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.
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.
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?
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.