My least favourite part of being an author: the book-defacing session

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The Independent Online

Of the pains and sorrows incident to the life of man, the publication of a book ought not to be the most excruciating. Since everybody has a book out now - a self-help manual, a children's book, a self-help manual on the writing of a children's book, a memoir of the time you tried to write a children's book, a self-help manual on how to write a memoir of the time you tried to write a children's book - the anticlimax of publication is common knowledge. But some writers still manage to rise to the occasion. Myself - and if you think this is a roundabout way of announcing the appearance of my new novel, you are right - I find the whole thing hell. Nothing to do with reviews or sales. It's book-signing that upsets me, not the having to do it but the being unable to do it the mess I make. I don't know how other authors fare, but every book I sign I deface.

Of the pains and sorrows incident to the life of man, the publication of a book ought not to be the most excruciating. Since everybody has a book out now - a self-help manual, a children's book, a self-help manual on the writing of a children's book, a memoir of the time you tried to write a children's book, a self-help manual on how to write a memoir of the time you tried to write a children's book - the anticlimax of publication is common knowledge. But some writers still manage to rise to the occasion. Myself - and if you think this is a roundabout way of announcing the appearance of my new novel, you are right - I find the whole thing hell. Nothing to do with reviews or sales. It's book-signing that upsets me, not the having to do it but the being unable to do it the mess I make. I don't know how other authors fare, but every book I sign I deface.

My pen is always wrong. Wouldn't you think I would know by now to be sure I have a decent pen on me? I used to swear by fountain pens, but the last time I used one I leaked all over the title page and in the act of apologising profusely - you know the style: head thrown back, arms waving - I leaked all over the people queuing for my signature. Is there a greater crime an author can commit on publication day than to blot his readers?

So it's been a ballpoint ever since. But even ballpoints can smudge. Last week at Hay I smudged about a score. Horrible globules of sticky ballpoint ink on the first and final flourishes of my signature. In panic I tried faking hay fever, hoping that a surreptitious handkerchief would serve as blotting paper, but you soon discover that your readers are no keener having bits of tissue sticking to their books than they are on your sneezing into them. There might be professions where fans will take anything from their idols, a filthy paper handkerchief included, but novel writing isn't one of them. Thereafter, whenever a blob or gloop of inky gunk appeared I just smiled and closed the book abruptly. With a bit of luck the pages will have stuck together by now.

I am also illegible. Other novelists note the time it takes me to finish a signing session, supposing that I must have twice as many readers wanting my book signed as they have. In fact, the length of my queue is to be explained by the number of people coming back a second or a third time to get me to decipher what I wrote for them originally. As if I knew! "How do you expect me to remember that?" I ask them. "We're not asking you to remember," they say. "We're just asking you to read it." I have to explain to them that I'm a writer, not a reader. "So what was it you wrote?" they want to know. "I'm the wrong one to ask," I tell them. "I'm illegible. But it's probably my name."

In fact. it's never "just" my name. I am temperamentally incapable of writing "just" my name. I don't do legible and I don't do brief. While we were at Hay my partner got John Updike's signature. "To Jenny, with best wishes and cheers." Imagine being able to do that! "Best wishes and cheers." You might ask why "Best wishes" "and" "Cheers", but still and all, such pithiness! I've never managed anything so economical in my entire career. Even the "To" I can't pull off. I always think it should be "For", implying that the book was written with this very reader in mind, or that I am making a gift of it, which of course I'm not. But most times I no sooner write "For" than I realise it is inappropriately personal and might conceivably cause the reader problems, especially if she's a woman and her husband sees it, so I cross it out and write "To" instead. Add the crossing out to the blobs of ink and strips of tissue and that's not a pretty page they're left with.

After which I can't just toss off a "Best wishes", can I? I've got a first edition Kingsley Amis that says "Hi!". Such a disappointment. You hand over your book to a master of the language and he writes "Hi!". Call me foolish but I feel I owe my readers more than that - more in the way of words and, quite frankly, more in the way of feeling. As the book, so the inscription, surely. If your subject is the horror of the human condition you must convey a flavour of that in your message. Line up to get your Brothers Karamazov signed and you're not going to be satisfied with "Have a good one! - Fyodor Dostoyevsky".

And yet the last time I wrote "Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery - Kind regards, Hay, 2004", I got the distinct impression that the recipient was unhappy. Seeing what had happened, the next person in the queue was very firm in her directions. "Make it to Ann," she said, "without an e." Simple, you'd think. "To Ann."

But no. "To Ann without an E," some demon made me write. "With love, with an E, from the author" - and then what was I going to say? - "with an A."

For which blather I had next, still writing in her book, to apologise.

"Forgive this nonsense - with two Es," I went on, before it dawned on both of us that this would end only when I had defaced every page.

I got the shop to give the poor woman her money back at the finish. I gave them all their money back. That's another of the reasons I dread publication. I end up thousands of pounds out of pocket.

Howard Jacobson's new novel, 'The Making of Henry', is published by Jonathan Cape

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