The other day not only did I speak with Robert Stone but I attended his reading/book signing at Brookline Booksmith. One of the many revelations coming from my chat with the portentous Stone was that a fairly significant amount of his tour of duty in Boston (and other places) was involved in going to book stores and booksellers (I suspect that there is a difference, one I have yet to get clear on) and signing copies of his most recent novel. I had previously had some dim awareness that authors had very commercial duties, but this most recent reminder connected with some of the bulletins that I receive periodically from some, uh, booksellers offering a diminishing supply of signed editions of recent literary novels. Which led me to thinking, “Why would someone want a signed edition that had some marginal personal (actually non-existent) connection with the author?”
The whole book tour rigmarole may have been (I know Ann Beattie takes this on in "Essentials Get Lost in the Shuffle of Publicity," Writers on Writing, Vol. II) discussed and thrashed out elsewhere, but I am particularly fascinated with the book-signing ritual and its comedic aesthetic implications.
Buying a signed edition where the buyer has not attended the reading seems to me to be something of an empty gesture. What is the value of this autograph, especially if authors, publishers and bookstores conspire to exponentially increase the number of signed copies in the marketplace? Anyway, booksellers are (after all business people) participating in this, of course, as a commercial tactic. Nothing wrong with this except the suggestion a valuable service is being provided. Talking with Graham Swift on this very subject, I also learned that he is delighted with the result of this tedious activity because, after all, a signed book is a sold book (meaning retailers cannot return unsold copies to the publisher).
Apropos of nothing, Swift also related a story of man in Toronto who had a copy of Swift’s novel, Ever After, and that its owner had it signed by over 200 authors from all over the world. Swift’s point was really to express what a wonderful book city the Canadian metropolis is. Not to mention that it also suggests the great value Ever After‘s owner attached to this particular literary work.
At Stone’s reading there were a fair number of odd birds who had their obligatory strapped canvas bags that, I surmised, carried various bits and pieces of the Stone oeuvre, waiting to be signed and in the minds of their owners exponentially raised in market value. (By the way, I have never ever seen women doing this.) Collectors, these were. Now I am somewhat familiar with this pathology as one of my close friends is so afflicted. His case study would, I think, offer great insights into the treatment of this malady. As a public service I offer an example of the depravity to which he has been driven. Getty —let’s give him a pseudonym— has all manner of pop cultural items autographed by people who have some (sometimes an esoteric) connection to the "ding an sich." When the occasion presents itself, he festoons books, CDs, and posters with yellow stickums instructing the signee where and what to sign.
As a counter point and to trumpet my own nonchalance on this matter, I have had hundreds and hundreds of books signed by authors whom I have just spent the better part of an hour speaking with. To commemorate these moments, I ask my co-conversant to sign their book(s). Wherever and whatever—though I do hint inscriptions testifying to my skill and genius will be cherished by my heir and me. My friend Getty has chided me for allowing these heirlooms to be signed to me (they may be less valuable) and for not insisting on a signature on the title page and other such things.
Now I am aware that modern first editions were a hot commodity a few years ago, especially in that mythic land of Southern California (and may become so again). George Pelacanos told me that copies of his early books are worth $800. Consider that George was only paid $2500 to write them, and you might sense an inkling of the disparities in the book world. And another thing, I am pained that the most valuable books are the ones that haven’t been read, the ones in pristine and unopened mint condition—here you have the sordid triumph of materialism. And frankly I resent the collector types who come to these reading as if they were baseball trading card conventions. I wish I had the stomach to recount some of the mindless conversations I have overheard from these schzlubs. Suffice it to say I understand why some authors (John Irving and David Mamet) have taken the self-protective stance of only signing their current books.
When Little Brown was preparing its campaign for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, they sent out a thousand signed advanced reader’s editions. I asked Foster Wallace about this, and he related that he just signed a thousand sheets of paper which where later bound in to the above mentioned books. Currently at Bookfinder.com there are about ten copies of the ARC of Infinite Jest being offered ranging in price from $85 to $250 (one of the dealers claims there were only 200 copies). Again I wonder what value is being propagated here.
Further ruminations on this subject will be offered in my memoir-in-progress Don’t Burn the Chicken Fat. In the meantime I am going to return to my extreme enjoyment of Michael Lewis’ Money Ball and two young lads’ story collections (Jonathan Furst and Benjamen Cavell) that come highly recommended by their esteemed editors Robin Desser and Gary Fisketjohn. You can be sure I will have my copies of the advance editions signed…
My Heirs: Cuba and Rosie
by Robert Birnbaum