Who’s Who: It is Lame, a Shame and a Waste of Time and Money

Who’s Who: It is Lame, a Shame and a Waste of Time and Money

Every month attorneys are solicited to buy or confirm listings in various editions of Who’s Who.

Don’t be tempted. Save your marketing dollars. And, delete any listing from your resume, and do it immediately.

What was once a respected research tool more than a decade ago joined the gallery of famous lost trademarks. Today, most anyone can get into Who’s Who, and there are dozens of versions of the thick books. Few find their way onto library research shelves. Many are seldom referenced as nothing but online lists.

An article in Forbes revealed just who is in Who’s Who– a pipe fitter, a drivers’ education instructor, even imposters. It also showed how scanty the review and approval process has become (see below)

How did this happen? The title “Who’s Who” is now in the public domain. Somebody forgot to protect it. The result is that thousands of “Who’s Who” compilations of varying scope and quality have been published by various authors and publishers. Most of these are obvious vanity publications, where the inclusion criterion is the biographee’s willingness to buy the book, and the business model consists in selling books directly to the biographees.

So, next time you are asked to apply for a Who’s Who remember– so was just about everyone else. [1]

Excerp of the Forbes Article

Not that anybody has read Who’s Who lately, or ever, at least not very closely. The point of Who’s Who is not to read it, but to be in it. One hundred years after it was first published by Chicago newspaper publisher Albert Nelson Marquis (who despite his ostensible commitment to accuracy pronounced his name “Markwis”), Who’s Who has been a fairly reliable guide to who has made it and who has not. That’s been the marketing strategy, anyway. Flip through the latest volume, however, and it’s hard not to conclude that something has changed, that the selection criteria for “Honored Biographees” in Marquis’s Who’s Who have become–how to put it?–more democratic.

Though the number of entries in Who’s Who in America has grown to over 100,000 in recent years, the publication has tried hard to convey the impression that standards for inclusion have remained the same. Being accepted into Who’s Who is “an honor that only a select few ever enjoy,” the company boasts. Every person in the book is subjected to “painstaking selection, research, rigorous nominee review, and thorough editorial review.” And who does the painstaking nominating and selecting? Marquis implies that members of the publication’s Board of Advisors play a large role in the nomination process, but they don’t seem to know much about it.

“The reality is, I don’t do anything,” says John Fox Sullivan, publisher of National Journal and a member of the board for the last decade. “There is almost no communication back and forth. Once a year I get a piece of paper asking me if I want to recommend someone. It’s not as if there’s an annual retreat somewhere where we sit around and decide who makes it this year. Or if there is, I haven’t been invited.”

Mindy Aloff, a dance critic whose name is also on Who’s Who letterhead, seems to have been left off the guest list, too. “They didn’t give us any guidelines for nominating people,” says Aloff, who rarely forwards names to the publication.

Then who is making the decisions? Paul Canning, the publication’s editorial director from 1992 to 1997, wouldn’t give a specific answer, though he did say that the admissions process is relatively simple. According to Canning, in order to become an Honored Biographee in Who’s Who in America, the flagship Marquis publication, a person must meet “qualitative and quantitative criteria.” An artist, for instance, “will have to have pieces in multiple collections at recognized museums and have one-person shows. For Fortune 500 companies, senior vice presidents and above are listed.” Some people, said Canning, make the cut automatically. “We have a thick binder of all the people who must be included, like artistic directors at ballet companies in major U.S. cities, or CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies. We look for writers on The New York Times best-seller list. We have Nobel Prize winners, Oscar winners.”

Fair enough. But Who’s Who in America also appears to contain a lot of relatively unaccomplished people who simply nominated themselves. To make the process of self-promotion easier, Reed Elsevier, the publication’s parent company and the owner of Lexis-Nexis, now has a site on the Internet where would-be biographees can complete a “biographical data form.” Spaces are provided for “career history,” as well as for “awards, honors, and grants.” (…)

There’s not a word about qualitative or quantitative criteria. Does everyone who applies get into Who’s Who? “I’ll say a majority,” admitted Canning, “but I can’t get any more detailed than that. I think the majority are appropriate for one of our regional or topical publications. I think I need to leave it at that.” In other words, just about everyone who tries hard enough will get his name in print. (…)

Pamela Harriman, (a) deceased ambassador, never completed college, but claimed in Who’s Who to have done post-graduate work at the Sorbonne. To this day, columnist Carl Rowan lists 22 different college degrees in his entry, none of them identified as honorary. According to Who’s Who, Rowan graduated from three different colleges in 1966 alone, all while working as a syndicated columnist. (…)

In the mid-1980s, Joe Queenan, then at American Business magazine, decided to test the Who’s Who fact-checking apparatus. Queenan submitted an application on behalf of a nonexistent magazine editor named R.C. Webster. Webster, Queenan wrote, had graduated with a master of fine arts degree from F&M T&A University and received doctorates from Quaker State University and the University of Ron (Ron, France) before moving on to edit such magazines as American Business, Latin-American Business, The Business of Business, Your Business and Our Business Monthly. Webster and his wife, the former Trish Abigail Boogen, had children named Cassette, Lothar, Skippy and Boo-Boo. A member of the Association of Men and the Bureau of People, he listed his hobby as “managing editing.” Who’s Who printed most of the entry in its following edition.

It was an embarrassing episode for Marquis, and thanks to improved scrutiny, most of the people listed in Who’s Who in America these days almost certainly exist. But the book is still not edited thoroughly, which means that many entries are printed at lengths curiously out of proportion to their importance. Margaret Estelle Vorous, for example, an elementary school librarian in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, who counts among her achievements being a blood donor, receives 49 lines in Who’s Who. Henry Kissinger gets only 34. (…)

Still, with 105,000 biographies, there are bound to be worthwhile tidbits buried in Who’s Who in America, and there are. (…)

Indeed, the first clue that Who’s Who is a vanity publication is the “Thoughts on My Life” feature that appears beneath some entries. This is the part where biographees are invited to reflect upon their achievements using their own words. It’s all pretty amusing, and it must be profitable, too, because Marquis recently decided to expand the concept. For $150, those listed in Who’s Who in America can now write up to 200 words about themselves and their work. A 1997 direct-mail pitch suggests that biographees use the “Enhanced Biography” option to draft their own personal classified ads, sure to be seen by “industry leaders and executive recruiters.” “Over 22 years of progressively responsible experience in the food service industry in key decision-making sales and marketing roles,” reads one sample entry. “Recent accomplishments include successful product introductions into local markets, which generated $12.3 million growth in annual incremental sales.” Perhaps “executive recruiters” really do pore over Who’s Who looking to fill highly paid CEO slots. Or perhaps not. Either way, it’s hard to see how information like this is valuable to reference librarians, the group for whom the volume is ostensibly written.

That is, until you notice the large number of librarians who are listed in Who’s Who in America. “We think librarians are important,” explained Paul Canning. “We think they contribute to society.” They are certainly in a position to contribute to Who’s Who. The ever-growing Marquis list now includes 20 different Who’s Who volumes, including various CD-ROM versions, many of which are updated annually. A single three-volume edition of Who’s Who in America can cost more than $500. A three-year subscription to the entire Who’s Who product line goes for $5,686. Suddenly it becomes clear how Ruth Ferro-Nyalka, a librarian at the Hinsdale (Illinois) public library, might have breezed through “Marquis’ unique and time-proven compilation process” to earn a spot in Who’s Who in America.

Which is not to imply that vain librarians are Marquis’s only source of income. The company won’t say who buys its books, or even how many copies it prints. “I will not elaborate on anything about Who’s Who to someone over the phone,” said publisher Randy Mysel, brusquely. “A fax won’t do it, either.” A call to the company’s business office proves more fruitful. Who’s Who, it turns out, does a pretty good business renting the names and addresses of its 250,000 Honored Biographees to direct mail marketers. People who are listed in Who’s Who, Marquis assures marketers in its promotional literature, “are interested in many types of offers,” including pitches for new credit cards, magazine subscriptions, catalogues, association memberships and “fundraising opportunities.” The entire database can be rented on computer tape for about $22,000. Or, the woman on the phone says, the list can be broken down by profession, sex, political affiliation or religion. There are 17,600 self-identified Catholics in Who’s Who, she explains by way of example, and 5,300 Jews.

It must be a good list, since many Honored Biographees clearly have a weakness for ordering schlocky products through the mail. Marquis makes certain they have plenty to buy. The company’s “Reflections of Success” catalog advertises an entire line of Who’s Who-related junk, from Who’s Who lapel pins (at $52.95 plus shipping and handling, they “quietly declare your accomplishments”) to Who’s Who key rings, paperweights and crystal boxes. The home office seems to do a particularly brisk business in commemorative wall plaques, which at close to $100 apiece doubtless make for a profitable little sideline.

One of the latest offerings from Marquis is the Who’s Who/Chevy Chase Bank MasterCard. Cardholders are eligible for a discount on any merchandise they buy from the Who’s Who catalogue, which brings the entire enterprise full circle. I’m not listed in any of the Who’s Who volumes, but I decided to order one anyway, mostly to see if I could. I could. The moment my MasterCard arrived, I called Who’s Who. “One sterling lapel pin, please,” I said. “I’m interested in quietly declaring some of my achievements.” “Which book are you included in?” the woman asked. None, I said. She didn’t seem fazed in the slightest. “Well, you have to be listed,” she said brightly. “But you can talk to the editorial department about that. I’ll transfer you.”


1. By Bob Weiss