|SFX magazine column by David Langford: issue #82, September 2001|
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One of the traditional ordeals of a writer's life is the signing session in a small-town bookshop. As a rule the hapless victims sit behind a table for hours, totally ignored by customers, until they reckon – in the words of famous author/editor Gardner Dozois at a US convention signing where even I was doing better than him – "That's enough HUMILIATION for one day!"
Well, we can't all be Terry Pratchett with his mile-long queues and bags of frozen peas to soothe wrists inflamed by too much autographing. Actually, at a convention only this May, I did for the first time sign so many books as to suffer excruciating pain. Unfortunately this was because my index finger has RSI from too much keyboarding, and the number of signatures involved was only just into double figures.
At another SF event far away in Oregon, I was autographing happily away until the doom-laden voice of Greg Bear came from behind me. "I've been timing your signature, young Langford," he declared, "and it takes a full five seconds to complete. Clearly you have never had a best-seller." Crushed again.
The need to sign fast may explain why Douglas Adams tended to scribble what looked like "Bop Ad". Tanith Lee, I remember, used to go further and inscribe books with what looked like a single cryptic pothook from some lost shorthand alphabet. Contrariwise, the eccentric R.A. Lafferty sometimes signed in laborious mirror writing just to show he could do it.
Mass production of signatures reached its limit with Robert Heinlein, who in his later years liked to organize blood drives at US conventions. In order to qualify for a Heinlein inscription, you had to produce a receipt showing you'd just donated blood. If the great man was feeling in good form that day, you got your autograph. If not, his minders would wave a power of attorney confirming that this rubber-stamped signature – bonk! – was legally equivalent to the real thing. Hardly worth a whole armful of precious bodily fluid.
Of course many authors do get overwhelmed. Once the great Angela Carter (sadly no longer with us) addressed the British SF Association, and even jaded Langford couldn't resist begging her to sign her splendidly titled The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. Then she blenched as the next chap in the queue, an enthusiastic collector whom I will tactfully not identify as Brian Stableford, began to unpack a huge rucksack of all her books in both British and American editions ...
The late Bob Shaw had a not overly serious theory that if you made the inscription embarrassing enough, readers wouldn't dare part with the book and there'd be fewer second-hand copies to compete with new ones. "To Dave," it says in my copy of Bob's A Wreath of Stars, "In memory of our one night of forbidden ecstasy."
Bob particularly hated signing hardbacks from the now-vanished Readers Union SF Book Club, because authors got an insultingly tiny payment for a run of what seemed like several million poorly produced copies that dominated autograph sessions forever after.
Maybe Peter F. Hamilton felt the same frustration after the publicity gimmick used for his "Night's Dawn" trilogy. Reviewers were sent bound proofs in a signed, numbered, limited edition, and by volume three the print run had risen to 550 – a long signing chore for publicity copies which, by contract, don't bring in any royalties. But book dealers love these limited editions, and fall on them with little cries of delight.
The special-edition craze goes way back. James Branch Cabell, the great American fantasy author, must have spent large chunks of his life signing sets of luxury volumes like the limited Storisende Edition of his work, which by my calculation required 28,620 signatures before he took a deep breath and started on the signed non-limited edition ... So it's still easy and quite cheap to acquire an autographed Cabell from the 1920s, whereas my eyes still water at what I paid for a 1929 first edition signed by G.K. Chesterton.
Which brings us to the traditional joke which every author who does signing sessions has heard 28,620 times. This already had whiskers when Dylan Thomas used the gag in the 1940s. Expect a very weary smile if you wittily say, especially to Terry Pratchett, "One of the rare unsigned copies ..."
David Langford will personally sign this page and immeasurably enhance the magazine's value, if you buy him a pint.
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