Debut Author Lessons: 10 things about signing books

This entry is part 3 of 18 in the series Debut Author Lessons

One of the ways that an author connects to the reader is by signing books.  Here are some of the things that I’ve learned about signing things — not having a signing event, but the actual act of autographing.

  1. Pick a pen color other than black. Collectors and book sellers tell me that when a customer picks up a book to look for the autograph that it’s easier to spot when it’s not the same color as the rest of the book.
  2. Get a permanent pen with archival ink. What permanent means is that you want a pen which won’t smear.  Archival pens… Some pens have a little bit of acid in the ink which causes things to degrade. To avoid that, when buying your pen look for ones that say “Acid-Free” or “Archival Safe”
  3. Always carry the pen with you. I have been asked to sign books in the oddest places.
  4. Carry bookplates with you. Particularly at conventions, I’ve already had people say that they would have brought the book if they’d known I was going to be there.  Being able to offer a book plate on the spot has pleased folks.
  5. Practice your signature. I spent years signing posters after elementary school shows. For that I had to have a legible signature because it frustrated the kids, for whom reading was new, to be unable to read what I’d written.  Most authors don’t and that’s no big deal. The point is that you need to be able to sign something while talking to the person.
  6. Have about three stock phrases of varying lengths that you can rotate when personalizing books. Again, this is all about being able to chat while writing.
  7. Sign on the title page. If you are signing an anthology, sign on the first page of your story.
  8. Date all your signatures during the first month. A collector told me that the closer to release day a book is signed, the more valuable it is. I had no idea. He suggested dating all signatures during the first month of release, by default
  9. Always ask people to spell their names, even if you know them. The number of ways to misspell names like Tracy, Traci, Tracey, or Tracie are astounding. When you are a debut author you will be missing half your brain and will misspell your own name at least once.
  10. Have a different signature for your legal signature. Your autograph will wind up on the internet on ebay. Having a different one for legal papers, checks or credit cards reduces the chances of identity theft.

For readers:

  1. Put a postit with the name you want the book address to on the page you want the author to sign.
  2. Hand the book to them with it open to the page you want them to sign.
  3. Don’t be surprised when they have only half a brain, particularly if it is a new author.

Readers or writers, what other tricks do you have?

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17 Responses

  1. David J. Batista

    What about the reader who’s a gushing fan with half a brain handing the book, unopened, to the author with half a brain? Do the two halves make one whole brain? :)

    These are some excellent tips to remember, Mary! No. 7 re: anthologies seem so obvious, yet I doubt I would know to do this in the heat of the moment. I must remember to keep these tips handy on my person . . . perhaps on the back of a bookplate?

  2. John Barnes

    Very solid. All excellent. A few more:

    It takes no extra time really to date all signatures; no reason to stop after the first month.

    I number the first 100 signatures (or keep going after 100 if it’s in the middle of a line or some other situation where I don’t want to cut off the next person). Number in UL corner, signature under or over my name, date in lower right. I carry an index card for each title that I haven’t numbered out to 100, and update it at the end of each signing.

    Carry a silver fine point marker if you’ve got any books with black or dark-colored title pages.

    If the line is short, talk with the fan and listen for them to say something you can refer to. (To Emily, whose English teacher gives great recommendations …) (To Fred, who got out of a town even smaller than this …) (For Stella, another mother to the other brother …) — the memento of personal contact seems to be treasured most of all.

    If you get a fussy one (you will, now and then) who wants it signed “right here and not too big and etc.), try giving them a big smile, nodding as they say each thing, and then repeating it all back to them. It makes them feel simultaneously paid-attention-to and maybe slightly less stressed.

    If you spell their name wrong, and there’s any room at all, write another signature as a correction, and take the blame. “To Jack, with love, jellybeans, and elevators …” “Sorry, Jaq, please have an extra elevator on me! I shall someday learn to spell!”

    Stock phrases can save your life but be aware they get around and get old quickly.

    To practice your signature, do it slowly enough to say the letters out loud (at home, not at the signing!) a few dozen times, and think of drawing rather than writing the letters. Practice daily, 20-50 times, twice a day, for one week before signing, then take the day off the day before the signing.

    DO NOT ALLOW BOOKSTORE EMPLOYEES TO CROWD YOUR WRITING ARM. God knows why, but a few of them will try to pile books nearly on your elbow. If they do, it is sporting to push the pile aside with your forearm, but not so forcibly as to actually knock anyone unconscious or break any windows. Similarly, if you get one of the ones who wants to stand in your writing space, stop writing (don’t spoil a signature for a customer) turn and talk to the person who is hovering. Usually this will cause them to retreat. Repeat as necessary; you can quickly train them to give you space.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Great tips, John!

      I should add that I write the date all the way out, which is in keeping with the style of the book, so it did make a time difference for me, which is why I eventually stopped. At cons I was putting things like “Readercon, 2010″

  3. Amity Thompson

    I never would have thought of #10. Frankly, I would have likely not thought of most of them, but especially #10. Thanks for being so willing to put up what you’ve learned, as you’ve learned it. John–your suggestions are great, too. Thanks!

  4. Cathy

    I’m a reader/fan, not a writer. So this is advice for the readers. I’ve gone to several events and noted that bookstores are very different. Some are structured and others are not (for instance, some stores don’t supply tables, water, pens… no really!). Things I’ve learned or consider when attending:

    1. If it’s a new or relatively unknown author, call the store in advance to reserve a copy (copies) of the books. You’d be surprised how often a store will run out or how they didn’t anticipate how popular the author would be.

    2. Go early for a good seat if it’s a well known author.

    3. Prepare a list of questions. Make sure to check the author’s site first for FAQs or a page that may already have some of the answers. I find this very useful, especially when it’s a shy crowd and it makes me more confident about what I’m asking.

    4. Buy books from the store that’s hosting, even if they don’t require you to buy their books. Obviously readers aren’t made of money, but showing your support for the local store providing your favorite author is a way of saying “thanks”. The staff works hard to please you, so be nice!

    5. If you live in a city where other authors show their support by attending a friend’s release (who are fans too), remember it’s their ‘non-work’ day and the focus should be on the author who is promoting their books. Show your appreciation and respect by giving them your attention.

    6. Check the author’s site and the bookstore sites for updates and rules. Things can change.

    7. If you read or discuss books on forums on the internet, post that you are attending and see if others are interested in joining you. It’s a good way to recommend or promote a favorite author and it’s always more fun to go in groups. Your author will appreciate the support.

    My thoughts anyway. :)

  5. Michele Lee

    I like the Sharpie Pens. They’re bold enough to be seen (and come in lots of colors) and they don’t smear or bleed. they also are good on a variety of papers (magazine covers, or book title pages, even stickers or promo stuff.) I’m not sure if they’re acid free though.

  6. tanita

    Ooh, thanks for the heads-up on that date thing. I had no idea. Just last night I asked the person who wanted the signature for the date… and used that date. Oops.

  7. Stacey

    Brilliant idea with the bookplates. I wonder how that would go over with other authors if I brought my own? I often have books in my collection that I’ve picked up here or there – old works or anthologies, that I forget to bring for whatever reason, or that have already been signed at previous events. Now I tend to buy any release-day books I’m interested in reading, on an ebook platform, which naturally makes signing difficult. I can just see it now – showing up at Powell’s and asking you guys “hey would you sign the back of my Kindle? I’m reading your book RIGHT NOW!” Ha! No. What say ye? would it be poor form to bring my own bookplate for personalization?

  8. John Barnes

    Stacey, there’s one exception on bookplates, and it’s an exception I hope is never relevant to Mary (I certainly wish it were not to me). If an author has had a bad edition — bad enough to be recalled and pulped — unfortunately, some collectors regard that as the equivalent of a double-struck stamp, i.e. worth more because it’s rare, which is why no recall of a severely misprinted book ever is completely recalled successfully. The same collector who has guaranteed the perpetuity of an edition you and the publisher went to great lengths to destroy will then approach you to sign it and reward him/her with enhanced value for keeping and parading your embarrassments. Most writers in that situation refuse to sign the bad edition (I won’t sign either bad edition of Kaleidoscope Century, to be specific). Unfortunately, many value-fixated collectors will try to obtain the signature by one of two tricks: either handing the book to you in a huge pile of other books to be signed, hoping you’ll be in too much of a hurry (I never am), or requesting a bookplate. So I only give bookplates to people I’d be willing to give my checking account number to.

    I have found that when I explain this to collectors and fans, 95% at least are immediately sympathetic. The other 5% insist that the bad edition is the “real” one or “the one closest to the author” and tell me that I owe them my signature.

    Just once, I was irritated — well, exasperated, actaully — enough by this that I said, okay, gimme the book. I wrote something very uncomplementary about the fan on the title page, drew my pen-knife, slashed out the title page and the first 30 or so pages of the book, and slit the spine (through the dust jacket) before handing it back to him.

    He later sold it on eBay for around $100. You really can’t win with these guys, so you’ve got to just not play.

    So if you approach me with bookplates at a signing or convention, I will explain all this, probably in much more excruciating detail because I love to hear myself talk, and then I won’t sign the bookplate. You can get a similar performance from about two dozen other writers I know who’ve also had bad editions. But sorry, I don’t do slashings at all, anymore.

  9. Stacey

    John, is it wrong that your explanation gave me the giggles? Duly noted, and I will instead continue my habit of just attending and enjoying the event, and getting the occasional signature on my still-unsigned older works when appropriate.

  10. K.W. Ramsey

    Excellent tips, especially the name thing. I have a pretty common first name spelled just a little bit different than what people expect (Kris instead of Chris). You have no idea how many times I’ve given my name and then started spelling it while watching people furiously cross out the Ch they just started writing.

    So far it hasn’t happened when I’ve gotten anything signed by an author. Everyone I’ve met have been very careful to ask how my name is spelled.

  11. Joe Beernink

    Mary, have you ever run into an author who is unable to sign due to a disability? What do you think the options are there? I’m a new author, but I have a slight disability that would prevent me from signing more than a few books at a time. Any thoughts on a good alternative, so as not to upset fans?

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      I have seen a couple of options but it depends on the author. One is a custom stamp, which the author applies or has an assistant apply, then optionally makes a simple mark by it.

      The thing to recognize with signings is that the autograph exists to give the person a way to prove that you handled the book. With a lot of autograph seekers, the main reason is actually just an excuse to talk to the author. So a unique stamp would do most of that job for you.

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