Over 200,000 books are published each year, give or take a few, and the fine art of inscribing a book is important to more people than ever. E-Bay has raised awareness of collectible values of everything, including autographs. After an author publishes a chapbook (stapled-bound or stitched booklet of 24 or so pages); a literary flyer or “broadside”; or book, fans will want signatures. Here is a great chance to participate in direct interaction with readers. Two parts are: (1) what to say and (2) what to write.
The “Say” Part: Personal Connections
One of my favorite memories of Associated Writers and Writing Programs, which I served as board member and chair, was the annual conference reading by Terry Tempest Williams. Anyone who has read her work understands her family health difficulties—she lost both her mother and brother to cancer. She had bad news about her own health right before the conference. At her reading, she stunned the audience with her brilliance and sincerity, with never a hint of her condition. Afterwards at the book table, over a hundred people wanted inscriptions. She had a personal conversation with each. Many she knew beforehand; some were strangers. This took about two hours, and the room was free, so she had no time limit. People were willing to wait. In this type of interaction, you can build relationships with your readers. However, you may not have a hundred fans and a rent-free room with no deadline. Lots of practical considerations come into play.
When does the reading site need to be vacated? Most libraries and bookstores close by 9 p.m. Once I was at a store that closed at 8 p.m., and I missed the entire signing because of this misunderstanding.
Who else is signing books? How much room is there? You may be at a table alone or with a group of twenty. If it is a larger group, you want to be a good literary citizen and share space nicely. When others do not play by the rules, be courteously persistent.
Visual Aids. You may want to bring handouts, a bookstand for a display copy, and other aids, depending.
Sales Assistance. If possible, do not handle sales yourself. Digging around for change takes away from the author-reader moment. If you are in a bookstore, do expect to sign (not inscribe) unsold copies.
Personal Touches and Challenges
Courtesy. Of course a writer is pleased to have attention to the book. Most fans will politely mention their names, spell or write them out, and comment briefly. This is ideal, and courtesy comes easily. People will remember for decades the personal time with an author like Terry Tempest Williams. Or yourself.
Exchange contact information. You may find book fans that you want to visit with more, outside of this brief encounter. Bring copies of your business card. This is helpful for directing people to online personal and sales sites. The blank back is a quick notepad for further information.
Listen. This is a chance to get feedback about the reading, responses to books, new work reception, and other information, directly from readers. Priceless!
Keep the Line Flowing. Readers have obligations to all stakeholders to keep the book signing line flowing smoothly. Do not let one person monopolize your attention. One of my least favorite parts of helping to host AWP conference readings with hundreds in the audience was courteously shoving people out of the way of eminent authors. My duty was to get authors to the book table at the back of the room and make way for the next panel. Long lost relatives, social media acquaintances, former students, and past life soul mates did not want to let go. I borrowed a blocking technique from football.
Patience. Some audience members pull out their own manuscripts and want critiques on the spot despite a line of fans. Some really have no sensitivity to social cues. Here is where you use your “difficult person” script—thank them, mention your responsibility to other readers, break eye contact, and look at the next person in line. If all else fails, stand up and find the reading host or take a break. Bookstores often have people to help.
The “What” Part: Personal Interaction
Equipment. Invest in a half dozen nice pens in archival, fast-drying black ink or a unique personal color. I have signed some books in blue to relate to the book’s theme (sky, water). Pencil may be a better choice, because lead does not fade nor deteriorate like some acid-based inks. Consider the type of paper to be signed, and if it is a slick finish, find a pen that does not smear. Fast drying ink is especially important on glossy-finish paper. Try out sample signings, including where to sign on the book’s page. Collect your armory of signing utensils and save them for signings only. If you are really famous, keep one on hand for any public excursion.
Calligraphy. Do your best. Practice. Be sober. Slow down when you get sloppy.
Where to sign. The title page is the most common signatory site, unless this is a rare or fine arts book. If the books is an anthology, you turn to your first page and sign. If there is a bookplate, the book owner might ask for a signature. Sometimes loose bookplates are substitutes when books are not available.
Sign or Inscribe? Ask book owners if they want a simple signature or specific dedications to him/her or someone else. Is it a gift that needs birthday or holiday wishes? Have a pad for spelling out unusual names or specific instructions. Sign or Inscribe Redux: Collectibles. Signed copies are easier to sell and have greater collectible value. Inscriptions have a shelf life and lower the value. People die, move, go to used bookstores. One of my worst days was in a local used book store, where I found my own books inscribed to someone who no longer had need of them. (What was worse was finding an early book of mine with corrective comments written in the margins!)
Cross out your name on the title page and replace with your signature, or do not. When we sign letters, the typeset version of a name must be validated with a handwritten signature. Author signatures follow the same custom. Some book collectors object to the crossing out of the printed signature, but it does show a personalization of this particular book. More recently, the custom is to autograph the name above or below the typeset name without crossing it out. Your choice.
So what does an author write? A signed book is when an author simply signs his or her name in a book and perhaps dates it as well. An inscribed book is when an author adds a personal note, usually with a dedication that includes the book buyer’s name (or his/her designee).
· Sign your names, first and last, unless you are Madonna or Cher. You might want to use you’re a name or initial for signings. Do not use your official legal name if possible (identity theft is possible).
· Date and place. This adds a nice emphasis to a meeting place. The title of the event is also appropriate.
· A simple inscription like “Have fun reading,” “Best wishes,” “Nice to meet at __________,” “Your friend.” These are safe, but not special. In large groups, though, they keep the line flowing.
· Refer to event incidents. This helps to further commemorate an evening, if perhaps the reading took place during an ice storm, honoring of a writer, or unexpected flower delivery.
· A set individual phrase or notation. Your personal and universal message might be like Elmore Leonard’s “Take it easy,” for all his books. Or you might draw an individual hieroglyph like Kenneth Irby, a five-point star within a circle. David Sedaris personalizes each signature with a sticker.
· A quotation or theme from the book, like “Best hopes for all your skies,” what I inscribed in the book Touching the Sky. Robert Hass often inscribed his book Human Wishes with “All the best human wishes.”
· Something about the reader. The true art of inscription is personalizing the comment. Is this a family member, good friend, student, teacher, or other important relationship? Do you share cats, vacations, wine preferences, work? Converse with the book buyer a moment. The more you can quickly compose a reference to that relationship, the better. This reminds me of signing high school yearbooks.
E-Signatures: Authorgraph™ is software that allows authors to sign digitally. Here, according to the website, is how it works: “(1) Search or browse for your favorite authors or books; Click ‘Request Authorgraph’ (you can include a short message to the author); Receive an email when the author has signed your Authorgraph; View your Authorgraph in your favorite reading apps and devices.”
And here is a final word from Richard Sassaman: “How you sign the book is really the least important part of the interaction; they’re more likely to remember how you dealt with them personally.”