Cyber Dummy

Margy Levine Young is no dummy. But she makes a good living writing for those of us who are. Young is the co-author of Internet for Dummies, More Internet for Dummies and a number of other wildly popular "dummy" computer books designed for the manual-adverse anti-nerd. In jeans and a sweatshirt, she is the embodiment of her writing: smart, down-to-earth and jargon free. Only her dueling computers, and the telephone bill, suggests her rural homestead in Cornwall, Vermont, is a direct link to the cutting edge of computer science.Forty-year-old Margy and her husband Jordan are plugged in, and have been since they were teenage members of a visionary computer club in Princeton, New Jersey. Some of the brightest brains in the business got their start in The Barn, where the volunteer lab was based, on a computer just like the one in the Bat Cave. "It cost $50 an hour just to warm up the vacuum tubes," Margy recalls. "We had a lot of fun."The club attracted Theodor Nelson, the wacky inventor of hypertext, who envisioned the personal computer and the World Wide Web in advance of the industry, as well as the woman who is now "personal Web surfer" to Japanese software giant Kay Nishi. Margy and her programmer brother John both graduated in computer science from Yale."I think back and wonder, 'How come none of us was Bill Gates?' Margy ponders without an ounce of pretension. "We were positioned for it, but I guess none of us had the drive to spend 36 hours a day working."The Youngs moved to Vermont from the Boston area to get out of the rat race, and because a house in the Middlebury area opened up unexpectedly when her aunt and uncle were killed -- Don and Peg Arnold died together on motorcycle trip in Australia. Although constant revisions keep Margy at the keyboard, and Jordan is busy chasing two kids and more chickens, the couple looks settled on a cold January morning. Jordan is working the woodstove -- and the espresso machine."Both of us have been in the situation where the goal is to make money, build a career and do all this stuff," he says. "And both of us have decided that is not what we wanted to do."It's an existential crisis with a strong economic foundation: Financially speaking, a computer book contract is the equivalent of an annuity. The original writers get first right of refusal on every revision, and royalties no matter who updates the book. In the case of Internet for Dummies, now in its fourth printing, that is at least an annual event -- things are changing that fast."I'm not sure we even had the Web in the first edition of Internet for Dummies," Margy says. "If we did, it was just a tiny mention. You look back on it and say, 'How can this be?' And yet it wasn't that long ago."Margy and her brother John wrote their first computer book together in 1987. Four years later, they got their first "dummy" offer, when the guy lined up to write UNIX for Dummies took his advance and ran. "It was in their catalog, it was beginning to sell, and there was no book," Margy remembers. The brother and sister team agreed to a back-breaking five-week deadline over Thanksgiving and Christmas. They e-mailed chapters back and forth -- as they still do -- until the book was done.They also established respective writing roles. John excels in technical prose. Margy translates the jargon into plain, beginner-paced English, complete with jokes and slang. "I would take this six-page chapter and expand it, slow it down, add some background, dummy-ize it," she explains. "I guess it was in high school, or college, when I realized I didn't want to be a programmer. My brother has an insatiable curiosity about everything that is going on in there. I just don't have that. I wanna use it, and I wanna help other people use it. That makes me a much better explainer, teacher, writer."Margy exercised that same pedagogical talent as a manger of microcomputers at Columbia Pictures in New York. She was also a consultant for the Greek American Classical School in Manhattan, where they were having a word-processing problem with a program she had never used. "I sat there at consulting rates with the manual in my lap, translating," she explains. "Manuals are organized from the point of view of the program. When you write a dummies book, a beginner's book, you take the point of view of the human. It asks, 'What are some of the things you might want to get done?'"Not all "dummy" books are created equal -- some are more hands-on than others. But all of them strive for a casual and user-friendly tone, with helpful icons that alert the reader of shortcuts, danger zones, resources and technical passages. Margy uses two computers -- one for her, one for Joe Average. "I don't want to set up my computers so nicely that everything works perfectly," Margy says. "Then I might not encounter problems a regular person does."It take an average of two months to update a computer book, during which everything -- including fly-by-night Interent references -- has to be checked and verified. More challenging, especially with the Internet books, is the growing number of possible variations. Particularly when accessing the Net, "you don't know if they've got PC, or if they are using Windows 3.1, or if they are using Windows 95, or if they've got a Mac," Margy says. "That's frustrating, for the writer and the reader."Connection is also an issue. The third edition of Internet for Dummies devotes four chapters to different "entrance ramps" -- a subject of personal interest to Margy and Jordan. The Youngs couldn't move until rural Addison County got a local Internet provider. Without it, Margy says, they couldn't afford to live in Vermont, adding with obvious relief that three other people in the six towns served by their phone system spend more time online. "We are a little defensive about people thinking we don't have a real life."Real life in Vermont does have its downside. From there, the Youngs will probably have a tougher time keeping up with the Gatese. Margy relies on magazines, online newletters and her brother, John, to stay current in computer news. But Jordan admits, "We have probably kept up better at other times in our lives." Right now, he is more concerned about getting to daycare on time. "Despite all the hooing and hawing and yelling and screaming, it doesn't change," he says, lowering his voice so the secret will stay among us, "that quickly."SIDEBAR: NET PROFITSSurfing the Net is one thing. Turning the Big Kahuna into cash is another. When they are not writing how-to books, Margy and Jordan Young are doing their own research in the brave new world of computer commerce. Their work-in-progress is a three-week-old Web site that functions as a video store. Margy describes the inventory as "stuff our kids like."Margy was looking to replace a Tintin video when she got the idea to sell kid vids electronically. "I thought, 'Oh, no problem. Jump on the Web, Amazon dot com, it has all these books. I'll find some big Web site that sells videos.'" She found information about the Tintin tape, but nobody was doing business. "We thought, 'This is an opportunity. We should try this.'"For the cost of a phone line, they got Great Tapes for Kids up and running. The four-color site -- now accessible via Yahoo! -- features wholesome and somewhat offbeat videos like Let's Go to the Farm, with Mac Parker, and the complete Madeleine series. For now Amazon is handling all the business and distribution -- and takes 92 percent of the profit."It is just a way to get started," Margy says of the project, which could turn into a welcome sideline for the Cornwall-based writer of Internet for Dummies. After all, Business on the Web for Dummies has already been written. "The cool thing," Margy says with mouse in hand, "is we did it right here."

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