Here in the next couple of weeks, I'm going to have to start signing some books, something I've never done before (except for a few review copies). Though I was vaguely aware that I would probably be doing this when my book came out, it really didn't concern me until Brenda, the lady at the only bookstore in my town, asked if I would do a "signing" at Book World. Now I can understand people wanting to have their copies signed because I've been sort of a hit-and-miss collector of signed books myself for the past few years. And now, because I want to do the job "right," I'm going to show my ignorance and ask for advice (yes, I can be a friggin' nut case at times). But I figure if the people who read the blog on Powell's website don't know if there's a "proper" way to sign a book, then probably nobody does.
So what do most people want when they ask a writer to sign his/her book? Do they want them inscribed with something goofy or profound or scandalous? Do they want the typed name marked out under the title page and the name signed underneath it, or just signed right over the type? Do they want the signature dated? Do they like little drawings (God, I hope not, not little drawings, Jesus!)? As I said, I've collected some signed books in the past, and being a hog, I've always asked for some sort of inscription, some way to set the book apart. For example, in a copy of Daniel Woodrell's The Ones You Do, I had him inscribe it with "Seven cigarettes a day!" because that's the number of smokes the main character limited himself to (and being in the middle of another failed attempt to quit the habit myself, this made a lot of sense to me at the time). And in my copy of Woodrell's Under the Bright Lights, I asked him to say something about writing in general, and I ended up with some of the best advice I've ever gotten: "Writing is a tough racket. But tough rackets are the only ones worth a grown person's time." Once, I asked Denis Johnson to tell me about his work habits (a dumb, dumb question, I know, but one I still have to refrain from asking when I'm around a writer). He graciously wrote on the inside of my copy of Jesus' Son: "I have no work habits — I don't know who writes this stuff." That was a few years ago, before I began writing myself, and though I was a bit confused at the time, I now know exactly what he meant. Oh, and I probably better add that I wrote both of these writers first, asking for the favor, and then sent the books by mail with the proper return postage and SASE mailers.
But for the most part, I've always focused on the first books by new writers, mainly because I thought (and this was partly due to the influence of Robert Wilson's Modern Book Collecting) that those would someday turn out to be the most valuable. And, though I'm not much of a collector anymore, I still go after the signatures of new writers when I have the opportunity, people like Kelly MaGee, a fiction writer you're sure to hear a lot more about in the coming years, who wrote a lovely inscription inside my copy of Body Language at a reading. Something that amazed me about her was that all the while she was inscribing the book, she was answering my bothersome questions (heck, I can't even sign my name on a check at the supermarket if the clerk is talking to me).
So I guess what I'm asking, at the risk of sounding repetitive, is this: if you were going out and signing books at a store next week, what approach would you take? Is there a proper way to sign a book that satisfies everyone? Is there something you should never do, something that pisses people off? Maybe use the wrong type of pen? Misspell the person's name? Denounce Bush on the title page? Any help with this matter is greatly appreciated, so, if you have a moment to spare, just post your advice (even off the wall shit) below or check out my website for my email address.
I'd like to add one more thing. Sitting here tonight, staring out my window into the dark and cold and working on this blog, I thought of two books that I wish I had signed copies of, but never will, not in this life anyway. One is The Stories of Breece D'j Pancake, and the other is The Light the Dead See by the poet Frank Stanford. Both of these men died young, and that's sad. But it also helps you to understand why some people like to have their books signed.
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Donald Ray Pollock grew up in Knockemstiff, Ohio. His stories have appeared in the Berkeley Fiction Review, the Journal, Third Coast, Chiron Review, Sou'wester, Boulevard, and Folio, and he has contributed essays on politics to the op-ed page of the New York Times.
Books mentioned in this post
Donald Ray Pollock is the author of Knockemstiff