Monday, April 26, 2004

Signed, sealed and delivered 

Hat tip to Matt Haber for alerting me to Lawrence Block's article in this week's Village Voice on the vagaries of touring, meeting rabid collectors, and the whole book signing thing. As readers of this blog know, Larry's currently on tour promoting his new book THE BURGLAR ON THE PROWL, and this experience, combined with a whole host of others, has left him rather nonplussed about signing books:

A dozen or so years ago, somebody worked out what to do with the author's spare time. Instead of sitting around the hotel all day waiting for an evening event, he could improve each shining hour by hopping from store to store signing stock. Early on, store personnel were hard put to know what to make of the notion, but they got the hang of it, even as the writers learned to overcome their natural reserve and set about forcing their signature on stores whether they wanted it or not.

And the stores caught on big-time when they noticed that signed books tended to sell. A signed book quickly became a sine qua non for collectors. The best comparison I can think of is to the dust jacket. Until 50 years ago, the book's paper wrapper was there to draw attention in a store, and to protect the book until someone actually sat down and read it. At that time it was commonly discarded—which is why so few books with intact dust jackets survive from those early days.

Collectors collectively decided that a book with a dust jacket was more desirable, and hence worth more, than an unjacketed one. Indeed, only a jacketed copy was regarded as truly complete. Books from the '20s and '30s are still collectible without jackets, but a rare book of that vintage may be worth 10 or 20 times as much if it has a jacket. More recent books, unless of great rarity, are essentially worthless without a jacket.

Over the past decade, collectors have come to regard an unsigned book as similarly incomplete. "I have it," you'll hear someone say, "but it's not signed." If the author is still alive, the sentence ends a little differently. "But it's not signed yet," the collector will say.

Can you see where this is going? You have to sign the new books in order to get them sold, and you have to sign the old ones to make your readers happy.

I used to be rather signing-happy, for a reason: it afforded me a quick and easy way to meet a favorite author, have a brief word or two about how much I loved the books, and get the book scrawled in the process. But after a couple of years as a bookseller and having to make sure that some folks didn't monopolize the author's time by having him or her sign book after book after book, the signature decreased in value for me. Besides, even though I have far too many books in the house, I don't consider myself a collector--I just like owning books I love. And while I still like getting books signed, I'd rather the inscription mean something to me than just get a token signature so I can turn around and hawk it on Ebay. It just seems rather tawdry.

Which is why, when I fly into New York tomorrow, I'm only bringing a select few books with me. One, it's way too much trouble to schlep every book I think I might like signed considering which authors will be around. And two, it's not a bad idea to limit myself to a couple of books per author--tops--so that I'm not one of the monopolizers. I learned this the hard way after attending a Bouchercon where, for one reason or another, I forgot to get half the books I brought with signed--mostly because I couldn't be bothered chasing down authors for their signatures when I could actually have a conversation with them. I think the same will go for much of this week....

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