The signed editions

by Steve

People queuing at book signing

There’s a really interesting post over at the blog of author Jonathan Gibbs, concerning the cult of the signed edition book. You should probably just go over there and read it rather than let me butcher the argument made, but I thought is raised some really thought-provoking points around the connection between author and reader, the compromises authors need to make, and the weird motivations we might have for getting a book signed.

I don’t have that many signed editions.

I went to my watch my local non-league football team a lot as a teenager. One year a supporter pulled together a history of the club and self-published the book. It must have taken hours and hours of research, not to mention a lot of time and money to just get the thing printed. I picked up a copy in the club bar from the author himself. Just before I left with my copy I turned back and asked if he minded signing my copy. I figured he had put that much effort in, he deserved to be acknowledged as a real author. I knew it wouldn’t make the book worth any more but it seemed like a nice gesture. He was happy to oblige. My copy may well be the only signed one. I don’t know.

I bought a history book in a local remainder/discount-type store. The author was/is pretty well-known. When I got home and pulled the book out of its plastic bag I saw the sticker on the front: Signed by the Author. And looking inside, indeed it was. This felt a little like cheating. I hadn’t queued up for the book. I hadn’t met the author. There wasn’t a personalised message. I hadn’t even bought the book from the same place he had signed it. I guess he had attended a book signing elsewhere, signed some spare copies at the end, and a few copies never sold and eventually ended up in the shop where I bought my copy. I don’t particularly treasure the book, but it being signed is a nice thing nonetheless.

And then the unsigned book that could have been signed. I’ve only ever been to one book launch, as far as I can remember. One of my professors at university was a reasonably high-profile author too, and my class were invited to the evening launch party. We all bought a copy of the book and my classmates started queuing to have their copy signed. I held back as I was enjoying the wine and canapes too much. The first signed copy emerged from the line and we all wowed at the lovely message. The next few signed copies emerged. All with exactly the same, lovely message. I decided it wasn’t worth getting my copy signed. I think I had the only unsigned copy in the building that night.

I can certainly see the appeal of a signed copy, in theory at least. It takes an object that is essentially impersonal and makes it personal. Perhaps it is a way of making the author feel appreciated too. Yet I’m always wary of meeting my heroes. What if the message doesn’t really mean much? How much of a connection can you really have over a table in a book shop with a queue behind you? Will it make you more forgiving of the author’s work, or less so? Should the author even matter?

I guess it needs to feel like a genuine gesture from the author, or even from the reader, or maybe from someone who has got it signed for you. If it doesn’t meet that criteria, perhaps it should at least be part of a good anecdote. But it shouldn’t weigh too heavily on what follows in the book itself, although perhaps it always will, the author’s scrawl echoing through the pages.

Image from Barney Livingston, via Flickr