Today we present the fourth installment in Mark Blagrave's (Silver Salts) ongoing series of posts. Here, Professor Blagrave addresses his first experience doing author signings.
The Implied Author Part IV:
Signings: The Agony and the Ecstasy
In my (admittedly limited) experience, book signings come in two basic temperatures: Hot and Cold. The Hot are usually associated with readings; the Cold, with random appearances in bookstores. Signees at the hot ones are there on purpose. They know something of the book, even if it’s only what you have just read to them five minutes ago. Signees at the cold ones are more likely to be there by accident. For them, the book is often nothing more than the object of a simple buying decision.
Hot signings fall into three sizes, like sweaters: small, medium, and large. XXL almost never happens. We’re talking about books. They are generally supportive, reaffirming, and almost always seeded with people you already know. (The exception is the signing you do after a reading with other better-known authors, where you get to watch their pens flying while you fiddle with yours, pretending there’s something wrong with it and you couldn’t be signing anyway, even if asked.)
Cold signings are more infinitely various, more challenging, and therefore potentially more interesting. In the first place, signing in a bookstore has meant, for me so far, signing in a shopping mall. These are places most of us walk through from time to time, which is clearly their preferred and natural mode of consumption. Sitting still in a shopping mall is not something anyone should do. Well, maybe a sociologist. If you do multiple signings in various shopping malls in a small urban centre and start to think that everyone looks the same, it’s probably because they are. It can become awkward: who is stalking whom?
My bookstore signings to date have been of three types. They are by no means mutually exclusive. Any combination seems possible, in fact.
The first (and every writer I have talked to has had one or more of these) is the oh-was-that-today? variety. Interestingly, there may be an inverse proportion between the store’s busy-ness and the staff’s ability to remember you are coming: the less general traffic, the easier it must be to forget what day it is.
The second is what I am calling the three-ring-circus signing, which seems to be designed on the premise that, if one author in a store is good, two are better. Once, I showed up on a Saturday afternoon only to find that the table I had been promised, near the front door, had been given to an early-bird travel writer. Like it was a flea market. From my nook in the back of the store amid the yoga books, I could hear him hawking his wares: “buy a trivel bk, signed by the awtha!” I admired his New Zealand accent and his third-personing of himself (literally ec-static), but I found I didn’t envy him.
Then there’s the most common type: the living curiosity signing. In the abstract, it sounds terrible: sitting at a table like some kind of circus freak in captivity. In practice (so far) I have found it the most fun. I might even be accused of being complicit in the inherent exhibitionism of it all, having made a slide show that I trot around with me on my lap-top, and smiling like an idiot (I deny whore) at total strangers as they walk by. Of course, you meet the broadest range of people at this kind of signing. Most happen by by accident, but it usually doesn’t take long to discover your six degrees of separation. Some come because they remember you from a dim shared past, and that is (almost) always warming. Others come because they write too, and they want to meet someone who has been lucky enough to find a publisher. They pick your brains for tips. Finally, there are those I call the reality check. Sitting in a mall in Saint John this summer, I watched a couple who had obviously seen better days wander back and forth past the Coles. (They couldn’t have been there for the air conditioning; it was Saint John.) Finally, they sidled up to the table, and asked what this was all about. I told them a bit about the book, trying to appeal to their pride as ‘Johners.’ Then they asked how much it cost. The answer brought a Jeez and a snort and they ambled away. What I had seen in them was the descendents of a couple of characters from Silver Salts. What they had seen in me was some kind of huckster who thought a book might be worth almost as much as a case of beer.
The Hot signing and the Cold signing have a number of things in common, of course. Interesting conversations are possible at both, though they tend to be shorter at the Hot. Both bristle with orthographical anxiety. “It’s Dutch,” they say after making a sound that I hear only as an articulated cough; or “Megan the usual way,” which is never the way I guess. My signature has become more and more of a squiggle as these encounters make me forget how to spell my own name too. And what to put as an inscription? Is “fond memories,” if you know the person, potentially incriminating? Is there an actual nuanced difference between “best wishes” and “all best wishes”? Should you wish a fellow writer well with her own writing? (What if it works and she outshines you?) My favourite was the ten year old who asked me to write “Happy Birthday Mom.” I got him to sign that one with me.
The first time I signed (at the Hottest of all Hot signings: the hometown launch), I kept joking to people: “you know you can’t return it once I’ve written in it?” On a later occasion, I was told that somebody’s wife didn’t read (because she didn’t value) books that hadn’t been signed. I felt (briefly) sorry for Dickens. A bookstore manager told me, as she got me to do a generic job on a stack of fifteen, how books sell better when they are signed. “People think they’re getting value added,” she said. And that’s what my signings have been — each in its own way: value added, for me at least.
Coming Soon - Readings: Wrapt and Unwrapt