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Book signings – a long gone sign of our times

Author Lauren Child signs books. - Credit: Archant

Charlie Connelly on the perils and pitfalls of a much-missed fixture of the literary scene… the book signing.

Last week something happened that felt like a communication from a different age: I was asked to appear at a literary festival. It’s not until next year and “obviously a lot of the details are TBC depending on what the government guidelines will be etc”, but it was definitely an invitation to appear at a book festival. In front of people. Actual people.

One of the perks of having a book out is the opportunity to leave the house and mingle with other human beings at events. It’s a chance to meet readers and hopefully win new ones, not to mention hear authors you admire speaking about books you like as well as just generally hanging around with nice people. Literary festivals and similar events often remind me why I spend months shut away, drowning in anxiety and self-doubt and typing blearily in the bluey-white glow of a computer screen: the direct connection it forges with people who love reading and love books.

Some festivals have made huge efforts to take their events online with some degree of success but the coronavirus has squashed entirely the traditional circuit of literary gatherings which are, for some members of this solitary profession, the only things stopping us going feral. Indeed, if I’ve been up against a book deadline I sometimes spend the first day at a festival pointing and grunting at things I haven’t seen for a while – trees, shoes, cutlery – and hoping I’ve managed to at least pick most of the chewed animal bones out of my navel-length beard. Thinking about it, if the event next spring does go ahead in something like a conventional form it’ll be the first time I’ll have worn clothes with buttons in nearly a year.

The prospect of standing up in front of a room full of people and talking for 45 minutes plus questions is a little alarming right now. I think the most I’ve said in one go since lockdown is “whose turn is it to cook tonight?” which, while it might solicit some tasty responses from a festival audience, not to mention possible dinner invitations, is a tricky thing to stretch to a full three-quarters of an hour. But hey, let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, because I am also informed by the organisers that if the event isn’t held remotely there will be the opportunity for book signings afterwards, my favourite bit of the whole process.

There are two types of book signing. One is a ‘stock signing’, where someone from the publisher takes you by the elbow and escorts you around bookshops to sign their copies of your book (on one occasion I got distracted chatting to the bookseller and ended up signing not just my own book but three copies of the Second World War history title that lay underneath mine on the table we were using).

Occasionally you’ll be taken to a distribution centre on a remote industrial estate to sign copies before they go out to the shops. I did 2,000 in one sitting once, which nearly killed me. Like an idiot I decided I’d make the extra effort to add “Best wishes” to each one, so that was 8,000 words, handwritten, in one go, in a windowless room with nothing but boxes of books stacked floor to ceiling and some biscuits for company.

Easily the best kind of signings are the ones you do for people, in person. The first I ever did was alongside a very posh novelist in a very posh hotel after an event at which we’d been the guest speakers. A long line of eager readers queued at her table while I twiddled my pen and regarded the empty space in front of mine. Opening the first book placed in front of her, she turned to me and asked, loudly, in front of a long queue of her fans, “do you have to do many of these ghastly events too?”

When she went on to tell me that the hotel, by far the poshest I’d ever been in, was “an absolutely ghastly place”, I realised we might have had different standards in quite a lot of things, not least what might be considered ghastly. She wasn’t my least favourite co-signee though. I once did a lunchtime event with Michael Winner who as we sat together at the signing table afterwards completely blanked me and ignored all my attempts to make smalltalk. Several people had fallen asleep during his speech though, so I had that to enjoy at least.

Fortunately, negative experiences have been very rare. I’ve only ever had one total no-show, for example, when for some reason I was parked in the bookshop at Aberdeen airport for an hour with a pile of my books on a table. Just one person approached me during the entirety of that hour, which was a very long hour, and that was to ask if I knew where the car park payment machines were, which I didn’t.

In general, however, book signings are a very pleasant experience and I miss them. The set up is a little strange; you’re usually sitting behind a table like Dominic Cummings in the Downing Street garden to receive one-by-one a string of people who are in the main pleased to see you, like a monarch dishing out alms. It’s a situation you have to work very hard to mess up: all you have to worry about is spelling names correctly. I’m extra cautious about this and will usually check even the simplest of names, which can leave people walking away thinking it weird that I can write a whole book apparently without being able to spell ‘Dave’.

Caution is definitely the best policy, though. I often think of Monica Dickens, who at a signing in Australia once inscribed a book placed in front of her to ‘Emma Chisett’ when the person was actually enquiring what the book cost.

Sometimes the requested dedications are quite specific, like the man who’d had an argument with his girlfriend and was buying her my new one as a making-up present, meaning there is a book out there somewhere inscribed, “To Claire, I’m really, really sorry about last night, Charlie Connelly”, but generally the dedicatee’s name and ‘best wishes’ are all that’s required. Even I, an idiot, can usually cope with that.

Famous authors have had far worse experiences than me.

Jonathan Coe was signing his new book once when a woman picked up a copy, read his potted biography inside the back flap and asked if it was his only claim to fame. When he replied that it was she snorted, put the book down on the table and walked off without another word.

Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk tells of a signing he once did in Austin, Texas, when a man in the queue buttonholed a member of the bookshop staff and demanded, “Why should I wait in this long line to get my books signed by that dickwad?”, while Tony Blair managed to close down most of central Dublin in 2010 for the – as it turned out – only signing of his memoir A Journey, held at the flagship Eason shop on O’Connell Street.

Eggs and shoes were thrown, there were scuffles outside between demonstrators and gardai and one book buyer attempted a citizen’s arrest for war crimes. I think I’ll settle for being blanked by Michael Winner, to be honest. Sometimes being a nobody has definite advantages.

Selling books in great numbers can lead to long queues. The children’s author Jacqueline Wilson is believed to hold the record for the longest book signing: an eight-hour marathon at a bookshop in Bournemouth in 2004 that an estimated 3,000 book lovers left clutching signed copies. Some booksellers are still in awe of Margaret Thatcher, who when signing copies of her memoir at Harrods in 1994 got through 950 book buyers in two-and-a-half hours. That works out at a shade under ten seconds per customer, a briskness of signature and interaction apparently unparalleled.

These records are destined to remain unchallenged any time soon. While online events have become more widespread, and publishers and authors imaginative and original in their approaches to making them work, actual signings, in person at least, are logistically challenging.

In the mid-2000s Margaret Atwood came up with a device called the LongPen, which allowed writers to appear at signings remotely. The author chatted on a video screen and could sign books by writing on a tablet, the signature and dedication appearing simultaneously on the book, wherever it was in the world, thanks to a robot arm. The idea came to Atwood, she said, “in Denver at four in the morning on the paperback tour for Oryx and Crake after I’d flown in from Japan, already did two events, one on the west coast and one in Denver, and had to get up very early the next day to take a plane to Salt Lake City, and the same day take a plane to Boston”.

The LongPen was an initial success and enjoyed an unusual endorsement from Conrad Black, who was able to sign copies of his biography The Invincible Quest: The Life of Richard Milhous Nixon at bookshops all over the world despite being unable to leave his Florida home due to bail restrictions imposed by the fraud charges that were hanging over him at the time. Little seems to have been heard of the LongPen since around 2006, however. I’ve checked and it is still around, making it slightly surprising that it doesn’t appear to be enjoying a golden age during the coronavirus.

Perhaps people, writer and reader, just miss that simple interaction over the signing table. When I go to a book event it’s usually the queuing and getting my book signed that I remember more than anything the author has said during the previous hour. It gives you a sense of personal connection, a brief but meaningful intimacy that buying a stock-signed copy in a shop or a book signed via a robot arm and a video screen can’t reproduce.

For an author it brings affirmation, a pride that people are prepared not only to buy your book but stand patiently in a queue to have you write your name in it too. It’s a lovely situation to be in and thankfully not one that puts me in danger of getting carried away with myself thanks to the time there were two copies of a book of mine on eBay, one signed, one not.

The unsigned copy was going for £8.99. The signed version was up for – wait for it – 99 pence. When your signature’s worth minus eight quid there’s no danger of a book signing stoking a rampaging ego anytime soon.

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