WE did not notice Charles Darwin slip inside the doors of Simon & Schuster and take a seat in our reception area.
When I grew up in publishing in the 1970s, the process and the tools were relatively simple. Marketing worked like this: whatever book that Doubleday Bookstore chose to feature in its Fifth Avenue store window (now Prada) usually became a best seller. The Book of the Month Club judges — the Simon Cowells of their day — selected what they considered the very best. We were a small community of authors, editors and agents, and we were on fire.
We gorged on news of the latest books — those that changed the world, like “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler, “The Female Eunuch” by Germaine Greer or “Radical Chic” by Tom Wolfe.
We proudly carried manuscripts everywhere. I carried them in canvas tote bags to summer beach rentals in East Hampton and to winter sales conferences in South Carolina. Decades later, I discovered that my right arm was a half-inch longer than my left.
But it was our office archaeology that I remember the most. There was a primitive chaos to it all — the hybrid scent of tobacco and mimeograph ink, and the sounds of ringing phones, of typewriters zipping along until the warning bell pinged near the end of a line, and of the clack-clack-clack of the return handle as the carriage reset.
Our artifacts were sitting atop our desks: Rolodexes, “in” and “out” boxes and fountain pens that stained our blotters. And dictionaries, atlases and all manner of reference books were propped high over file cabinets.
I started out at William Morrow as a “manuscript girl” — a promising title in the ’70s — reading everything that came into the office and distributing it to the correct editor, copy editor, proofreader, art director or sales manager. I was buried in paper: onion skin carbon paper, three-ply message pads, and manuscripts bound by three-ring binders or stuffed into oatmeal boxes.
Then I joined Simon & Schuster, working my way up the ladder. During my 14 years there, “progress” came in the form of electric typewriters and Filofaxes. And Mr. Darwin was now working in our supply room, dumping our paper clips in the “soon to be extinct” bin and stacking packs of Post-it notes atop the “potentially fit for survival” shelf.
Eventually, the answering of our wired-to-the-wall phones by secretaries and editorial assistants morphed into voice mail. Gone were message pads and telephone dialers.
The Xerox machine meant that suddenly, not one manuscript was submitted to one publisher, but that 10 copies went to 10 publishers simultaneously. The first publisher to claim the book won, cutting a six-week process to six days or sometimes six hours.
Agents soon realized that they could auction books to publishers and not settle for the first bid. Knopf would bid against Putnam, Simon & Schuster would bid againstRandom House, and so on. The fax machine accelerated the process of signing contracts, and beamed manuscripts overseas for worldwide auctions.
Our lives changed. Agents descended on our formerly humble authors, empowering the new literary lions with Hollywood-like contracts and making us dizzy with new rules.
We were all drunk on the new attention. We hired public relations firms, sought Barbara Walters interviews and romanced the “Today” show. The heads of the B. Dalton/Waldenbooks/Borders/Barnes & Noble chains now sat next toJohn Updike at dinner tables at booksellers’ conventions.
Then came the ’90s — the age of the computer, the atomic bomb that wiped out typewriters as well as typewriter ribbon, Wite-Out, carbon paper, in and out boxes and a serious percentage of stamps, Scotch Tape, stationery, staplers, paper clips, clocks, adding machines and, ultimately, paper itself. Palm Pilots phased out calendars, address books and calculators.
E-mail replaced phone calls. E-mail replaced meetings. And, eventually, e-mail replaced secretaries. Soon, our efficient tools started to threaten more of our species. BookScan used bar codes to measure book sales, doing some work that sales managers used to do. Quicken started doing some of the accountants’ work. Google search replaced work of researchers. Spell-check and TextEdit did some of what copy editors and proofreaders had done.
Our offices became sleek. Desks became clean, except for the computer with a Nano or BlackBerry or iPhone tethered to it (like mother and child). And print on demand and e-readers were transforming the very foundation of publishing.
SO, it’s 2009. Now what?
Is the screen the new paper? Will publishing houses go the way of the old-fashioned record store? Is digital delivery the new bookstore? Is Google the new library? Is the author the new musician, playing directly to the audience? Is the audience the new author?
I can’t answer these questions. I am no longer in book publishing. I ran from the building several years ago, the moment I glimpsed Charlie Darwin sitting in the corner office.