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Meet America's oldest family-run publisher

It was 1807 when Charles Wiley opened his print shop in New York City. From the start, book publishing was a part of his business, yet the first flowering of the new nation's writers was still a few years off.

Journalist Washington Irving was busy satirizing city life but hadn't yet penned the stories we remember today. James Fenimore Cooper, a Yale dropout and Navy midshipman, had yet to write his first book. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a toddler of 3. Poe wouldn't be born for two more years, Melville for 12. But eventually the Wiley company would publish works by all these authors.

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What is more remarkable is the fact that Wiley is still publishing today - more than 1,000 new titles last year - and that the company is still run by descendants of Charles Wiley. This year marks the 175th anniversary of the nation's oldest surviving family-run publishing business, now known as John Wiley & Sons Inc.

More than a century ago the company gave up publishing fiction to stake its future on science, technology, business, and educational publishing, areas in which it excels today. Over half of Wiley's $137 million in sales last year were to colleges and universities in the United States and abroad. Professional and business publications accounted for a significant portion of the rest. Wiley now publishes in more than 40 languages and has branches in nine countries. Eight of its authors have won Nobel Prizes in their disciplines since 1970.

Ask company chairman W. Bradford Wiley what has kept the business going through six generations, and he quips, ''We've never had any interest in being rich former publishers. . . . We thought it was important for a growing and venturesome . . . publishing house to be independent of anything else.''

One of Wiley's latest innovations is the marketing of computer programs, a computerized version of the Harvard Business Review, and a video disc for use in teaching architecture.

With US college enrollments currently static, the company is looking elsewhere for continued growth. Last spring Wiley bought Wilson Learning Corporation, which provides courses in industrial management. Sixth-generation vice-president Deborah E. Wiley, the daughter of Bradford Wiley, says she's also studying other areas of continuing education and computer-assisted instruction.

Company president Andrew H. Neilly Jr. thinks education is one of America's most exportable commodities: ''If we can provide books in the right format and at the right price for third world countries, the demand is absolutely unbelievable.''

Bradford Wiley has his eye on the needs of China. ''It's pitiful to think that there are probably less than a million university students in China today, '' he says. His dream is that Wiley will be able to crash through bureaucratic barriers and help change all that.

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