28 October 2011

Book signings

When did the cult of book signing begin ? By book-signing I mean the organised book-signing in a bookshop. I ask because it is not always obvious in what circumstances a book was signed. In my copy of E.V. Lucas’s At the Shrine of St Charles (1934), Auntie Jessie of 21, Woodstock Road, Croydon has interleaved a note telling her niece that she had ‘a chance to get this autographed copy of St Charles‘. The question is, did, she stand in line at the Croydon branch of W. H. Smiths some time in 1934 to get that nice Mr Lucas to sign his latest work? Or did she schlep to town later for a talk by Lucas, perhaps at a meeting of the Charles Lamb Society ?

Is an author necessarily going to include in their inscription the fact that the book was signed in a shop, with all that this entails? After all, even today, when we profess not to care about such social niceties, signing a cartload of books from cardboard boxes in a branch of Waterstones, complete with a simpering PR graduate aide, is one thing; a few books brought in by genuine fans for signatures at a Foyles literary luncheon is quite another. Is anyone going to believe you when you boast that Martin Amis signed your first of The Rachel Papers over a glass of Chablis and a longish chat on the literary merits of Saul Bellow at the Hay Festival? ‘Well, all I see is his signature’, your sceptical friend remarks.’ Nothing about Bellow or Hay ‘. Are you sure you didn’t meet him at Hatchards’s ?

You are suitably mortified. You had to talk for ten minutes about tennis to keep him keen, you recall. And the rest of the Festival was a waste of time and money. Good job I like second hand books. But to return to the book store. The literature on book store signings is pretty thin. Diaries and letters of the twentieth century are probably the best source, but I could find little. And if you Google ‘ history of book signings ‘, hoping to get some juicy anecdotes on Auden or Waugh in the thirties, you are disappointed . So perhaps this particular marketing phenomenon is of a comparatively recent date. And indeed, according to one American internet source, Book Tours as we know them today, were the brainchild of the novelist Jacqueline Susann in the sixties. Apparently she would hire a plane, load it with books, and check herself into a string of bookstores. But that degree of glitziness seems particularly American, and today the Book Tour, celebrity or otherwise, seems more popular in the States.

And what of the professional dealers who stand in line with the punters? Many authors despise the breed and claim to be able to pick them out from the modern Auntie Jessies. I have my doubts about this. The cunning dealer intent on obtaining a signature is unlikely to target the same author before a respectable period of time has elapsed. Moreover, many dealers are married (sometimes hard to believe) with children, all of whom can be deployed to obtain signatures. However, it is probably true that at a book signing no author will sign one of their previously published tomes, unless, one supposes, the customer has already bought a copy of the title being promoted.

I must admit to regarding this particular kind of opportunist dealer with sneaking admiration. The risk of being humiliated by an angry author is not something that everyone is prepared to take. And all for a signature ! And so I ask, what’s the big deal with signed contemporary fiction ? Here are some prices attached to items offered for sale by various dealers in the now defunct Book and Magazine Collector over the past three years.

Sean Connery, Being a Scot (signed 1st/1st. W&N 2008) F/F £225.
B. Jacques, Redwall (signed) VG VG £295
J Lindsay, Darkly Dreaming Dexter (signed) F/F £125
Wilbur Smith, Hungry as the Sea (signed) F/F £125
Andrew Taylor, Our Fathers Lies (1985 signed) F/F £90
D. Morrell, Testament, VF/VF, signed UK 1st £100

And so on. They seemed foolishly expensive but surprisingly the net now just about bears them out. [R. M. Healey]

Thanks Robin. The Connery seems toppish but I guess it's bought by those in the thrall of Bond and he might be a difficult chap to corner with book and pen - so 225 smackers could possibly be raised. I had more luck on Google but you have to drill down to fan sites where discussions of book signings and the ungrateful ways of celebs is fairly rife. On the subject of angry authors a friend was at a Rushdie signing and asked the novelist to sign a few books, including a book he had fulsomely praised, the amazing ALL ABOUT H. HATTERR by G. V. Desani. Salman got in quite a bate that he was being asked to sign a book he didn't write, raised voices etc., Not sure about the etiquette there. I would be wary of asking Peter Ackroyd to sign Iain Sinclair's 'Lud Heat' for example (a book he acknowledged as a big influence on 'Hawksmoor.') Keep it simple might be the maxim when meeting the luminaries of lit.

A cautionary tale of a fan who spotted Dylan and asked for an autograph. He produced a book to sign and Bob was about to sign but the fan did not or could not provide a pen. 'No pen, no autograph' snapped the bard and hurried off.
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