Recently, my company’s bookkeeper, who occupies the office adjoining mine, cautiously stuck her head into my room and gazed at me with a look of grave concern. “Are you all right?”
I looked up from the screen on my desk. “Sure. Why?”
“I haven’t heard a sound from you all day. I was worried that you were...” Her voice trailed off.
“That I was what? Dead?”
She flushed with embarrassment. “Well, you’ve been very quiet!”
I squeezed her hand reassuringly. “See? Alive and well! As a matter of fact, I’ve been making deals all day.”
“But not on the phone like you used to.”
And suddenly I realized that almost all the business I had conducted that day had been done via e-mail—done, indeed, in complete silence. As I reflected on the past few years, it came to me that most of my business communications were now online, and that I seldom talked to anyone on the phone except friends and family. This was particularly puzzling because the book business is among the most articulate of all fields of endeavor. If there was ever a profession characterized by schmoozing, it’s this one. When did this change, and why?
Though e-mail began to filter into book industry communications channels in the early 1990s, the telephone remained the vehicle of choice until the middle of the first decade of the new century. Then a radical change occurred in the way books were submitted to publishers. Instead of submitting paper manuscripts by mail or messenger, authors and agents began to attach them to e-mails in the form of Word or PDF files. Books were pitched and editorial responses rendered via e-mail. As time went by, publishers began to tender offers via e-mail, which begot negotiations in the same medium. Little by little, the urgent ringing of phones was replaced by the tick-tick of fingernails on keyboards.
Because of liability concerns, editors today are encouraged to state everything in writing. Similar factors have led editors to employ change-tracking in copyediting and proofreading in order to remove ambiguities that used to arise when these processes were performed on paper or over the telephone. With this shift to e-mail, it is completely possible for a book to be written, submitted, acquired, edited, and published without a single soul speaking aloud to another or a scrap of paper touching anybody’s hands.
That explains much of the shift away from phones, but not all of it. The vocal 20th-century generation of publishing people has begun to give way to a wired younger one that seems less comfortable and secure on the phone than on a keyboard. Phone messages are often ignored, e-mails or text messages almost never. Indeed, e-mails sent to editors at night or on weekends often elicit immediate responses. (“Why are you working at 11 on a Saturday night?” I will e-mail someone. “I might ask the same of you!” comes the instant answer.)
It might be argued that because mine is a small company, my experience is exceptional. But conversations with colleagues in larger firms elicit similar reports. A stroll down the corridors of the editorial office of any large publisher reveals small modest cubicles occupied by ear-budded men and women, apparently content in their isolation as their fingers rove tranquilly on the keyboards of their computers, tablets, or smartphones. Nor is there to be seen a water cooler around which workers once gathered to exchange scuttlebutt, review last night’s game or mini-series episode, or complain about management.
In a blog posted on a Web site called LinkMag2010, members of the journalism profession reminisced about the good old days of the 20th century when noisy offices, and the human interactions their clamor represented, were not only commonplace but pleasurable. “Nowadays, it takes renting a movie to remember the paper-stacked, smoke-filled newsroom of the olden days,” writes Sommer Saadi. “The constant babble of conversation and the clucking telephone operators fielding nonstop calls provided just the right soundtrack to the production process. Today’s newsroom, by contrast, is eerily quiet. Walk into most offices and everyone’s wearing headphones, a sea of heads bobbing to different tunes.”
Not all fields of endeavor report the same experience. Indeed, for workers in some offices the complaint is the opposite. In a recent Time.com posting, Annie Murphy Paul described an open office, saying that although it was “designed for team building and camaraderie,” it is “mostly distinguished by its high noise levels, lack of privacy and surfeit of both digital and human distractions.”
I know you’re supposed to be careful about what you wish for, but given the cone of silence in which some of us labor, a little of that stress-inducing noise and distraction would be welcome. Call me? Please?