I have an article in the Summer issue of The Author (the quarterly magazine of The Society of Authors) about the strange practice of book signing. The title given by the editor is A sign of what? Here is the original version of the article, which is a tad longer than the version featured in the magazine.
It has always felt strange to me, at talks and readings, to be asked to autograph one of my books. My slight embarrassment as I do the deed and hand back the book is not false modesty, more a conviction that the buyer must surely regret the request when they see how my crabbed signature has besmirched their nice white flyleaf. I really do feel each time that I’m committing a minor act of vandalism, not quite on the scale of Joe Orton’s pornographic amendments to library books, more like sticking a finger in somebody’s wet cement – it will be there forever, calling attention to its own defacement.
I have stood in line myself to buy books after listening to a favourite author, but don’t recall ever presenting one for signature. I guess I’m in a minority; from my experience nine out of ten at such events feel their purchase is incomplete without an inscription (well, four out of five; ten hand-in-pocket customers at one gig is relatively rare for me). I suppose for some it is their way of getting up close and personal with the author, but if it’s a conversation they want, don’t they realise this is the worst possible time to start one? Can’t they feel the impatient breath of the next book-clutcher in the queue as they relate at length the anecdote that my story has stirred from their memory? Can’t they see my eyes stray to a place behind their shoulder, how my expression of empathy is weakened by the apology in my smile? Perhaps the subtlety of my body language is lost as I’m simultaneously sending reassuring non-verbal signals to everyone in the room about what an approachable guy I am and how I’d be a pleasure to meet.
Apparently the actor Steve Martin responds to fans asking for an autograph by handing them a card that reads, ‘This certifies that you have had a personal encounter with me and that you found me warm, polite, intelligent and funny.’
At a book event, or at least at the larger ones, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that you must buy and be seen to buy the author’s latest offering as a kind of admission ticket to the presence. (Perhaps not so unspoken; there’s a book-signing scene in Alice Munro’s short story Fiction where an assistant is inspecting the line to check that everyone’s book has the requisite gold sticker to certify the book was bought in store.) Having made the purchase and joined the line in order to speak to the author, it may seem impolite not to ask for the book to be signed. It validates the encounter and ritualises a shared pretence that the author is somehow special.
Otherwise, what would be the point? I suppose writing a message above the signature helps to memorialise the event for the reader. I will often write something like Well met in Middlesbrough, though I check carefully these days, remembering the awkward incident over the book bought as a present for a cousin in Canada. The spelling of names is another obstacle to be negotiated (I mean theirs, not mine; not that you can tell with my handwriting). A few specify they want no salutation or message, only the signature. Why? What is the value added? Do they seriously view the book as a collector’s item? Do they expect to recoup their losses on eBay?
I don’t know how long philography (aka autographing-hunting) has been practised, but it’s obvious that Shakespeare didn’t get many requests, otherwise there wouldn’t be all that doubt about who wrote the plays. I can imagine Lord Byron signing a few copies the morning he awoke and found himself famous; he was probably the first literary celebrity of the modern ilk. Certainly the passion to have one’s book signed seems to belong to the celebrity not the literary culture.
In his popular 1960s classic on social theory The Image, Daniel Boorstin wrote that, ‘A sign of a celebrity is that his name is often worth more than his services.’ The commercial truth behind that statement is evident more than forty years on, with publishing a particularly striking example. The bigger the (television) name the longer the queue in the bookshop. It may be the only time Katie Price ever goes into one. (And I hear she’s about to make an attempt at the Guinness Book of Records for the most number of books signed.) I wonder if she ever opens any book other than the ones she autographs for fans; or if she explores beyond the flyleaf of those that carry her name.
I wonder too what will happen to book-signing when print finally gives way entirely to the ebook. Will we all have to perfect virtual signatures to append on request to our virtual books? I’m off now to create one for mine. It’s my great chance for... not fame: legibility.