Signature Collection

OK, you wrote a book, but how many times can you stand to write your name?

Last summer I spent six weeks at the Ragdale writers' colony. I worked all day every day and came home with a novel, The Burglar on the Prowl. I gave it to my agent, and he gave it to my editor and the book was designed and the cover prepared, and on March 16, just two weeks ago as I write this, the book went on sale nationwide.

That's when my real job began. Writing the book, that was the easy part. Now it was time for the heavy lifting. It was time for me to start signing my name.

Lawrence Block, Lawrence Block, Lawrence Block. Over and over, on book after book. On the title page, in the space the designer was thoughtful enough to provide for that purpose. Again and again and again.

The autograph man
photo: Tania Savayan
The autograph man

Actually, the book signing began before the book went on sale. In February I drove out to the HarperCollins warehouse in Scranton, where I signed around a thousand copies of Prowl for booksellers who'd ordered them. There's enough demand for this sort of thing to prompt HarperCollins to assign a special ISBN to the 10-copy signed cartons.

On March 16, I flew out to San Diego. I spent the next five days in Southern California, where I did events at five libraries and six bookstores and more drop-in stock signings than I could possibly remember.

After my final event Saturday evening, I flew home on the red-eye. On Sunday afternoon I was at Partners & Crime on Greenwich Avenue, to do my usual dog-and-pony show. I spent Monday and Tuesday dropping in at New York stores—Murder Ink, Black Orchid, Mysterious Bookshop, and a batch of chains. Otto Penzler had around 300 books waiting for me at Mysterious, all carefully flapped so they opened readily to the appropriate page for signing. Black Orchid and Murder Ink also had their books flapped. They've done this before, you see, and so have I.

Wednesday morning I rented an SUV big enough to house six families of Hmong refugees. I filled it up with T-shirts and out-of-print books and hit the road, heading for the Hunterdon County Library outside of Flemington, New Jersey. Seventy people showed up to hear me, and, not incidentally, to buy books and get them signed. I enjoyed myself, and it's a good thing, because that's what I'm going to be doing from now until the eighth of May—reading and talking at libraries and bookstores, driving around in my one-man Bookmobile, and, yes, writing my name.

How the hell did this happen? Not to me, that's my problem, but to the business in general? When did signed books become such a hot ticket?

Unless you count Saint Paul, book tours are a recent phenomenon. The first authors who toured were those whose books seemed likely to get them on local television—celebrities who'd written (or "written") books, authors of topical nonfiction, and cookbook authors who could go on afternoon TV and whip up something on the spot.

With time, the author tour ceased to be media-driven and became bookstore-centered. In recent years live local TV has disappeared throughout much of the country, and it's hard to book anybody anywhere, especially someone as gormless as your average novelist. If Live at Five's not interested, though, a local bookstore might be. People could meet the author, ask questions, and buy his book—and, well, get it signed as a memento of the occasion.

A dozen or so years ago, somebody worked out what to do with the author's spare time. Instead of sitting around the hotel all day waiting for an evening event, he could improve each shining hour by hopping from store to store signing stock. Early on, store personnel were hard put to know what to make of the notion, but they got the hang of it, even as the writers learned to overcome their natural reserve and set about forcing their signature on stores whether they wanted it or not.

And the stores caught on big-time when they noticed that signed books tended to sell. A signed book quickly became a sine qua non for collectors. The best comparison I can think of is to the dust jacket. Until 50 years ago, the book's paper wrapper was there to draw attention in a store, and to protect the book until someone actually sat down and read it. At that time it was commonly discarded—which is why so few books with intact dust jackets survive from those early days.

Collectors collectively decided that a book with a dust jacket was more desirable, and hence worth more, than an unjacketed one. Indeed, only a jacketed copy was regarded as truly complete. Books from the '20s and '30s are still collectible without jackets, but a rare book of that vintage may be worth 10 or 20 times as much if it has a jacket. More recent books, unless of great rarity, are essentially worthless without a jacket.

Over the past decade, collectors have come to regard an unsigned book as similarly incomplete. "I have it," you'll hear someone say, "but it's not signed." If the author is still alive, the sentence ends a little differently. "But it's not signed yet," the collector will say.

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