On the perks and pitfalls of signing books

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Book signings are an unmitigated pleasure – except when you're the author of the book that no one has turned up to have signed

 - guardian.co.uk,

book signing Rick Gekovski
'With undying gratitude' ... a signing life is not necessarily a happy one. Photograph: Dennis Van Tine-London Features

I'm not sure when the vogue for authors signing their books in bookshops and at literary festivals began, or when it accelerated into orthodoxy. Sometime in the 1980s perhaps? I have few memories before then of seeing authors hunched at a table in the back of a bookshop, signing books.

When I first saw a writer doing this, I was immediately seized by an unsettling combination of desire, envy and cynicism. What was the point of such a fatuous exercise? Of course authors can sign their own names! And – by the way – can I have three copies inscribed to myself, my wife, and my daughter?

But this relatively modest request masked the genesis of my feeling: it was just dandy having a few signed books, but what I really wanted was to be the author behind the desk, besieged by admirers. I had by this time published a book on Joseph Conrad, but even Blackwell's, that great bastion of the unreadable academic treatise, didn't invite me to a signing session.

No: to do a signing session you have to write something that people want to buy, and thus provide an incentive to the bookshop to lend you a chair and a table, and to provide coffee and a pen. My next book did the trick perfectly, and provided the only occasion on which I have been (or ever will be) No 1 on a Waterstones bestseller list. Woo hoo? Sort of. I was only No 1 in two shops, Leamington Spa and Coventry, reflecting the parochial interest in a book on Coventry City Football Club. But Staying Up was a big hit locally, and I sat and signed hundreds of copies at the two shops. It was an unmitigated pleasure, and I never even used the "Yours truly" salutation you often get – or give – in such situations. No, I had "Play Up Sky Blues!" or better yet, "Sky Blues Shooting to Win!" The latter sounds pathologically unrealistic for a Coventry supporter, but it is a line from our 1987 FA Cup final song (do teams still have these?) and, after all, we did win.

It was only with my next couple of books that I began to see that a signing life is not necessarily a happy one, and that for every few pleasant experiences, there is also likely to be a humiliating one. These humiliations – I have resisted a weaker word – are of various sorts. The worst, probably, is when you perform for an audience at a literary festival, retire afterwards to the signing area, and no one comes. There is plenty of space in front of you for an orderly queue, the same as those for the other authors sprinkled about, signing away. Only no one fills it. You sit there for a time, more in hope than expectation. Check your emails on your iPhone, look at your watch, cruise the internet, look at your watch again. Drink your glass of water. Request a refill. By this time, if they have any human feeling whatsoever, the bookshop manager for the festival will have turned up with a few copies for you to sign for their stock. With pathetic gratitude you sign them with a flourish, announce limply "must get on", and slink away. The other authors, bent on signing, affect not to notice that you have left.
Read Rick's full piece at The Guardian.