I spent about an hour yesterday morning on the phone (at Canada's rather obscene cell phone rates) speaking with an "editor" for Continental Who's Who. The pitch is pretty typical (and I had an idea what was going on, so I decided to follow through with it) - you get an email congratulating you on being selected for inclusion in the Who's Who directory of "famous people", please send in the email in order to confirm your selection.
About a week later I get a phone call from an editor (I'll call her Cherise, though this wasn't her real name) congratulating me again, then asking for more information about I do as an editor for O'Reilly Media (I could almost see the filled-in blanks).
"Er..., well, I write articles, help coordinate a group of about a dozen XML bloggers and do similar editorial type things."
Cherise listens politely, then asks for a little more background. "I write books, speak at conferences, do the occasional consulting."
This was very good, and Cherise said so: "You certainly qualify for our listings. By the way, consulting is very good, Who's Who is a boon to consultants who are looking to set up high powered connections, and I would make myself available twenty-four times a year to provide you with high quality links to other Who's Who nominees."
"Hmmmm ....," I thought.
"You can also write your own entry in Who's Who, will get a copy of the book each year as well as (wait for it) a special certified plaque listing your inclusion in Who's Who."
"Wow!" thought I. " .. a special certified plaque!"
Now, came the price of fame. Moving smoothly into the sales pitch, she let me known (gently) that for the piddling price of $750 I could become a platinum certificate listee and appear for the rest of my natural life. If money was a little tight (understandable in these hard times), I could instead become a gold certificate listee for only $500, which would let me be in the book for five years, and which could be upgraded at any time.
"Um ... erm. Let me think about it."
"Oh, we're going to press in a couple of weeks, so I need to get a decision now. Look, if its a matter of budget, we can break it up into payments ..."
"Hmmm ... I, er ..."
"We can even get you in as a non-profit! Only $250, though you get only one copy of the Who's Who issue and are listed for only three years ..."
"Oh, look, there's a giant ruby-throated hummingbird outside! They're very rare!! Sorry, gotta go now, Cherise!!"
The funny thing is that over the years I have written about twenty books, I've consulted with a lot of companies, spoken at many conferences and in my own area of expertise I'm reasonably well known ... and I'm perfectly happy with that. It's a kind of fame I'm actually pretty comfortable with, and while, in the long run, it's probably cost me many, many times the cost of a platinum membership to Who's Who, in the main the money was well spent.
Services such as Linked-In or Plaxo or even Facebook provide a level of interactivity and connectivity that is far more immediate and generally far more useful than having a bit of self-laudatory praise in a large book that is owned only by fools who are willing to part with that much money in order to be listed as being important.
Oh, I have no doubt that there are many famous people in such directories, but the likelihood that they ended up there because of an email scam and solicitation is pretty remote (indeed, I can imagine that Linked-In, et al, have probably proved a real treasure trove for the good editors of Who's Who).
For those who bemoan the fate of book publishing, remember that there are predators even in that particular sea.