Heard about this thread and wanted to participate. I wasn't the only person who built links for a living back before Google. There were several of us. Many are still in the biz. Many of the people who used to do it started other ventures, went to work for other firms, or simply got sick of it :)
I never considered myself a link builder, and I still don't. That's just what the industry decided to call it, especially after Google launched, and I went along for the ride. On my business card it says "content publicist".
Since my clients were ranking, I figured something about my approach appealed to whatever it was this new-fangled Google bot thingy was looking for. You have to remember that even after Google launched, it was still an AltaVista and Infoseek world for a long time. But, since links suddenly mattered for search rank, I studied and analyzed links more with whatever tools were available, and it became clearer to me what Google was looking for.
The key for me then was to
1) continue doing what I had been doing, because my merit based approach to link seeking created an inbound link profile that Google liked, and
2) be selective about what clients/content I accepted, because content has to earn the link based on quality, not negotiation.
If the links pointing at your site are nothing more than self-created links from name directories, article pushing software, or press releases, you are history. You always were. Those links aren't an indicator of quality. But this is nothing new. It was, and still is, about getting the right content introduced to the right people, in a highly subject specific manner, so that content will get the high trust links it deserves.
The tools have changed, but the goal has not. If the content is not linkworthy, it doesn't matter who the link builder or content publicist is.
[edited by: tedster at 2:21 am (utc) on April 10, 2009]