Lord, Give Me a Sign(ing): Doís and Doníts When Meeting Authors
by Anthony Aycock
My longest wait in line was not for Space Mountain at Walt Disney World. It was not at any of the nation’s departments of motor vehicles. It was not for a Star Wars premiere, a spanking new iPhone, or brisket at the famous Franklin Barbecue, whose line has its own Twitter account (twitter.com/franklinbbqline). Line-cutting at Franklin will get you killed, unless you’re Barack Obama, and if you are, you’d better pay for everybody’s food (tinyurl.com/y8fvjd58).
|Although authors love their fans and (most of them) enjoy readings and signings, road life creates a survivorís mindset.
No, my longest wait in line was at a science fiction convention in Charlotte, N.C. The guest of honor: George R.R. Martin. His autograph session for that Saturday was scheduled for 3:00, and at 12:15, my wife said, “You should get in line now.” I was a rookie con-goer in those days, unprepared for the descent into madness that accompanies big stars such as GRRM. “The sign says the line will start at 2:00,” I argued, pointing at just such a sign. She pointed in turn to the dozen or so people already standing there. Another two or three walked up before she could lower her hand. So I assumed the position.
A few minutes later, a convention staff member—I’ll call her “Bee”—walked over. “We’ll start the line at 2:00,” she announced. Until then, she said, we should “go enjoy the rest of the con.” The now- 20 of us moved 6 feet away to flank the concrete steps that led from the hotel entrance to a duck pond. Unsatisfied, Bee told us to move on, saying she had to “keep the steps clear.” They were currently so clear that piano movers could have hauled up a Steinway. A guy who looked like Robert Downey Jr. tried to tell Bee she was being unreasonable. We had paid for admission, he argued, and it was our prerogative to waste 3 hours in line. Another person said there was “nothing else to do.” Bee left and returned with a guy in Ghiscari Legion cosplay, who asked/ordered us to disperse. Downey Jr. stood up, defeated. “It’s a little unnecessary,” he said, more soliloquy than direct address, “but whatever.” And we moved away.
Things were tense after that. People arrived by the minute, and because we couldn’t form a line, we had to hang around pretending that we weren’t forming one. “This is literally why we bought tickets,” somebody said. “I don’t think they were ready for this kind of crowd,” said another person. By 1:45, at least 400 people were in the non-line. Finally, at 2:00 on the nose, Bee appeared into our midst and assembled the line. She did it fairly, calling 10 people at a time from different spots. I got in with the seventh summoning. My reward was to wait another hour, although with the serenity that comes from being guaranteed an autograph. Only the first hundred or so in line had such a guarantee. When somebody griped about this, Bee said simply, “Mr. Martin is not a machine.”
In total, I waited 4 hours for an autograph. It was not a misuse of my time. I have loved books as long as I have loved anything, and author events are an extension of that love. I’ve always thought that being a writer was the best kind of celebrity. With a few exceptions, writers can go unrecognized in public, which means they can buy groceries, get an oil change, or walk a dog without attracting attention. Those who want attention can get it by offering a reading and signing or a convention appearance.
Signing Best Practices
There are best practices for getting the most out of attending a book signing. Some of the “rules” are common sense:
- Arrive early. Autograph lines can be capped, especially at conventions, where authors have full schedules and are always rushing from one thing to the next.
- Get used to waiting.
- Don’t monopolize the author’s time.
- Be smart when giving the author gifts. Neil Gaiman elaborates on this idea on his blog (tinyurl.com/ycroj23c): “I do my best to read all the letters I’m given and not lose all the presents I’m given. … [A]lthough things people give me get [mailed] back [to my house], on the last tour FedEx lost one box of notes and gifts, and on the tour before that hotel staff lost or stole another box. So smaller things I can put into a suitcase are going to be more popular than four-foot high paintings done on slabs of beechwood.”
- Ask before you take the author’s picture.
- Give anything signed with a Sharpie time to dry. You don’t want to end up like my friend, whose DVD box set signed by Curtis Armstrong (actor in Moonlighting, Risky Business, Revenge of the Nerds, and Supernatural) reads “Curtis Armstr----g.”
There are other do’s and don’ts that I have learned from experience.
There are limits on signings. When Chuck Palahniuk toured for the Fight Club 2 graphic novel, he would sign that book plus any two items. For Neil Gaiman, it’s usually three items plus the book he is promoting. A few years after the Charlotte convention, I saw GRRM in Virginia, and he signed only one item per person, although you could go through his line multiple times. These limits are meant to manage the author’s time and stamina, but some writers don’t care about that: One bookstore clerk told me that David Sedaris signings can last until after midnight because he is so accommodating (the only thing he won’t do is let you take his picture).
For marquee authors, bookstores may require a signing-line ticket, which you get by purchasing the author’s new book from the store hosting the signing. Most authors will sign other books as well, and it is wrong not to allow this (I’m looking at you, Savannah Book Festival: savannahbookfestival.org/festival-saturday/book-sales-and-signing). There are a few exceptions, notably Stephen King, who hasn’t signed anything on his last few tours, including the book he is promoting. His practice is to pre-sign a certain number of books, which are distributed to fans at random, a la Willy Wonka.
Some authors have limits on the nature of what they will sign. Rick Moody reportedly no longer signs copies of his first novel, Garden State. Charlaine Harris only signs her own books and official (i.e., licensed) True Blood merchandise. Richard Powers signs only bookplates, never the book itself. I was in a signing line for Stan Lee when a guy got into an argument with Lee’s handler because the handler said Lee wouldn’t sign the guy’s Avengers fan art.
Don’t try to make an impression. Although authors love their fans and (most of them) enjoy readings and signings, road life creates a survivor’s mindset. Science fiction writer John Scalzi describes it this way: “Wake up super early to get to the airport, wait in security lines (pro tip: TSA [Precheck] is your friend), get on a plane, hope you don’t miss your connection, go to a hotel, go to your events, read to crowd and sign books, go back to a hotel, sleep, and then repeat all the steps again” (latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-on-book-tour-scalzi-20170420-htmlstory.html). While meeting an author may be the highlight of your month/year/life, for authors, yours is one of thousands of faces they will see during the weeks of the tour.
So don’t try to be the one fan who makes an author step out of the routine. Don’t try to be memorable or clever. It will end badly for you. In 2013, my favorite musician, “Weird Al” Yankovic, released a children’s book called My New Teacher and Me. He went on a whirlwind book tour: five cities in 5 days. One of those cities? Raleigh, N.C., where I work. I spent the week leading up to the event, plus another 2 hours in line, pondering the perfect thing to say to him. Other people were giving him stuff—his portrait in colored pencils, a self-published novel, a balloon figure, a greeting card that played “Rocky Road.” One kid brought an accordion, and when his mother started in on how good he was at playing the thing, he placed his fingers on the treble, squeezed the bellows, and belted out “My Bologna.”
Finally, it was my turn. I summoned to my lips the Perfect Thing to Ask Al. What came out instead was, “How many times have you signed your name?” Al had been generous with all the fans that night, and he was generous with me, replying, “Thirteen thousand two hundred and seventy-four.” Funny! I should have laughed, gotten my autographs, and moved on. Bewilderingly, however, I said, “Well, I’m going to tell people this is your millionth signature.” Idiot! Why didn’t I say that I would claim it was his very first? Al shrugged and said, “Well, it’s not true, but you can say it.” Coming from a man who once ate a Twinkie wiener sandwich on camera, this was a sadly logical reply.
Have something cool for the author to sign. I like having authors sign first editions of their early work. The signature increases the value of the item, plus it is a conversation starter: Some writers are surprisingly savvy about book collecting. When I handed Deborah Harkness my first edition of A Discovery of Witches, she told me that the book had sold out in 2 days, requiring the publisher to reprint twice in the first week. John Scalzi immediately flipped to the copyright page of my copy of Old Man’s War, saw it was a first edition, and told me to take care of it because “there are only 3,700 of these in the world.” Good ol’ GRRM asked me where I got my first edition of A Game of Thrones. “A flea market,” I said, “for a dollar,” which is one of the reasons I love flea markets. “A flea market?!” he boomed. He signed the book and slid it across the table. “That’s a $500 book.” Maybe I should have told him I won it at blackjack.
Getting a scarce item signed nearly backfired the first time I tried it, at a reading by the Kentucky writer and critic Bobbie Ann Mason. I had with me a first edition of Shiloh and Other Stories, her first book of fiction. Being new to book signings, I wasn’t prepared when the bookstore owner, who was helping at the autograph table, asked me if I wanted Mason to personalize the signature—in other words, if I wanted her to preface the signature with “To Anthony” (some celebrities insist on personalization, erroneously believing they are weakening the eBay market for their autograph). I didn’t want to offend Mason, so I told the store owner, “It’s fine for her to personalize it.”
The owner gave me a helpful look and said, “You know it devalues the book if it has more than a signature.” Authorities are divided on this point, but I didn’t know that then, so I wordlessly handed my book to the owner, who laid it on the table and said, “Look what he has, Bobbie.” The writer looked up at me curiously. “Wow,” she said. “Have you had this all this time?” I was 8 years old when Shiloh was published, so no, it was not an heirloom. I told her I had recently acquired it, then said lamely, “I like older books.”
Looking down, her pen over the page, Mason said, “Should I just sign my name?” I hesitated, growing annoyed. Look, she was the pro, the one with a caboodle of signings since Shiloh put her on the literary map. Didn’t she know how to play the game? “I think I talked him out of having it personalized,” the owner said genially, and I nodded, now wanting to get out of there fast. Mason signed the book and slid it toward me. As I took it, she asked, “Are you going to sell this?”
What the heck? Does Mike Wolfe on American Pickers get canvassed this way? “Well, maybe,” I said, “but I’ll read it first.” That was 7 years ago. I eventually sold my signed Shiloh (without reading it; fight me, Bobbie), and I have sold other books I’ve gotten signed.
Authors are a joy to meet and a delight to talk to. Maybe someday I’ll be sitting on the author side of that table. If I am, and you come to my book signing, I know we’ll both do our best to observe book-signing etiquette.