Signature Collection

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

Can you see where this is going? You have to sign the new books in order to get them sold, and you have to sign the old ones to make your readers happy.

Book collectors are a quirky lot, but that's true of all hobbyists. Still, how many collectors can there be? And how much impact can they have?

The autograph man
photo: Tania Savayan
The autograph man


One mystery specialty store owner told me a book or two ago that her order of my new one depended on whether or not she could get signed copies. If not, she'd take 10 or 20. If they were signed, her initial buy would be 200.

Because 200 hardcore collectors would buy them? No, but because the collecting tail wags the dog here. Folks buying the book to add to their library, or give as a gift, have been schooled by collectors to want a signed copy. And, since so many signed copies do exist, a sort of mutation of Gresham's Law operates; the signed books drive the unsigned out of circulation, and into Remainder Hell.

The whole signed-books issue got accelerated with the 1992 publication of John Dunning's Booked to Die, which noted that books simply signed by the author had more collector value than those inscribed to a specific reader. Almost immediately, I noticed an upsurge of buyers who murmured "Signature only, please." It's much quicker just signing one's name, and not having to write "To Cathy, I'll never forget that heavenly night in Sioux Falls." And was that Cathy with a C or Kathy with a K, and does it end in Y or I?

"Thank you, John Dunning," many of us said under our breath when another signature-only appeared. But there was a downside. If more folks were content with a simple signature, they were also intent on getting their entire collection signed.

Because I have been doing this a long time, I have a backlist that extends halfway down the street and around the corner. During a tour in 1998, when a couple of Dallas suitcase dealers brought in cartons of old stuff, I instituted a policy I've clung to ever since: I'll sign up to three of the books you bring from home for every copy of the new hardcover you buy at the signing. Most people figure this is fair, and the others—like the dame in Charlottesville the other day who frowned and said, "If I do that, how am I gonna make any profit on the deal?"—the others, all things considered, can go to hell.

In 1999, a fellow in Madison set a record that stands to this day. He brought in 53 items, cheerfully bought 18 copies of The Burglar in the Rye, and got everything signed. He was happy, I was happy—and the store owner was over the moon.

Item: James Ellroy signed the entire first printing of My Dark Places, some 65,000 books in all. He wrote two words, James and Ellroy, 65,000 times each. That's 130,000 words, which is more than he took to write the whole damn book.

Why, I sometimes wonder, does anybody want a book signed? I have a whole wall of books by friends, and it never occurs to me to ask them to sign them.

My wife, who has an abiding passion for hagiography—we have a surprising number of editions of Lives of the Saints, not one of them signed—has her own theory. As she explains it, a book signed by its author is a second-degree relic, not as precious as a finger bone, but on a par with a pair of cast-off sandals.

I like the explanation, but how long before the bastards start wanting the damned books signed in blood?

Lawrence Block will be on tour until further notice.

« Previous Page