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Signing off: the weird world of book signings

A joyous union with readers, or marketing chore?

To some authors, the book-signing is a curse. What could be more excruciatingly dull, to the sensitive creative mind, than to sit for hours in a festival tent or bookshop, inscribing your name on several hundred copies of your new masterpiece? This isn't a proper display of your writing talent – a baboon scratching the dirt with a stick could do it just as well.

To other authors, signing books for the public is a sacramental act, a talismanic ritual in which the bond between writer and reader, expressed in a few words of warm mutual stroking, is sealed by the seminal squiggle of ink.

Between these extremes of attitude lies the truth: book signings are a repetitive chore, mitigated by the pleasure, for authors, of meeting their buying public, and the joy, for readers, of meeting the mind that dreamt up an imaginative creation which lives in their heads. But such is the demand for signed copies that authors often have to sign several thousand books in private, to be sold later.

The crime writer James Ellroy famously signed every one of 65,000 first-edition copies of his 1996 memoir My Dark Places. Few authors enjoy such hard graft. Roald Dahl used to complain about the cheek of Kenny's Bookshop in Galway, Ireland, whose proprietors persuaded him to fly to Dublin under his own steam, picked him up in a car, ferried him to the shop, gave him 3,000 books to sign all afternoon (buoyed up by cups of tea), before driving him back to the airport. Carol Shields, the Canadian author, had a clause inserted in her contract, releasing her from the burden, every publication month, of having to sign thousands of books.

Now, though, an American publisher is short-circuiting the process. His company has posted an advertisement on Craigslist, the internet listing site, asking for 14 volunteers who can fake the signatures of two big-name authors of a forthcoming book; each successful applicant will be paid $25 for every 200 books signed. "You will need," reads the advert, "to be able to copy the look and style of both authors' signatures." It must be some book: the ersatz signings are scheduled to last 16 hours: with 14 people signing at a rate of four books per minute, that suggests more than 50,000 copies will be processed.

The identity of the publisher, and the co-authors, remains unknown. Their signature scam is a clear case of fraud, or "passing off," but is being greeted in publishing circles as an enterprising answer to a problem. And it throws up some long-overdue questions. Such as: Why would you want an author to scribble her name in your book? Does it increase its value? How can best-selling authors sign books for seven hours at a stretch? Why do readers want to meet writers anyway?

It's not clear when the humble autograph – that early trace element of the cult of celebrity – went up-market to become the signed first edition; I suspect it was the early 1970s, when literary festivals were becoming popular and Edward Heath signed so many copies of his book Sailing, bookish types sneeringly wondered how much a rare unsigned copy might fetch. Readers went to festivals as secular pilgrims, returning home with the tiny Grail of an author's signature – which may, incidentally, give a book a small additional sale value, but only if it's a simple signature and nothing more. Otherwise, its value should mostly lie as the souvenir of a memorable encounter between scribe and fan. It's not always an experience of total bliss. Jonathan Coe, author of What a Carve Up! and The Rain Before It Falls, recalls two encounters at a signing in Brighton: one woman picked up his new novel, read the author's biog on the back flap and sniffed, "Is that your only claim to fame?" When he said, "Yes," she replaced the book without another word. The other was a girl student who said brightly, "Can I ask you a question? Why are all your women characters so crap?"

Umpteen authors can report the awfulness of the day nobody queued to buy their book, let alone have it signed. Abi Titmuss, the former nurse turned national sexpot, arrived for a signing in Manchester two weeks ago, to find a queue of three men in zip-fronted leisurewear waiting in WH Smith to inspect her memoirs. By contrast, the queues of people avid for signed copies of Katie Price's new "novel," Angel Uncovered, have broken records. Dozens of poets can recall poetry readings where no books arrived for sale, but where they were asked, as a kind of booby prize, to sign a member of the audience's copy of Summoned by Bells.

Excessive success, however, can also be a burden. There's a shocking story about Stephen King signing books in a Seattle shop. He signed for hours until his shoulder ached and a publicist had to apply an ice-pack. Then his fingers dried up; they cracked and began to bleed, and he asked for a bandage. Hearing this, a fan in the queue demanded to have some authentic Stephen King blood on his book. Others joined in and he signed in his own blood for hours. Chuck Palahniuk, the modern gross-out novelist, author of Fight Club, recalls a visit to a store in Austin, Texas, where the staff dished out free beer to the signing queue, and where an aggressive queuer, possibly not Chuck's greatest fan, demanded of a quaking employee: "Why should I wait in this long line to get my books signed by that dickwad?"

Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist who appearance at festivals can draw thousands of admirers, offered a potential lifeline to busy writers in 2004 with her invention of the LongPen. The gadget writes words on an electronic pad that can be inscribed on a book by a metallic pen thousands of miles away. It's clever, but it lacks the close-up human touch that means your favourite writer has inscribed his or her name for you, right there in front of you.

Rather than delegate this tender contact-moment to some faceless forger, to churn out their now-worthless signature for $25 an hour.