Friday, January 28, 2005

Sign of the Times

Book signing tours are a peculiar phenomenon. That authors hate them is well documented. Readers ("fans" is perhaps a more appropriate term in this context) seem to like them, although the attraction is beyond me. The sole book signing I have attended was one of Terry Pratchett's about eight years ago. I arrived late, clutching a single tattered paperback, to find several hundred people already in line, some with Pratchett's entire canon tucked under their arms. That Pratchett might not actually want to sign his own name twenty-something times in order to satisfy some Discworld freak's fetish had seemingly never occurred to such people. The presumption didn't end there as the more socially inept Pratchett fans approached their idol with gratingly familiar cries of, "Hey Terry!", and rather ominous claims to be his "number one fan". Luckily, Pratchett proved to be a gracious man with almost superhuman levels of tolerance. Less well-endowed with the milk of human kindness, I quickly grew tired of the inane babble going on around me, especially the logorrheic elf standing nearby who kept smugly telling her friends, "Oh, I never lend anyone my Terries!" By the time I found myself standing before the be-hatted author, all I could manage was, "Hello Mr. Pratchett, I enjoyed your new book", to which he said something witty before scrawling his name on the title page of my (or, rather, his) book. On the whole, although it was nice to actually meet one of my favourite authors, the experience was not one I have been eager to repeat. I can only try to imagine what it must be like for the authors.

One person who has no need to imagine is Margaret Atwood. The polymathic writer has turned her considerable intellect to the problem of book signing tours and come up with a device that allows authors to inscribe incomprehensible signatures on fan's beloved paperbacks from anywhere in the world. The details can be found in a report of the Guardian web site, but suffice to say that it is one crazy idea. Neil Gaiman certainly thinks so, likening it to an automatic kissing machine - that is, an inadequate simulacrum of human contact that is unlikely to satisfy anybody. It certainly wouldn't do me, as meeting the author is about the only merit I can see in signings. And given the device would require the author to physically "sign" each book, fans would still be required to queue - and no doubt to chat, inanely, incessantly.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, Atwood's machine has a certain "video phone sequence in 2001" feel to it. I emailed them and asked for a look at their demo video, but I haven't heard back yet.

I was at a Terry Pratchett signing at Minotaur books about the same tiem as you, I think. I happened upon it and wandered inside, without any Pratchett books on my person, and after a bit of shuffling embarrassment, got him to sign my copy of Solzhenitsen's First Circle. "I don't sign other people's books," he said, and I went all stagefright and the pratchett nerds in elf-capes behind me started to pick up on the "he's pissed Terry off" vibe and I thought I was in for a drubbing, but thankfully he capitulated and wrote "Is there Death in it?" above his signature. I thought he'd think it was a strange and funny and unusual anecdote-seed, but he just got annoyed. Which is apparently pretty typical of him.

Fuck knows what I've done with the book.


Tim said...

Yeah, I wouldn't like to get on his bad side. Yet he seems to have almost bottomless reserves of tolerance for his nerdier readers. Given he grew up going to SF conventions and the like, I guess it would be a touch hypocritical for him to diss his own fans.