a post for dummies and mere mortals

I’m sure this horse has been beaten to death on blogs and elsewhere but I this matter has been on the back burner in my mind for quite some time. The issue is in regards to the “For Dummies” series from John Wiley & Sons, Inc., and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Addison-Wesley’s “For Mere Mortals” series. My thoughts are with respect to the overall title and not about any particular book in general. In fact, there are probably some in these series that are excellent – if it wasn’t for the cover.

The problem with these series is that book titles first assume that the individuals are potential idiots. Purchasing one of these books is almost admitting that your ability to understand the topic is considerably limited. If, however, you browse through the topics the books in the series covers, you soon realize that more often than not, the topic is not really all that complicated.

For example, the topics in the “For Dummies” include Understanding Your Dog, Wine, Bread Machines, Yahoo!, Blogging, the Koran, etc. There are hundreds of titles and most are rather benign. How hard is it to understand your bread machine? It comes with an instruction manual, recipes and – assuming you have internet access – the web has numerous resources. Even a quick trip through the right section of a bookstore would probably yield numerous other options.

And perhaps my gripe is the “For Dummies” concept is relative to the topics. Can anyone really by that handicapped when it comes to understanding their dog? While sifting through the various “For Dummies”, I didn’t find titles like “Quantum Electro Dynamics For Dummies”, “Neurosurgery For Dummies” or “Metahistory For Dummies”. There I could see someone perceiving themselves has being at a significant disadvantage.

I understand that there is something to a series. For example, I am big fan of several of the Addison-Wesley series relating to software engineering. I own numerous books and I’m eager to know what new titles are available. Not every book is pure gold but I’ll almost always kick the tires (maybe “bite the nugget” would be a better continuation of the gold metaphor … thought it doesn’t sound quite right). In terms of marketing, the “For Dummies” series has done something right. The books are easily identifiable and you can always query them by name.

When it comes to my domain, the problem I have is that such books propagate confusion and misunderstanding. For example, the Unified Modeling Language (UML) is one the most debated topics in certain areas of software engineering. There are multiple camps ranging from complete disgust to blind acceptance. I’m in the middle somewhere. The language is the current standard has it’s utility as well as its shortcomings. But it’s not a religious issue. In my travels, much of the dislike is the result of a misunderstanding. The “For Dummies” and “For Mere Mortals” suggest that the topic is complex enough we have to break it down for the common man. The resulting interpretation could be that if it’s that complicated, how useful is it?

You could argue that this discussion is not suggest anything better, that somehow those that buy the books are not self-aware and almost destined to buy them. That’s not my point. It is more in line with what it suggest about the perception of about the author or publisher of a book in such a series? How do they see their audience?

I think I’d like to see a series with a better title. Maybe “Simple and Clear”. It might not be as catchy – and sounds a little like a face cleanser -but it conveys a similar message in much better light. Maybe I need to start my own publishing company.

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