7 April 1998
1,375 words

Idiot's Guides are Successful Formula,
Looking for the Right Writers

NEW YORK--Most authors would like to see their book sales pass 10,000. Macmillan has a formula that just about guarantees it. They have a system for writing a how-to book in 3 months, and a good brand with a catchy name: "The Complete Idiot's Guide."

The series sells and "moves out the door," said Gary Krebs, Editorial Director of Alpha Books, which publishes Macmillan Lifestyle Guides, at an Editorial Freelancers Association meeting in New York on 25 March.

"We have this great line of instructional books," said Krebs. "People need quick concise information in a beginner's format."

"I am proud to say that I am an Idiotic author," said Sheila Buff, EFA co-executive, who invited Krebs after she herself co-authored the Complete Idiot's Guide to Vitamins and Minerals, now in its second printing.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Vitamins and Minerals was a "challenge," said Krebs: a mass-market topic, that had to compete with books selling for $3.99 to $7.99. The Idiot's Guide had to be more than a quick listing of foods, it had to avoid quackery, and had to contain enough information to sell for $16.95. Buff's collaborator was "an up-and-coming" celebrity, Alan Pressman, DC, a popular chiropractor with a radio show.

Last year Macmillan published 70 Idiot's Guides. Their sales target for each title is at least 15,000, and their best seller, the Complete Idiot's Guide to Wall Street, has sales in "6 figures," said Krebs.

With this successful formula, they want to turn out guides fast, said Krebs. They're heavily computerized, on disk and E-mail. Authors write a book in 3 to 5 months, which is faster than some of them thought possible. "That is as pretty scary time frame for someone to write a book," in traditional publishing, said Krebs.

But alleviating anxiety is what the Idiot books are all about. "We'll try to help you," said Krebs. The editors are encouraging: "Come on, you can do it." If you can't meet the 25% deadline, "we'll give you more time," he said. "We're very flexible."

At the end of a year an author has written 3 Idiot's Guides. "They're amazed," said Krebs.

37 Idiots this year

"I'm signing up 37 Idiot's Guides this year," said Krebs. They usually develop book ideas in-house. Then Krebs looks through his resume files for a writer. He looks for an author with published books, magazines or newspaper articles. "The ones that rise to the top are the ones who have done work for beginners in the samples they sent to me," he said. "We look for people who can convey difficult information in an easy way."

An author has to be able to write in the funny, personal, self-effacing and reassuring style of the Idiot's Guide. The books should be fun to read and write. They have to make the reader look good. "We need writers who don't scare the readers," said Krebs. You say, "It's OK if we get step B wrong. We'll fix it."

"I'm not only learning something, but I'm being entertained too," said Krebs. The author of the Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style "could be a standup comedian."

"We look for experts, freelance writers, experts who are also freelance writers," said Krebs. "If the author has worked with an expert on the same subject we're working on," that's a strong plus. (Like the freelancer at the meeting who told him that she had written a book on genetic engineering.)

"We keep stacks and stacks of files on freelance writers and experts. Maybe I don't need anything now but 2 months later I'm looking for somebody and go through the stacks." Krebs prefers that you contact him by E-mail or fax (212-654-4716).

$7,500 to $15,000 advances

"We can't promise riches," said Krebs. But they can promise good marketing. "If you publish in our series, it's a better than even chance that it will earn out in a year." The advances to writers are typically $7,500 to $15,000, depending on their projection of initial sales to stores. Celebrity co-authors get $20,000 to $50,000, with $50,000 being "in the Walt Fraser range." Typically, when a writer co-authors a book with a celebrity, the celebrity gets all the royalties, but the co-authors have to work it out together. Technical editors, who are experts, get $400 to review the manuscripts for content. However, "when the writer is assembling the book, and doing all the work," and the experts and celebrities are along for the ride, "the writer is in a sense a packager," and can therefore negotiate a bigger stake.

They are looking for freelance editors too. "We have 3 in-house developmental editors," said Krebs. "Clearly they can't do 70 books." But editing requires "a unique skill," he said. "It's much more hand-holding than normal line editing." There's a lot more back-and-forth between authors and editors, to get it into the "Idiot style." Editors must be willing to change words, to change language, and strike out entire passages that are too complicated. Pay is "competitive." Technical editors, who are experts, get $400 to review the manuscripts for content.


The first job of the Idiot's Guide is to relieve anxiety. "You want to fix your car, you worry that you might screw it up, so you buy a book," said Krebs. People look through the glass door in the gym at a Yoga class, and say, "I want to do that but I don't want to look like a complete idiot." If you read the book from cover to cover, you'll know something about Yoga.

The language is easy to read, said Krebs, but beyond that, "It's a conversational tone that really makes the book fly. The author is communicating directly to the reader. It's a first person 'I'." The celebrity or expert says, "Yeah, I was an idiot once too. I can relate to you. Here's what I've learned."

But it's moved beyond anxiety. "The brand has caught on," said Krebs. The concept of a "beginner's baby-step approach, to teach a topic to people who know nothing about it, has made the series a best-seller." People buy one book, find it useful, and look for another book in the series.

The Idiot brand

Each book has the brand identity, customized in a way that is unique to the subject. "We're hilighting the subject of the book equally with the brand," said Krebs. That's how he distinguishes his series from his main competitor, the $19.95 IDG Dummies series. The Dummies books started out as computer books, and they still look like computer books, he said. Idiot's books capture the flavor of the subject. "We have an art advantage, a packaging advantage, a series advantage."

The Idiot's Guide brand starts with the blue and orange cover, and extends into the interior of the book. Each book is divided in the same way by parts, chapters, subheads, and sidebars. The headings should be funny.

For example, there are 4 types of sidebars, consistent from book to book. There are definitions, tips, "bet you didn't know," and warnings, with different names in different books. Readers remember that the books have useful sidebars, said Krebs. In the Vitamins and Minerals guide, the sidebars are called "What's in a Word," "Now you're cooking," "Food for Thought," and "Warnings." The nutrition warnings, "were talking about serious issues, so we didn't want to make it a joke," said Krebs.

The guides use a lot of redundancy. "We define jargon 3 times in a book," said Krebs. "Sometimes 10 times." Words are defined in the text, again in a definition sidebar, and again in each chapter.

"Brilliant" illustrations, says Krebs, are part of the design. "Think visual," he said. "The more visual-sounding the chapter name, the better the art will be."

"This is a price-sensitive market," said Krebs. They're providing good value, for the price, a 350-page book that "feels good," and has a lot of information. "We are looking for as much beginner information as possible."

--Norman Bauman