September 6, 2009
The Xerox Moment
Joni Evans’s memoir-ish essay nicely connects the late Mad Men-era (in her case, of publishing, not advertising) to the digital present by way of an archaeology of office technology. It’s the intermediate transformations she registers that are more interesting, and maybe - arguably - more significant:
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 against Random 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 to John Updike at dinner tables at booksellers’ conventions.
It’s nice, too, that the essay begins where her career does, in the early 1970s; an older observer would see the tech and cultural changes she inherited, the fleet of typewriters, rolodexes, and mimeographs, and the institution of “the manuscript girl,” as the rupture, not the origin. The mood she establishes isn’t so much nostalgia for a lost Eden as the excitement (coupled with dread) of an industry that was always living in the future.