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Licensing a smart move 'For Dummies'

The licensing side of the "For Dummies" line has been gathering steam.  The  spikey-haired character on the cover of the ubiquitous line of how-to books is turning up in a lot more places these days.
The "Dummies" brand that's famous for helping consumers tackle new technology and subjects has been expanding its licensing business
The "Dummies" brand that's famous for helping consumers tackle new technology and subjects has been expanding its licensing businessFor Dummies
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dummies Man — the spikey-haired character on the cover of the ubiquitous "For Dummies" line of how-to books — is turning up in a lot more places these days.

There's Flower Bulbs For Dummies, Smart Booster Cables For Dummies, Refractor Telescope Kit For Dummies, Acoustic Guitar Starter Pack For Dummies, and Complete Fuel System Formula For Dummies for your car.

Next up: VoIP Phone Kit For Dummies. Don't know what VoIP is? Not to worry. The kit, which will be made and sold by Coral Gables, Fla.-based startup company called Lingua Online this fall, will help you set up your Voice over Internet Protocol online phone service.

John Hislop, the associate director of licensing at John Wiley & Sons Inc., the business and technical publisher which publishes the "For Dummies" line of books, says the VoIP kit was a natural licensing partner, since VoIP is just the kind of useful but complex product or service that can leave many intelligent people feeling flustered.

"The Dummies brand is famous for helping consumers tackle new technology," Hislop said, adding that it made "perfect sense" to strike a partnership with Lingua Online to market it.

Wiley is perhaps better known as a global publisher of scientific, technical and medical books, with weighty titles like "Computational Statistics" and "Computer-Intensive Methods for Testing Hypotheses," as well as textbooks and business books. It also publishes CliffNotes and the Frommers' travel guides.

Its "For Dummies" line, which it acquired in 2001 as part of its purchase of Hungry Minds Inc., has been growing by leaps and bounds, though Hislop declined to release specific financial figures. He says the licensing end of the business is still relatively small but growing. Wiley, a public company, doesn't break out sales for the line.

Huge seller
The "For Dummies" books got their start in 1991 when IDG Books, a unit of the major technology publisher International Data Group Inc., put out "DOS For Dummies," a how-to guide for help with Microsoft Corp.'s early operating system. It quickly became a huge seller, and today there are 1,000 "For Dummies" titles and 150 million copies in print. IDG Books later changed its name to Hungry Minds, and also got into publishing cooking and travel books.

The licensing side of the "For Dummies" line has been gathering steam. Today there are about 75 deals in place with licensing partners, of which more than 40 were signed in Wiley's last fiscal year, which runs through April 30.

Wiley works closely with the partner in developing the products, marketing plans and instructional materials to make sure they're consistent with the humorous and straightforward style of the how-to books, Hislop said. Wiley receives an initial fee as well as royalty payments from the products, which are manufactured and sold by the licensing partner.

Many of the products come with the companion book or a "For Dummies"-branded instructional package to help figure out how to use it — such has a telescope, flower bulbs for your garden, or even fuel-cleaning additives that you put in your car tank.

The Acoustic Guitar Starter Pack for Dummies, made by the Dallas-based M&M Merchandisers Inc., comes with a steel string guitar, electric tuner, strap, instructional DVD and a "gig bag" to carry the guitar around in to your performances — assuming you're a fast learner.

Charles Riotto, president of the New York-based International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association, a trade group also known as LIMA, calls the growing licensing activities by the "For Dummies" people "a great way for them to create additional exposure for their brand."

Exploring new markets
More importantly, Riotto says, "it also takes them from being just in bookstores to being in all kinds of other stores such as music stores and other places where these products are sold."

With so many varieties of topics covered by the books, Riotto said, it was also unlikely that the licensed goods would become so prevalent as to cause overkill, as you might see with products associated with, say, an animated character like SpongeBob Squarepants.

Not every deal, however, is a keeper. A license recently expired, and won't be renewed, for a "Bachelorette Party Kit For Dummies" and a "Honeymoon Getaway Kit For Dummies," the latter of which included jasmine-scented massage oil, peach-scented bubble bath and a hibiscus floating candle. Hislop said the company was focusing on pursuing bigger categories.

And yes, there are some places the "For Dummies" brand won't go. All it took was one phone call to immediately reject a proposal from a Hollywood studio for movie script called "Serial Killing For Dummies."

"No matter what the monetary rewards were, that type of deal was not in the long-term interest of the brand," Hislop said.