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November 20, 2009

The Leaches of Success

Filed under: Main — Dan Gookin @ 12:01 am

It’s been a wild ride. I was once just another computer book author, which is not the most glamorous type of author. At one time it was insanely profitable. Then I hit it really big with DOS For Dummies and the entire For Dummies phenomenon. It turned an industry on its ear.

There were lots of things that came with the success of the For Dummies series. One of the most pesky, however, is the claim to fame.

The former president of IDG Books, John Kilcullen, liked to say that “Success has many fathers.” He enjoyed the publicity that came with the popularity of For Dummies, and liked to credit himself with a lot of the series’ success, though he was merely the president of the company and, according to what I know, didn’t really like DOS For Dummies until well after it hit big.

There were other, peripheral people who came along and wanted a piece of the action as well. These folks didn’t have anything to do with DOS For Dummies or the resulting For Dummies series. But they thought they did!

Back in the early days, it was common for people to say, “That was my idea!” (Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal told me that he wanted to write DOS For Smart People.) A few of the That-Was-My-Idea people added the phrase, “and you stole it from me.”

Some of those people were publicity-seeking whores. Back in the early days, it was easy to refute their claims. Then, as the books became more mainstream, and stopped selling (literally) millions of copies a month, those people went back into the woodwork.

One person has remained very persistent with his claim that he wrote my book. I won’t name him here, because he’s a litigious little cuss. But over the years, he has continually hounded my former editor Mac and myself over “his idea” that he claims we stole. He sends legal-sounding letters, he makes threats. Earlier this week he phoned me up and gave me an ultimatum.

The odd thing is that DOS For Dummies is old enough to vote. The book is still in print (because the publisher never takes any For Dummies title out of print), and it still makes some money, mostly on foreign language royalties that take decades to pay.

I suppose my annoying pest is simply yet another burden to the book’s success. That success is nifty when it happens, and fun while it lasts. But it always seems to have these types of unintended consequences. And so it goes.

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