Writing Tech Books for Dummies

You, too, can turn an interest in Carrier Ethernet or string theory into an idiot's guide

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It all began in 1991, when publisher IDG Books Worldwide irresolutely published Dan Gookin's DOS for Dummies in an initial press run of only 7500 copies. Two years and a million copies later, Alpha Books followed suit with The Complete Idiot's Guide to DOS.

Since then there have been 1600 For Dummies titles (now published by Wiley) and 1300 Complete Idiot's Guides, totaling 220 million copies. And authors and experts are still regularly being hired to pen the next installments in the franchises. Might you be next?

Be warned: It takes more than expertise, says technical writer Ed Tittel, whose HTML for Dummies, cowritten with Steve James and first published in 1995, is about to go into its 13th edition.

"The secret to writing a Dummies book is not in the knowledge," says Tittel. "The real test of a writer's mettle is being able to take complex contents and deliver them in everyday language in as friendly and nonthreatening a way as possible."

In addition to his six For Dummies trade books, Tittel has written five others for private companies—Wiley also leases out the For Dummies brand to companies looking to make an impression at trade shows or on sales calls. Tittel's roster of page-turners includes Carrier Ethernet for Dummies for the Maryland-based network firm Ciena Corp. and Clusters for Dummies for Canadian cloud software company Platform Computing Corp.

In fact, Tittel says, writing the custom booklets gives him a more "generous and relaxed schedule" than writing a retail For Dummies book. Custom titles run between 32 and 72 pages with deadlines of one to two months, whereas a first draft of a regular For Dummies book, which can be up to 400 pages, is often due in just four or five months. Custom titles have no royalties, but the payout tends to be more generous, Tittel says. Writing a trade edition involves both an advance up front, which varies depending on the writer's experience and the popularity of the subject, and royalties once the book has earned back its advance.

Be warned also that it isn't an easy niche to break into. Barbara Harvie, a Sebastopol, Calif.–based writer and entrepreneur who has carved out a niche writing user guides to Quicken, QuickBooks, and other financial software, says technical writing agent Carole Jelen McClendon contacted her about writing a Complete Idiot's Guide after reading Harvie's résumé on her LinkedIn page.

According to Bill Gladstone, founder of Waterside Productions, the literary agency for Harvie and for dozens of other For Dummies and Complete Idiot's Guides authors, 95 percent of the hundreds of titles they represent originated with the publisher. "It is rare that an unsolicited proposal results in a book contract," he says, "though it does happen occasionally."

And even if you get in over your head, you can bring in help from the outside. String Theory for Dummies author Andrew Zimmerman Jones—a science writer for About.com—says he penned the book's first draft on his own (see a review of String Theory for Dummies in this issue). On the advice of his editor, he sought out Ph.D. string theorist Daniel Robbins of Texas A&M University to help him sift through competing theories and advanced ideas.

"Daniel and I had several discussions to make sure that he was okay with the approach," Zimmerman Jones says. "And he agreed that in a reference book like this it was only fair to give the critics their due."

This article originally appeared in print as "For Dummies for Dummies."

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