and what information they don’t.

And he or she has to adhere to what I consider "brand voice" basics.

VP: Can you give us some examples:

DM: Sure. Our Dummies authors must be "on the reader’s side," someone who doesn't talk down to readers and who focuses on two magical words "you can." That sensibility must permeate every page. 

Plus, the Dummies writing is conversational and avoids jargon and technobabble whenever possible. You'll notice that in the paragraph above I kind of explained the word "iconography"... or at least, we'd define it.

6. But Give the Brand Look An Occasional "Refresh"

DM: I'm going to add that while consistency is key, you'll note that in May of 2016 we launched a spiffed up, freshened up, modernized look for the brand. This helps ensure that our readers understand we're providing up-to-date content for those looking for current and — as always — helpful and engaging information.

VP: So, how do you keep the For Dummies recognition through a brand "refresh"?

DM: We made it a point to retain the distinctive For Dummies yellow and black colors, other elements of visual consistency. And, of course, I'm still the very recognizable face of the brand.

7. Extend and Leverage the Brand in Innovative Ways

VP: So, you've created lots of Dummies brand extensions and, like many best-selling authors, you've embraced new ways of marketing books. What broader (i.e. not “book”) branding practices have you brought to the Dummies series? How have these needed to be adapted at all to the publishing world for readers?

DM: We have a licensing program that partners Dummies brand recognition to pretty much anything – wine, musical instruments, consumer electronics, culinary products, sewing patterns and instrumental DVDs and software.

The licensing program really took off when the brand sought to bundle audio CDs with two music-related titles and negotiated with EMI to exchange low-cost companion CDs for the opportunity to sell the CDs as standalone products — and “Beethoven For Dummies” went to No. 2 on the Billboard classical music chart!

Additionally, we have a Custom Solutions team on to help businesses leverage the well-known For Dummies brand with customized content and digital products and other B2B solutions that speak right to their key audiences.

8. Adapt Your Content and Marketing to the Times

VP: You started out in print and now you span the print and digital publishing arenas. Can you speak to the digital For Dummies world of the present day? How have you had to adapt?

DM: We know that people aren’t going into bookstores anymore to get answers to their questions or to learn a new skill. They’re going to the Internet. Online search is becoming more and more important for platforms like, where there are currently, there are more than 60,000 how-to articles available.  In addition, we have a pretty robust digital presence with things like e-cheat sheets, ebooks, apps, slideshows, social media, videos, and newsletters.

9. Be a Publicity Hound

VP: Finally - over the years you’ve become such a celebrity. A lot of authors need help with getting on camera and booking other author appearances, but I’ve seen you and the famous TV shows and films, as faux movie tie-ins, etc. Would you tell us the most exciting cameos you’ve had?

DM: I have two favorites! The first is my appearance on the last episode of “Friends” in 2004. In the finale, Ross and Rachel finally get together. One of the reasons why? Ross reveals he’s been reading Sex For Dummies!

My second favorite is from 2007. Dummies books pop up frequently in movies, but perhaps never as big as “Evan Almighty,” starring Steve Carell. In the movie, God instructs Evan to build an ark and, to help him with his mission, gives him a copy of Ark Building For Dummies!

I really enjoy when Dummies makes appearances on fun media properties. 

VP: You're lucky you're not in fashion, or you might be getting replaced as "the face of Dummies" by one of those young celebutante kids. And, I must say, you've aged well. 

DM: Gee, thanks. I've been on The Whole Body Diet For Dummies, and I stick to the For Dummies yellow wardrobe - it's really flattering to my complexion. 

*VP: Dummies Man, I appreciate your taking the time to enlighten me. As a journalist, I just wanted to make a quick disclaimer for the readers. Not sure if you remember, but I worked for your publisher Wiley some years ago. Plus, I went to Fordham and graduated the same year as the aforementioned John Kilcullen, though none of us have any sort of current association. 

So, how's Hoboken treating you these days?

DM: Been having some good times. And, as you know, the views of the Hudson River and Manhattan are gorgeous!

Dummies Man Bio: Since DOS for Dummies was published, the Dummies Man — and the For Dummies brand — has been trusted to transform complex topics and concepts into easy-to-use information to help anyone learn anything. Through his multi-channel learning platform, the Dummies Man is the recognizable face behind a brand that inspires, informs and empowers people to learn more, do more — to be more.