By David Niall Wilson
There is a venerable ritual in the halls of wordsmiths everywhere that I thought, considering my current odd and pretty pleasant situation, would be worthy of a bit of thought. What better place to record those thoughts, and who better to share them with?
One of the images we all have of successful authors is the tabletop full of books piled up next to a drink glass sporting an umbrella or a well shaken (never stirred) martini, and a long line of smiling, eager faces stretched off into the distance. The author is chatting up the crowd, smiling a lot, and signing his John Hancock across the pristine pages of his current bestseller. In the line, the ranks of the faithful hold white-knuckle gripped books with a variety of covers – the writer’s past – brought to him for an ink anointment and the chance of a few words about a favorite story. Somewhere in the lot is a young guy with bad hair who stares at the ground a lot. He’s hoping to find the courage to ask if his idol will read something he’s written. Another arrogant prick somewhere near the middle intends to try and bully the author into showing something to the agent that made him famous.
That’s the image I had, anyway. I used to see it in movies, even in cartoons, and during the early years of my life there was nothing to dissuade me of the truth of it. I saw one or two famous people sign books. They had the lines, and in those days none of them was important to me, so I never got into the line, and was left with my misconceptions. Now, of course, all of that has changed.
Signings are a nightmare for me, most of the time. I always get enthusiastic up-front support, followed by mediocre advertisement of the event and a small to middling to non-extant crowd on game day. The last signing I attended, a local bookstore owner asked me to come because the other guy was nervous. It was his first book, his first signing. I agreed.
I arrived to find that “other guy” and his wife had brought boxes of wine and squares of cheese. OG was a college professor. He was expecting his colleagues to show up, and was nervous beyond belief. He started on the boxed wine early. Every ten minutes or so, his wife, who was obviously already spending the huge money her author husband was about to start raking in, kept urging him to read from his work, though there were only three or four people there, all of whom came with the OG family. Another professor did show up, from a different school. He came to talk about his own crazed book involving time travel and future Baptists. OG – by the way – published his book with a very plain, very forgettable cover through Publish America. He actually asked me if I’d been paid for my books by my publishers, and seemed uncertain that this ever really happened. I didn’t stay long. I signed and sold one book. As far as I know OG sold one book as well, to the same guy – the other professor.
None of this is really what I’m here to write about, though. I want to talk about signing books. I want to talk about how cool it is to personalize the final product, the thing you slaved over, marketed, edited, revised – and waited far too long to see. It’s a very interesting sensation, and not everyone handles it the same way. Some people quickly scribble something vaguely resembling the first letter of their name and some ripples onto the page. Some people write personal messages to each and every person they sign for. Some have cute little “remarques” they add – spiders dangling, or skulls surrounding their names, and others always use a particular color of ink. I like that sort of thought in something signed to me. I like that they care about the few extra words they are adding to their book enough to take time over them and make them as memorable as possible.
I don’t always do that, of course. When I get a sheet of names for an anthology I sign fast and hard. My name will get lost in the Stephen Kings and Peter Straubs anyway, and no one is standing by, eager to get my name scribbled in their book. They don’t mind, but it’s less important (usually) than the rest. Now I face something different, and I have to tell you…it actually made me smile.
The other day I got a box in the mail from a publisher. I have a signed limited novel coming out later this year. The book has gorgeous cover art done by a close friend, will be beautifully bound and well handled, and people are shelling out a good bit of cash to own a copy, not because Stephen King is in it, but because they want something I wrote. The box contains 500 signature sheets. These aren’t just plain paper, or a page with border and a number line at the bottom – the publisher commissioned my friend the artist to create a unique signature page for me. They are gorgeous, and I intend to spend some time on them, using a calligraphy pen, and to do my best to add to something already impressive, knowing each signature will eventually be shelved next to similar books signed by others equally proud of their work and their words. These aren’t the sort of books people buy to read on the subway, but books people buy because they love the feel of leather covers and the scent of acid-free paper. And, for whatever reason, they have deemed me worthy.
That was the start of my week. Today, I got two more boxes in the mail. These came all the way from Cardiff in Wales. They are copies of my short story collection, “Defining Moments,” and about half of them are going on from me to a bookseller and then on to collectors. These stories comprise decades of my life, and the process of choosing them from the hundred and fifty or so possibilities was both unique, and rewarding. This book means a great deal to me, and, of course, I’ll be signing all those that aren’t already signed. Then they go on to the artist (the same as on the other book, my pal Don Paresi) and they will get small “remarque” sketches on their title page, making them even a bit more special and collectible than they were before, and on to collectors and readers literally worldwide. People who want to read my words…and keep them. People who want me to scribble in their new book.
Then, to top it off, I got an e-mail from fellow author Matt Cardin today. He was cheerfully informing me that the signature sheets for an anthology he and I are both in were winging their way to me as he typed. I sat, and I laughed, and today I bought another pen.
Someday, I suppose, I’ll lose the edge off the sense of wonder this process still brings me, but not this week. Not today, or tomorrow. I can imagine John Hancock signing important documents, and I can imagine the things I sign are important in their own right. I try to picture that flowing script and the bold lines of his name, and to be worthy of the moment.
I may never get my tabletop full of bestsellers, or a line headed out the door filled with people dying to talk to me, but I know that there are books on shelves with my name scribbled in them. There are others with short notes, greetings, haiku and lines of poetry. There are a couple with odd little pictures that came to me on the spur of the moment. Some of them are cherished. Some of them are forgotten. Every one of them was a moment I spent at an odd, writer’s altar, sacrificing ink to the memory of my own words. It’s a connection between myself, and the book, and when it’s a personal inscription, it’s a connection through the book to the reader. It changes the way they hold the book, how they view it, for better or worse. Some will, of course, rush off to see if it’s worth a buck on eBay, but others will want to read it more than they did, and they’ll enjoy the experience in a slightly different way. When they open the book, they’ll see the name and maybe they’ll remember how it got there. I can always dream.
After all, we remember how John Hancock’s signature got to be the icon for this phenomenon in our country, and not a one of us stood there and watched him do it. For a couple of days I’m going to be channeling John Hancock…and smiling.
Until next time,