The hazards of the innocent book-signing

Trouble ensues when two authors are sharing a bill and one line is longer than the other

Roy Keane signing the back of Sadie McCarthy’s jacket at the book signing of his first autobiography in Easons, Patrick Street, Cork. Photograph: Alan Betson

Roy Keane signing the back of Sadie McCarthy’s jacket at the book signing of his first autobiography in Easons, Patrick Street, Cork. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Charles Dickens was the first literary superstar. On his legendary public reading tours, he enthralled audiences of thousands but as an old bookseller, I’ve often wondered how he handled the signing-lines. In fact, because the books were serialised it’s probable there were no signings; which is just as well or he may have dropped dead even earlier than he did, aged 58.

Book-signings are arcane rituals but managing the line and keeping it moving is a perennial problem. To begin with, the Irish are terrible queuers and resent being herded into line, as I recall from my time in Easons O’Connell St where Becks, Keano, Fergie and Bestie attracted legions of unruly Man U fans each clamouring to touch the hem of their hero’s garments. At children’s book signings time comes dropping slower than you could ever imagine, mainly because children’s authors are nice and children are star-struck. Literary signings, by contrast, are usually sedate affairs but trouble ensues when two authors are sharing a bill and one line is much longer than the other’s. On such occasions, rage and schadenfreude vie for uneasy supremacy.

Organisers have a number of speeding-up strategies at their disposal. Cattle-prods are banned but the “no dedications” or “one book per person” rules are hard to enforce. A feature of the Irish signing-line is the “post-it protocol” where Irish names are scribbled on post-it notes to help non-native authors cope with their Caoimhes and Caobhins. Pen-choice can also be a problem. Political cartoonist Ralph Steadman used to sign with a gold-ink Sharpie which he brandished like Jackson Pollock in a bad humour. The drying process took at least two minutes with freshly-signed books strewn on the floor for hours awaiting collection.

Inevitably, technology presents a whole new set of problems with the smart-phone camera the principal culprit. As the limitless permutations of the photo-shoot are negotiated, authors are wedged into fumbled selfies or intimately embraced by perfect strangers for the delectation of their facebook friends. The rictus grins of the authors suggest they wish they were elsewhere.

Inevitably, technology has a solution that comes in the form of electronic signing or the Long Pen as pioneered by Margaret Atwood. You can be in Dublin when your book is being signed in Toronto which, since Meeting the Author is the whole point, rather defeats the purpose. Happily it shows no sign of catching on.

 

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