We’re all familiar with book-signing rituals, sometimes staged in conjunction with readings or launchings and sometimes sponsored by bookshops. They serve to promote sales, since the buyer of a book tends to attach special value to a copy signed by the author. Often the signature accompanies a personal inscription, even if the author has never seen the buyer before – ‘To [Did you say Daisy or Maisy?], best wishes…’ Embarrassment can follow – most notoriously when, at a book signing in Sydney in 1964, British writer Monica Dickens was handed a copy by a woman who muttered in a broad Strine accent what Dickens assumed was her name. The author signed the book To Emma Chisit, only to discover – as newspapers gleefully reported – that the woman had just been asking ‘How much is it?’ (No no, that’s not my moniker, Monica…)
But what exactly does an author’s autograph signify? John Frow’s recent book The Practice of Value: Essays on Literature in Cultural Studies (UWAP) includes a chapter on ‘Signature and Brand.’ Among other points, Frow argues that an authorial signature ‘has become intrinsic both to aesthetic and to market value.’ So when I scrawl my autograph on one of my publications, this action symbolises the fact that the book belongs simultaneously to two ‘regimes of value’ (Frow’s term): artistry and commerce.
I interpret this to mean that, having originated as an individual creation, a book is then taken over by mechanisms that reproduce and distribute it in large quantities. In the process of being replicated it becomes a mass-produced commodity, and so an autographed copy is seen as rendering it more personal again, restoring something of an individual-writer-to-individual-reader relationship.
By the way, Wikipedia told me something I hadn’t known about book signing: that it’s no longer confined to printed copies. ‘The growing popularity of ebooks and ereading devices’, says the Wikipedia article, ‘has inspired the development of software – such as Authorgraph (formerly known as Kindlegraph and renamed to reflect its expansion to include all ereading platforms) and Autography (for iOS devices) – that allows authors to digitally personalise ebooks by including autographs, dedications, and photographs, and to provide such personalisation remotely as well as at in-person book signings.’ I confess that I can’t see much point in an electronically signed copy.
A brand, Frow argues, is a signature’s corporate counterpart. What they have in common is the power of a named identity. Amplified by market mechanisms, an author’s personal name can offer brand recognition – something like a trademark, assuring prospective consumers that a particular book will provide the same quality of reading experience as previous products issued under this same person’s name. Frow remarks:
Books by the small number of established or emergent celebrity authors are the subject of intensive advertising and promotional campaigns which centrally involve the marketing of the persona of the author in chat and talkback shows, book signings, festival appearances and literary lunches.
Where does this leave writers who aren’t celebrities but are still urged to develop and spruik an ‘authorial brand’? It may seem simple enough: just formulate and promulgate a succinct summary of the kind of thing you write. But a powerfully attractive brand would need to offer a lot more than that. Requirements for becoming a star would ideally include glamour, notoriety, influential advocates, major prizes, cross-media prominence, and fabulously generous multiple-book contracts with instant translation rights in many languages etc etc. (Sigh.)
Meanwhile, what about the possibility of devising an exceptionally ornate way of inscribing your name, so that immense crowds of book-buyers will queue up for the sheer privilege of seeing you autograph their copies with the flamboyant curlicues of your famous signature?