Singing Those Book Signing Blues

(I found this humor essay I wrote about Margaret Atwood’s LongPen invention and author book signings while scouring through my files in my quest to publish an essay a day this year.)

Author Margaret Atwood has invented a remote-controlled pen which allows her to sign books for her fans from thousands of miles away. BBC News

There comes a time in every author’s life when he or she has to enter the tawdry world of commerce, and engage in that most stressful of situations – the book signing. I can tell you firsthand, there is nothing in life as nerve-wracking as sitting at a wobbly card table in the center of a cavernous Books ‘R Us, with your darlings heaped on the table like a pile of yesterday’s fish.

Even the most esteemed and seasoned authors find book signings anxiety producing and exhausting. To this end, award-winning Canadian author Margaret Atwood, no stranger to book tours and signings, developed a device that allows authors to sign their books from home or office, effectively eliminating the need to sign a book in person. The LongPen was unveiled several years ago at the London Book Fair, with Atwood signing a copy of her new short story collection, The Tent, for her publisher who was in another area of the exhibition hall. The author merely has to sign an electronic pad, and then seconds later a mechanism consisting of two metal arms holding a pen, will reproduce the signature in a reader’s book.

I understand Atwood’s motivation. Besides the obvious appeal of being able to stay in your pajamas in the comfort of your own kitchen, it also removes the author from that most stressful of modern day contrivances – the book signing. Book signings are a fairly recent literary phenomenon, gaining steadily in popularity during the past few decades to the point where they are now seen as absolutely critical to a book’s success. That sounds good in theory, but the fact is most authors are solitary creatures who would prefer not to interact with anyone, thank you very much. J. D. Salinger had the right idea.
Truly the most dreadful aspect of the book signing is what to do with yourself while shoppers mill about buying every book in the store but yours. It’s similar to that gut-clenching, deer-caught-in-the-headlights nightmare where you are suddenly naked on Main Street, and no one else seems to notice but you.

So, until such time as the LongPen becomes readily available, I offer the following assortment of poses to be assumed by those authors, who naked and defenseless with only their words to hide behind, must still sign their work in real, live book stores.

…Nonchalant indifference – As in, “Even though I am an author of some repute, with so many more important things to do with my time rather than sit here at this signing, I do realize that my public needs me.” (It helps to look at your watch as often as possible, while stifling a yawn.)

…Busy concentration – Appear to be engrossed in jotting down notes for your next novel. When someone comes up to get a book signed, act startled, as if they are catching you working on something very important. You might say, “Gee, I’m sorry I didn’t see you there. I was just working on an outline adapting this into a screenplay.” (Be sure they don’t see the crossword puzzle you’re doing.)

…Lofty, celebrity snob appeal – An arrogant look that says, “If you are lucky, I’ll not only deign to sell you this book, but I will also sign and personalize it.” (Was that Aunt Millie with an “ie” or a “y”?)

…Pained and tortured – An expression of Sylvia Plath-like morosity. Wear all black, and sip on bad wine from a paper cup. A little belligerence is encouraged, especially when you find out the only reason the customer is at your table is to ask you where the restroom is.

…Forced jollity – Adopt an air of festive, back-slapping hilarity, also enhanced greatly by the presence of cheap wine (the only kind you’ll get at a book signing).

…Bemused irony – “Isn’t it great fun to be sitting here squandering my precious time with all of you Ice Road Trucker watchers who haven’t read anything more challenging than a cereal box in years.” (This thought is best kept to yourself.)

…Direct eye contact – A fine line here between assertiveness and antagonism. Choose someone, and look into their eyes, daring them to turn away from your book table. Never look away first.

…Sad and pleading – Eliciting pity always works as a last resort. Focus on motherly looking women who will feel guilty if they don’t buy your book. A melancholy little half-smile that says, “I need a friend” (and your credit card).

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