02/18/2008 04:09 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

One Publishing Triumph

In 1807, when Thomas Jefferson was president, Aaron Burr acquitted of treason, and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in a country a baby itself, there was a man named Charles Wiley who opened a print shop in New York City. What is astounding is how that print shop managed over the years to flourish into a global publishing industry, especially in light of how many publishing houses struggle to stay in business. What a legacy for Wiley, the publishing house, to have not only survived for two hundred years, but be named by the Financial Times in 1998 as the 27th most respected company in the world.

A friend of mine alerted me to the tome KNOWLEDGE FOR GENERATIONS: Wiley and the Global Publishing Industry. Admittedly, I haven't gotten through the entire book yet, and probably won't for quite some time. It's wonderfully thick! As usual, though, what happens when I'm inspired by what I'm reading, I immediately must share it with others. This time is no different. Anyone interested in history and publishing needs this book. The reader is provided an intimate view of historical context juxtaposed with Wiley Publishing's growth as a company. It's also a delight to be privy to the Wiley family tree, a tree that spawned two centuries worth of books. Consider this passage recalling a time early in Wiley's venture:

"Of course, not everyone who was literate chose to read, and undoubtedly some books collected dust. Yet most Americans found books too dear not to use them. Evidence abounds that people did not just buy books; they craved them." (p.25)

According to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released late last year, one in four adults read not a single book in 2006. When did we stop craving them? When did reading go out of style? One long-ago Wiley author, Richard Henry Dana, wrote James Fenimore Cooper, saying, "reading is now a sort of fashion & the great object is, to be first in the fashion, & in order to do that, to be the first in getting a new publication, the first in getting thro it, the first to talk about it, & the first in talking about it." (p.25)

The book is chocked full of interesting quotes like that, but other than Harry Potter, the kind of excitement Dana expressed for a book's publication is rarely seen in today's climate. Yes, the industry has changed dramatically, especially in the way books are now printed from when they were a "labor-intensive craft," but what kind of society will we be if we forfeit reading? It's ironic, isn't it, when we now have the capabilities to publish and distribute at such a rapid clip, books are losing their reverence. Yet, Knowledge for Generations reminds us of the power of reading by showing a poster that was in many bookstore windows during World War II:

"Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man's eternal fight against tyranny. In this war, we know, books are weapons." (p.173)

What an important message, one that this generation would do well to pay attention.

Quite likely, though, the book-buying public rarely pays attention to the publisher's logo, but who isn't familiar with the Dummies books, Wiley's brainchild? The Dummies idea is genius and it seems every topic is covered in the series, even Sex for Dummies, thanks to Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

It is the fact that the Wileys kept a family business so prosperous without selling out while still managing to merge and acquire that is commendable. I purposely skimmed the book, looking for information about how they succeeded, and it is independence that is important to Wiley:

"The Wileys were often heard to say that they would worry about independence and the resulting stability of the company so that their colleagues could focus on quality publishing without concerns about who might be their next owner, as the employees of so many other publishing companies had over the years." (p.429)

In today's corporate-owned world, that is refreshing. As expected, there have been financial concerns in the past, but by keeping up with the times, meaning the digital age, Wiley stays ahead of the curve and it's obvious they plan to stay on that track. There were several notable bicentennial celebrations last year for Wiley, here and abroad, but now that they are entering their third century, their business model safely intact, it is obvious there will be more knowledge for generations to come. And that is good news for everyone.