Booker winner's robot brainwave may spell the end of the book tour
Novelist's invention means that authors on one continent can autograph volumes on another
Sunday 19 February 2006
The bizarre, futuristic device would not be out of place in one of Margaret Atwood's sci-fi novels. But next month the Booker Prize-winning writer will unveil a machine she has invented which means authors will never have to meet their adoring public again.
Ms Atwood, the Canadian author of The Handmaid's Tale and The Blind Assassin, has created a machine that will allow her - without leaving the comfort of her home - to autograph the pages of her books while she is in another continent.
The imminent arrival of the gadget, called LongPen, has prompted fears it could kill off the grand tradition of the book-signing tour. Those long hours spent on trains and motorways, trudging the publicity circuit as writers to press the flesh with the people who pay their wages, could be a thing of the past.
Yet the threat has led to a backlash by other authors. D J Taylor called it "an absolutely feeble idea - another example of fatuous modern technology", while novelist Jilly Cooper believes "if the signing tour were to die off, it would be a tragedy".
Ms Atwood, 66, is to launch the device - which has been seen by only a select few at secret testings - at the London Book Fair a fortnight from today, where publishers and authors from around the world will be given a demonstration. The writer will be in Canada but will create what is being billed as the world's first transatlantic autograph.
A video screen will link Ms Atwood with the public, allowing them to speak to her. Then, as she signs a personal message at one end, a robot arm instantly replicates the strokes in a copy of the book at the other.
"You don't have to be in the same room as someone to have a meaningful exchange," she said. "As I was whizzing around the United States on yet another demented book tour, getting up at four in the morning to catch planes, doing two cities a day, eating the Pringle food object out of the mini-bar at night as I crawled around on the hotel room floor, too tired even to phone room service, I thought, 'There must be a better way of doing this.'
"So I talked to a few people, then put together a team to find out whether anything like it existed - no - and whether it could be done - yes."
It may well find favour among some writers and publishers. Mark Hutchinson, a director of literary PR agency Colman Getty, said tours could be a huge boost to sales, but could be demanding on authors who had little time or had commitments that made it difficult to travel.
"I can see that it would be an attractive proposition to simply sit and do the signing from their home," said Mr Hutchinson, who has organised signings for clients such as J K Rowling and Nigella Lawson.
"It can be a demanding, and occasionally mundane, experience - the writers will be meeting and greeting for hours on end, smiling and exchanging pleasantries. If they can do it from the comfort of their armchair and not have the added burden of travelling around, it might be an attractive proposition.
"Some publishers have been trying to think of ways round the whole touring thing for a while. When you think that you instantly email people, this might be an obvious extension and authors could do a virtual world tour in a few hours."
But many authors are aghast at the idea of axing tours. Mr Taylor said: "You have to turn up in person - you have a duty to the people who turn up to see you. Authors spend so much time in their rooms ... the more that technology keeps them sat in their rooms, the worse it is. We can't all be J D Salingers - at some point we have to leave the home and meet the people who pay our wages."
The comedian Charlie Higson, who has recently been promoting his book Blood Fever about the young James Bond, said: "I don't think a robot arm is a substitute for an actual signature. Plus, you still have to go through the actual process of waggling your arm across the page. I do like to do a short tour if I have the time, although if you are in the middle of something else it can take for ever."
Signed copies of books can be highly sought after and collectable - but a new generation of remotely produced signatures may have the reverse effect.
Roddy Newlands, expert in modern first editions at London's Bloomsbury Book Auctions, said: "I think if it were to be signed this way, it might actually take something off the value. I would say it could probably cause a depreciation of the price."
Ms Atwood insists that the device is not a hoax. "It's real. Trust me. You need to have more faith."
On the road: A chapter of disasters
JILLY COOPER: "I went to one signing with a beautiful pink suede skirt with buttons all the way up the front, and when I sat down it split right up to the crotch. I kept putting my bag over it but it didn't do much good."
IAN RANKIN: "I flew from Seattle to San Diego, which is about 3,000 miles, to do a book signing and not one person turned up - so I hung around for an hour, went back to the airport, and got back on a plane to Seattle."
JENNY COLGAN: "I've had my fair share of signing traumas. Sitting completely by myself at a desk in the main concourse of Stansted airport, 30 metres from the bookshop, directing people to their departure gates, is particularly burned into my memory."
TERRY PRATCHETT: "The worst waswhen I turned up at the bookshop and the manager went white and said, 'Was it today?' After every tour I doubt if I'll do it again ... Tours gouge out big lumps of my life, but everyone seems to think they're essential."
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