Years ago, my friend Charles stood in line for me at an Umberto Eco reading, bringing back a copy of The Island of the Day Before inscribed to me. Don’t ask me why, but it still feels strange to think of Eco writing out my full name.
For Mark Bertrand
I don’t know how the tradition originated, but the talismanic pleasure of having one’s book signed by the author is undeniable. The pleasure hasn’t always been unmarred in my case. One of my professors inscribed my copy of his book of poetry to someone else (he misremembered my name). Another prof made out her new book to me, when in fact I’d purchased it as a birthday gift for my wife. I was too bashful to correct the mistake, which would cost me: for years afterward, whenever I would sneak the book onto one of my wife’s shelves, she would move it back among my books: “It has your name on it, not mine.”
Michael Chabon would never have done that to me. When he signed my copy of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, he wrote his name first, and only then asked whether I’d like the book made out to anyone. Genius. By this time I’d given up on having them inscribed for anyone but myself, so he made it out to me:
To Mark –
Chabon knew what he was doing, and I’ve emulated him ever since. Occasionally, as I take the open book from a reader and begin to sign my name, I’ll detect a note of panic. You’re already writing, and I haven’t told you who to make it out to! Then I ask, and everything is fine. (Besides, I write crime novels, so a little panic isn’t out of place.)
The greatest book signing secret I’ve learned wasn’t this one, however. No, it happened at a convention where the publisher was giving the books away for free. Needless to say, this resulted in long lines. Seeing the winding snake of readers before me, I hunkered down like a book-signing machine. When I looked up, we’d blazed through most of the books and most of the people, too — but I still had twenty minutes left on the clock. The marketing guy from the publishing house stared at me wide-eyed, surrounded by a pile of empty book boxes. “That was … fast.”
It turns out, the trick is to go slow. Take your time with each person and let the line grow longer and longer. Never rush because part of the joy of the experience is spending a few moments chatting with the author.
This is not just a lesson in book signing, but a lesson in life.
The best signing story I’ve heard comes from a good friend who found a secondhand copy of his book for sale. He pulled it off the shelf, opened to the flyleaf, and found a long personal inscription he’d written to a colleague. “I gave him this copy, and he turned around and sold it!” I haven’t had that experience yet, but there’s always time.