Monday, August 31, 2009
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been e-mailed and phoned by yet another ‘who's who' registry seeking to include me among nearly a million other ‘high rollers’ – then to sell me the volume, along with a plaque. I don’t think they really ‘hear’ me (in the sense of ‘hear with understanding’) that an ethical vegan does NOT want a leather-bound volume that includes those names in the registry. Not I (if you didn't realize it, that question is merely rhetorical, with only a negative answer possible).
A Wikipedia article ‘Who's Who scam’ talks about this issue, but as someone included in Marquis’ Who’s Who, I puzzle how many reputable ‘who's who' registries are there operating in the USA?
- ^ a b What Price Fame? Be a Very Important Person - all it takes is money, David Vernon, The Skeptic, 2007, Vol. 27, No. 2, p. 16
- What with the Who's Who? Who would be so foolish as to pay for inclusion in a Who's Who book that no one reads? CSO Online
- Vanity Publishing, guide against fraud by Connecticut State Attorney General
- Vanity Publishing, consumer protection fact sheet list by Wiscosin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection
- Who's Who Scam, on Everything2
- Who Are You? Why Are You Here?, a New York Times review on Marquis 2005, called it an "authoritative tool and valid portrait of [American] society".
By WILLIAM L. HAMILTON
Published: November 13, 2005
Photos: TONY HAWK -- Professional skateboarder. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images); JOEL OSTEEN -- Televangelist. (Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Associated Press);
KANYE WEST -- Producer, rapper. (Photo by Steve Grayson/WireImage.com);
KEN JENNINGS -- ''Jeopardy'' champion. (Photo by Associated Press);
EVA LONGORIA -- ''Desperate Housewife.'' (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images);
(Photo by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)(pg. 1);
I'M IN THE BOOK -- In the 60th anniversary Who's Who in America, George W. Bush weighs in with one and a quarter column inches of biographical information. The Olsen twins, right (Mary-Kate, left, and Ashley), garner twice that much space. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images);
(Photo by Peter Kramer/Getty Images);
(Photo by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times);
JUDGE AND JURY -- From left, Gene M. McGovern, Fred Marks, Kerry Morrison and Jon Gelberg of Marquis Who's Who in New Providence, N.J. (Photo by Marko Georgiev for The New York Times)(pg. 6)
But in the era of the Internet and Google, of reality television, gangsta rap stars, celebrity publicists, incarcerated domestic divas and the famous 15 minutes of fame (probably closer to 5 now), who is who?
''I think about this every day,'' said Jon Gelberg, managing director for special projects at Marquis Who's Who, the book's publisher. He was speaking at the company's offices in New Providence, N.J., where an editorial team of 70, including 12 researchers, make the call on who's notable and who's not. Talking about his work, Mr. Gelberg sometimes looked as stoical as Hercules.
Who's Who, traditionally a polite old-boys' club of state supreme court justices, clergymen, explorer/authors, botany professors and other conservatively distinguished academic, government, and professional figures, is now -- under a two-year-old management team that wants to recognize popular culture just as emphatically -- Who's In and Who's Out as well. The crowd squeezed into the latest edition is as much V.I.P. room as reference room. Think of going down in history as the ultimate afterparty.
Who's newly who for 2006? Kanye West, the hip-hop artist; Joel Osteen, the televangelist; Eva Longoria, the actress who plays Gabrielle Solis in ''Desperate Housewives''; Ken Jennings, who holds the record for the longest winning streak on the game show ''Jeopardy''; and Tony Hawk, the skateboarder. They take their places in American culture's carved stone with presidents, Nobel Prize winners, the entertainment elite and the titans of industry. Back after a one-year hiatus is Martha Stewart, whose stint in jail disqualified her in 2005.
Who isn't who yet? Alice Waters, the mother of new American cuisine. Who was who but isn't for 2006? Beck. Who isn't who, as in ''Who?'' Rod Strickland, the basketball player, and Linda Evans, a star of ''Dynasty,'' the popular 1980's evening soap opera.
And who will never be who? Victoria Gotti, the author, television personality and daughter of John Gotti. She is ineligible because of the Gotti family's associations with organized crime, what Marquis's editors term ''notorious'' or ''infamous'' achievement.
''My life is going to go on without it, believe me,'' Ms. Gotti said of a Who's Who citation, speaking by telephone from California.
Monica Lewinsky? Never had a chance.
But with the often upside-down nature of who is celebrated today, or why, occupational categories like organized crime are under review. Socialites, with a few exceptions, like the late, ubiquitous Nan Kempner, are kept out. Paris Hilton, the celebutante, was included last year, distinguished, Mr. Gelberg said, by her achievements in three industries: fashion, film and television.
''Popular culture has expanded and grown coarser, so there's no reason not to include Paris Hilton,'' said Matthew Boylan, a reference librarian at the Donnell Library Center of the New York Public Library. And librarians, to judge from several spoken to, are an egalitarian but tough crew when it comes to reference materials, exhibiting a protective ferocity that might impress the Gottis.
''Are we trying to make it more relevant? Absolutely,'' Mr. Gelberg said. ''Who are people talking about? Who is on magazine covers? People in the hip-hop world, X-Games types. We're adding them in greater numbers. This is a part of culture.''
Hard calls, like activists, are subject to debate. Cindy Sheehan, opposing the war in Iraq, is a Who by sheer volume of news coverage in the last year; Randall Terry, the anti-abortionist, is not, largely through oversight and not lack of newsworthiness, Mr. Gelberg said. Mr. Terry is being discussed for inclusion in 2007.
Part of the company's three-year plan to make Who's Who more relevant is to reflect the leadership among African-, Asian- and Hispanic-Americans. Brigida Benitez, a lawyer and president of the Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia, is one example. The guide is also applying a brisk sweep of the broom to names that have gathered dust, not laurels. For 2006, 37,000 names were dropped while 20,000 were added. Marquis Who's Who also maintains a database, available by subscription, of 1.2 million names, including those in the book, those dropped, those being considered and those of the deceased.
For those included, it is a brutal world of column inches: George W. Bush, one and a quarter; Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, two and a half between them; Stephen Hawking and Cher, one and three-quarters each; Madonna, two; Noam Chomsky, six.
Though entertainers and other well-publicized figures are not new to Who's Who, which first appeared in 1898, its acceptance of popular culture has evolved. Professional athletes, who were considered laborers, were excluded until 1927, when Bill Tilden, the tennis star and social celebrity, was admitted. When Mae West was denied entrance to the big red book, she told reporters that its editors would not be included in her little black book. In the 1968-'69 edition of Who's Who, John Lennon is present but Mick Jagger is not, reflecting parental attitudes toward the Beatles and the Rolling Stones more than professional objectivity.
If Who's Who in America has created, by mosaic, a portrait of America and its tectonic shifts, its latest edition, with its new recognition of popular culture, is a picture that some might find startling to see -- like an unintended look in the mirror. Who's Who is a dry reminder that celebrity for celebrity's sake is now a seasoned American industry as powerful and internationally recognized as steel once was, driven by CD's, movies, fragrances, tabloid romances and the weightless gravitas of pure appearance.
''Hilary Duff, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera -- they have enormous staying power,'' said Kerry Morrison, Marquis's managing research editor. ''Compared with Debbie Gibson?'' Ouch. Ms. Gibson, whom Ms. Morrison characterized as a ''flash in the pan'' -- Who's Who's worst egg-on-the-face nightmare -- was never in the book or the database.
At greatest issue at Marquis is whether Who's Who in America itself is still ''Who.'' With the information highway now an international Interstate, is a 5,919-page, $749 reference book an authoritative tool and valid portrait of society, or a dinosaur from the print age?
''It had a great name, but the product needed great improvement,'' said James A. Finkelstein, who with Wilbur L. Ross Jr. bought Marquis Who's Who in 2003. Appearing every other year until 1992, it is now an annual publication. People will fall in and out of the print edition more quickly than they have in the past, to make it more reflexive as a reference work, Mr. Finkelstein said. The company publishes 16 Who's Who titles, including volumes devoted to American women and to those in education, which are purchased primarily by libraries. A total of 25,000 copies have been sold for shipment for 2006.
How does a who become a Who? There are 73 categories and 800 occupations that constitute guidelines for admission, said Fred Marks, senior managing director. To shake out nominees, his staff reviews lists like the Forbes Celebrity 100 and the Fortune 500, as well as lists specific to various industries and professions. Researchers also compile names from general interest magazines like Time and special interest magazines like The American Lawyer, looking for new candidates or verifying that people included in the last edition are still Who.
''The fundamental standards here are position and accomplishment,'' said Gene M. McGovern, Marquis's chief executive. ''The book fills up fast -- Pulitzers, the Fortune 1,000, Congress.''
Ms. Morrison added, ''With an Oscar, you could stay in until you're dead.''
In 2006, 26 percent of those included are women, up from 14 percent 10 years ago.
Those selected are sketched biographically, then contacted for additional information or asked to fill out a form. Finished entries are not uniformly fact-checked.
''How far do they go to verify the information?'' asked Susan Newson, head of reference at the East Meadow Public Library on Long Island. ''That's the question. You have to assume those selected will not fudge the information or aggrandize themselves, because the list is fairly distinguished.''
Speaking for librarians, Ms. Newson added, ''We're a little suspicious, but on lesser-known people, we have nothing else.'' Robert Homer Simpson, for example, the first meteorologist to fly over a hurricane, in 1947, can still be found in Who's Who.
For many of those whose fame is in full bloom, like the hip-hop star Missy Elliott, being included in the book is not just another piece of publicity. She entered the book last year. ''I'm more than happy to be in company with Oprah and Hillary Clinton,'' she said on Thursday in a telephone interview. ''Looking at those accomplishments, it makes mine look very small. It makes you sit back.''
Ms. Elliott added: ''Reporters always ask me, 'What are the highlights of my career?' This would definitely be a first.''
- Beware Who's Who Schemes, personal experience from writer Victoria Strauss, hosted by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America on their Writer Beware blogs.
Thursday, April 26, 2007I've been planning on doing this post for some time, but putting it off because it involved a lot of research. What tipped me over the line? The other day my husband, Rob, got a solicitation from Cambridge Who's Who.
"It is my pleasure," the letter from Editor in Chief Jennifer A. Gonzalez begins, "to inform you that you are being considered for inclusion into [sic] the 2007/2008 Cambridge Who's Who Among Executives and Professionals "Honors Edition" of the Registry." This is a major honor, Jen explains, because the Registry will include biographies of "our country's most accomplished professionals," many of whom regard inclusion as "the single highest mark of achievement." There's an application form that Rob can fill out and send back if he's the snail mail type, or if he's electronically inclined he can apply online. Just in case it occurs to him to wonder whether there's a catch, Jen hastens to reassure him: "There is no cost to be included in the Registry."
Rob lives with me (and Writer Beware), so the first words out of his mouth were "This is a scam, right?" Unfortunately, many people are much less suspicious.
There are legitimate Who's Who publishers--A & C Black in the UK, Marquis in the USA. They research the people they include, and while they'd love it if you bought the book, that's not the main reason for their existence. Cambridge and its ilk, on the other hand, are all about the hard sell. Similar to the vanity poetry anthologizers, Who's Who schemes lure customers by presenting themselves as a no-cost opportunity, but make their money by persuading people to buy books and/or memberships--often at costs exceeding $1,000. They claim to be selective, but in reality they harvest names just as junk mailers or spammers do, randomly and without regard to credentials--which means that their networking value, often touted to justify the enormous membership or purchase fee, is negligible. The bigger ones attempt to tailor their solicitations--Rob is in insurance, so he got the Executives and Professionals letter. A woman might get an invitation to the Executive and Professional Women registry. There's a solicitation for people in education. There's one for scientists. There's one for healthcare professionals. Here's an especially disgusting one targeted to people with religious affiliations.
The Who's Who gambit is a long-running, recognized telephone sales scheme about which there are a number of official warnings. There's a dizzying number of different Whos--many of which, I would guess, are run by the same people, though they're pretty good at making themselves seem separate. Here are just a few examples:
- United Who's Who (which has an unsatisfactory record with the Florida BBB for failing to respond to complaints)
- International Who's Who Historical Society (ditto)
- American Who's Who Association, which has a number of different schemes
- Premier Who's Who (formerly Prestige Who's Who, also d/b/a America's Who's Who)
- Emerald Who's Who
- Madison Who's Who (this one also has an unsatisfactory BBB record)
- Global Register's Who's Who (formerly National Register's Who's Who).
Frequently, the Whos are short-lived. Doctors' Who's Who and Nationwide Who's Who are now only Internet memories, but Google either of them and, as with the rest, you'll see people who list them as a professional credential. Ditto for Enterprise Who's Who--which suggests one reason for the schemes' short shelf life in the legacy of complaints it has left behind.
Back to Cambridge Who's Who. It's half of a two-headed hydra made up of Cambridge Who's Who (which previously did business as Manchester Who's Who and Empire Who's Who--according to a press release on Cambridge's website, these two have "merged" to become Cambridge) and Metropolitan Who's Who. Cambridge and Metropolitan do business separately, and have different websites, URL registry information, and mailing addresses. But their logo designs and their solicitation letters are identical (compare Manchester-now-Cambridge's letter with Metropolitan's)--as are their hard-sell telephone tactics.
People who answer the solicitations from Cambridge and Metropolitan report very similar experiences. (These links represent a fraction of the online discussions and complaints about Cambridge in particular.) A representative of the company phones them, congratulates them on the honor of their inclusion in the registry database, and conducts a lengthy interview, with many questions about careers, professional accomplishments, etc. Once the victim has been softened up by this process, the phone solicitor lowers the boom. The victim--who, remember, is under the impression from the initial solicitation letter that no costs are involved--is told that there are two levels of membership--a cheaper junior membership (currently close to $800) and a more expensive lifetime membership (currently nearly $1,000). This money, the victim is assured, isn't for inclusion in the database; it's for access to the database--which surely they're going to want to have, since the registry is a fantastic networking opportunity. To sweeten the deal, there are extras--gift certificates, airline ticket vouchers, a handsome award certificate, a media kit. If the victim expresses doubt about the cost, the solicitor says something like "You know what? Because I really don't want you to miss out on this fabulous opportunity, I'm going to offer you a lower rate! You'll only have to pay what a charity organization pays!" More hard sell tactics ensue. If the victim continues to resist, the solicitor hangs up on him or her--just like those magazine-sales scams where the people rudely blow you off the instant they realize you aren't going to fall for their line of bullshit.
I'm sure it won't surprise anyone to learn that Cambridge and one of its predecessors, Empire, have poor records with the Better Business Bureau (Manchester has no separate record). Empire's BBB report shows 57 complaints over the past 36 months, most involving (surprise, surprise) selling and refund practices. Cambridge's BBB report shows a stunning 150 complaints over the past 36 months, again involving selling and refund practices, and also billing and credit disputes. The bulk of the complaints--123 out of 150--have been made in the past 12 months.
Metropolitan's BBB report is currently being updated. When I viewed it in February (when I first began thinking about doing this post), it cited complaint patterns similar to Cambridge's. Some of the content of that report is reproduced by blogger T.J. at his dogscatskidslife blog.
Another thing Cambridge and Metropolitan share: a very poor reaction to criticism. The hydra really, really doesn't like it when people say bad things about it. When the Southern Conservative blog featured a satirical post about a solicitation letter from Metropolitan Who's Who, a threat of legal action quickly followed from one Cyndi Jeffers of Metropolitan (she also contacted people at the blogger's job). Blogger Shawn Olsen, whose description of his experience with Manchester Who's Who is linked in above, is being pursued by a lawyer hired by Manchester/Cambridge, who threatens a defamation lawsuit and demands $7 million in compensatory and punitive damages. These two bloggers appear not to be the only ones who've experienced this kind of harassment.
So here's my long-distance gift to all of you: a little dose of the good ol' Writer Beware suspicion that Rob has absorbed by proximity. "Money flows to the writer" is a good maxim to live by--but in cases of unexpected invitations, so is what Groucho Marx said: "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member." If you hear from a Who--and don't assume it will be one of those I've highlighted in this post, because I wouldn't be surprised if Cambridge, at least, were thinking it might be time for a name change--don't hesitate. Toss the letter straight into the recycling bin. That is, unless you want to make fun of it on your blog.
- Who's Who Scam and Vanity