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Breast wishes, Dita

It's not enough just to buy a book these days; we have to get a hasty signature and a few seconds of face-time with it. Rebecca Pearson looks at the contemporary cult of book signings, and trails Pelé, Dita Von Teese and Paulo Coelho

The pens are poised and the backdrop is in place. There's a queue building at the door and the photographers are getting their final shots under the careful direction of the publicists. Then, the bookbuyer at the head of the queue is ushered forward for a few seconds of face-time and a scrawl of ink from the celebrity author. Welcome to the curious world of the book signing.

There are a lot of people to satisfy at one single signing. First of all, there's an eager crowd, who must be carefully managed. If they are disappointed, chaos ensues. (I speak from experience, as one disgruntled chap tried to get my press pass off me following a Pelé signing - but gave up when I pointed out he wasn't really a "Rebecca".) Secondly, the sponsors want to make sure that the backdrop is carefully positioned to appear in every photograph, and that the author will be nicely associated with their name (for the time being at least). Don't forget about the author's own publicist(s), who will be trying to keep their client happy, predicting the exact moment at which they will be weary and making sure all demands for fruit and such are met instantly. As well as keeping the grubby punters under control. And any tricky questions at bay. You get the idea.

But let's not forget the poor author, who may or may not have any fans show up; who may or may not be asked to sign body parts; who may or may not see this as an unpleasant but unavoidable component in their creative process - a balance between the artist and the product.

Just how successful are signings anyway? "Signings, as opposed to ticketed talks, are always risky to some extent," says Tamsin Barrack, publicity director at Little, Brown. "With the right author, they can be hugely beneficial to sales. For example, we averaged almost 900 copies per week, for 14 weeks, purely through signings, while touring Jimmy Greaves for his autobiography."

The Pelé signing was a full house hours before it had even begun. It was held at Canary Wharf, in a glass-walled function room. When I arrived, the press officer, Julia Denman, told me that they were already turning people away. It was due to start at 12.45pm but, by 8am, there were 100 people already waiting. The capacity was 300. "We didn't want people queuing in vain," said Denman, which is why it was a one-book-per-person signing, with no photos allowed. "It is the fairest system to get the most amount of books signed in the time," argued Denman. "We can't have one person hold it up for everyone - and people seem to appreciate that."

By the time Pelé came on stage, people were jammed up against the glass walls outside and looking at me bitterly as I wandered around with my notepad. Patrick O'Brien, a chipper 13-year-old from Rugby, told me: "We went to Coventry yesterday. We queued for three hours but didn't get anything, so I persuaded mum to bring us to London." His dutiful mother came up with a second copy signed (to add to Patrick's), telling her son, "I gave him a kiss from you!"

At least that was fairly chaste. At a signing given by the burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese, several women got their breasts out for her to sign, which she gracefully did. "It's fun," Von Teese told me afterwards. "I've signed three sets of boobs. It's usually reserved for rock stars, so that's pretty cool. Maybe I should get a stamp, you know, and just stamp people." As she started miming stamping people's chests, the next (male) reader approached, timidly.

As most people are very much in the "To Joe Bloggs, please. I love your writing" vein, the oddities do stand out. The crime writer Christopher Brookmyre recalls one occasion at the Edinburgh Book Festival: "I think some of the members of the audience who had come along were a little more staid and polite in their appetites. There was a discussion during the debate where I was being taken to task for the language in my book by this guy. Anyway, after the event, we were in the signing tent and this little octagenarian - if she was a day - lady came up clutching a copy of my book, Boiling a Frog, and she said, in the most terrific clipped tones, 'Would you mind awfully signing this fucking book for me?'"

Sometimes, it all gets a bit much for the poor writer. In 1999, naughty White House intern Monica Lewinsky fled from Harrods, the first stop of her book tour, after signing just a few books. It's reported that the sheer number of photographers and fans yelling her name left her "shaking". Author Margaret Atwood has had enough, too, and is developing her own way of beating the crush: by not turning up. She'll still sign the books, but will do it from the comfort of her own home, using a machine that records her signature and prints it simultaneously on the book where the "live signing" is taking place.

To judge from the experience of Lynne Truss, Atwood may have a point. After giving a talk at a recent literary festival, Truss dutifully headed to her thronged signing table and, with the air of a seasoned professional, dealt politely with everyone. Even the woman who said that she "must" remember her son. And the person who handed over a manuscript with a heavy sigh, saying that she couldn't believe Lynne's publishers hadn't passed it on already. After all the messages she'd left...

There's a rushing hysteria at some signings that can be put down to the status and air of celebrity surrounding the author. I attended a signing of Paulo Coelho's book, The Zahir. It wasn't even an official signing, it was the launch party - but so many people were asking him to sign copies of almost everything he had ever written, you could be forgiven for getting confused. His fans were asking for signatures so humbly and with such reverence that Mr C was almost having trouble hearing them.

At the other end of the scale, I was recently in a large bookshop in Norwich when it was announced that a local author was now in store and ready to sign books. A few minutes later, the shop's public address system was pretty much pleading with people to go and get a book signed - stopping just short, I felt, of adding "we don't care which book". I couldn't bring myself to go and see the poor little blighter sitting on his own at the big table. I have also seen what happens when you pitch a popular, established writer against a newcomer: no matter how good the newcomer might be, you'll still have heavy queues on one side, on the other, an author being ministered to with tea and a comforting pat on the back.

This is not a rare occurrence, according to Barrack. "A few years ago, with a science fiction author, I had an audience consist of the bookseller's brother - who rubbed salt in the wound by announcing he wasn't really a fan, so wouldn't buy the book. There's not much you can do in that situation, other than sign all stock in sight and take the author to the nearest pub."

"When I am giving a talk with a signing to follow," adds author Justin Cartwright, "particularly if there is more than one author involved, I have a tendency to stress the jolly, upbeat aspects of my novels at the expense of the more serious and darker. This is because the prospect of finding myself signing three books, while the wildly popular and shallow writer next to me signs 300, is always on my mind. It happened quite often early in my career. I once read with someone who appeared to have attracted our enormous audience, although his book was total rubbish. At the signing it became clear: he was said to have had a fling with Madonna."

Of course, it is the "celebrity" signings that will attract the biggest crowd. Jade Goody, for example, nearly started a stampede when she turned up at a shopping centre in Essex to sign copies of her biography - it was just a pity that she ruined the literary façade by asking a fan whether it was "a J or a G" for Jade. One Citigroup employee was quoted in the papers remarking at an afternoon Gordon Ramsay signing in Canary Wharf, "I've been here since 11.30am." Why? "He is fit."

Andy McNab, on the other hand, is renowned for protecting his identity, yet he will apparently attend "secret" book signings. On www.nuts.co.uk, readers claim to have pictures of him at such signings - but my computer won't let me load them up. Has McNab taken out the culprit in a cunning stealth move, or might this be an outtake from "Urban Myth Weekly"?

However, at the signings I attend, everyone seems happy and excited. With the exception, of course, of those who have come along with stacks of books and products to flog on eBay, or those who are here solely to sell the novelist their "masterpiece". "I remember," says Brookmyre, "walking out of an event Ian Rankin and I did together at the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh, and there was a guy who hadn't come up in the signing queue - he'd waited and pounced as we left the building - saying to Ian that he had this great idea for a plot for him. Ian had to give him short but polite shrift."

So, ladies and gentlemen, next time you attend a signing, you know what to do: keep moving, be polite and, who knows, you might get an extra little kiss under your dedication.