Outsourcing Signings

Author Margaret Atwood has stirred up quite a controversy by creating a "remote booksigning device" that would allow her to "attend" booksignings without actually being there.  She wrote about her invention, and the controversy, in today’s Los Angeles Times.

In an effort to simplify the most grueling part of the book-publication process
— the dreaded Author Tour — I dreamed up the concept of a remote book-signing
device. (I’ve spent far too many evenings crawling around on hotel room floors,
eating Pringles because I was too exhausted to call room service, so I needed
this!) The author would be able to relax at his or her home base and could see
and speak with a book buyer in a bookstore thousands of miles away. That much
can happen already.

But in addition, the author would be able to
actually sign — in real time, and with real ink — the book buyer’s book (or the
singer’s album, or the actor’s photograph). You would no longer have to be in
the bookstore to write "Happy Birthday, Aunt Sylvia." You would simply write on
a little pad (somewhat like the one the UPS messenger brings to your door) and
on the other end, your message and signature would be duplicated in the book.

Think of the plane trips avoided, the beer nuts left uneaten in the
hotel mini-bar, and — from the publisher’s point of view — the money saved! For
it costs a lot to whiz a bunch of disoriented and grumpy authors around the

That’s exactly what she’s doing…thinking of the author or,more accurately, herself. What she’s proposing is the customer support approach towards her readers.  What’s wrong with an automated menu and no live operator? What’s wrong if that live operator is someone you can barely understand in Singapore or India? It’s still customer service, right? RIGHT?

She’s forgetting the personal touch, the human interaction. The respect. It’s not just the signature that’s important to most readers, it’s the chance to meet someone who has had a dramatic and often emotional impact on their lives and imaginations. It’s a way to meet someone who has inspired and entertained you. It’s also a way for authors to see the face of the people they are writing for, the people who have supported them in their art. It’s a way to say "Thank you," for both author and reader.  It’s not just a signature. And looking into a computer screen and shaking hands with a robot arm isn’t quite the same thing. What’s astonishing is that she doesn’t get that… or maybe she does.

The only difference between the author-at-a-distance and the author-in-the-flesh
would be that no author’s DNA would get onto the book, and no readers’ germs
would get onto the author.

I think this is where she betrays her real attitudes towards signings and her readers.  But there’s something else I find personally offensive about her booksigning-at-a-distance machine: it’s her broad, caricatured characterization of authors as cranky assholes who think it’s a burden to meet readers.

This may come as shock to Margaret Atwood and everyone else on the planet Vulcan, but lots of authors enjoy meeting their readers, enjoy the personal contact, and derive enormous pleasure from being able to sign their books in person.

She may have unintentionally succeeded in her goal of avoiding book tours. Given her attitude towards signing and readers, who would ever want this woman to sign their books again? Who would ever want her in their store? Not me.

11 thoughts on “Outsourcing Signings”

  1. Never heard of her before, but I’ll certainly avoid her books now.
    I agree with you. I once went to a book signing an hour away to meet an author. I’d already read both her books and e-mailed her to tell her how fun they were, but I still wanted a chance to meet her in person.
    Yes, it’s hard and takes lots of time out of your schedule. But how else are you going to meet your audience?

  2. Gee, Margaret. Sorry you have to talk to all those pesky readers. I’m so sorry the experience drains you to the point where you can’t pick up a phone and call room service.
    I’m so happy for you that you don’t have a day job to do on top of this. That would be horrendous because you would have to deal with people all day long, and whoa to the author who has to do that.
    Well, Maggie, I’ll spare you signing my copy. I won’t buy one.
    [As Bruen would say, “In a whee bit of a snit are we, Jimmy?”]

  3. Ooh…reader’s germs, icky! How did she do her signings before? Using gloves? All human contact means to her is the exchange of germs and ‘DNA.’ Sad.

  4. Being of a somewhat anti-social bent, I can understand not wanting to do signings, readings, and similar events without necessarily being a cranky asshole. I’d always thought the “and now for something completely different” element was the main attraction (or drawback) of events: they’re special occasions, a time when a fundamentally private sort of work and hobby is brought into public. The telepresence solution might appeal to the folks who collect signatures as an investment or mail books to an author for an autograph, but at this point I don’t think telepresence equates to event in anyone’s mind. (Maybe for the SF fans, but she’s done her best to avoid the genre label. Then again, the SF crowd’s been disappointingly slow on the technological uptake when it comes to e-books and such, so maybe they wouldn’t perceive any sort of gee-whiz factor either.)

  5. I have to say that last time Margaret Atwood was in Edinburgh, my home town, she had time for everyone. Not just fans (about 400 of them, who’d all bought tickets), but she personally thanked every single bookseller who was working that evening. Which is very unusual, but most appreciated (and, incidentally, very savvy). In any case, the extensive travel can be exhausting for even a young person, and she was born in 1939. In what other career would she be asked to tour at the age of 66?

  6. Wow, you guys are prickly!
    I don’t like this idea of Margaret Atwood’s — and part of me wonders if this is all some kind of joke — but let’s at least keep in mind that her signing experiences are a little different from anyone’s on this blog. It’s been 20 years since A Handmaid’s Tale made her an international best-seller, and I think the novels she wrote in the 16 years before that sold pretty well, too.
    So she’s been signing books for more than 35 years now — I think she can be forgiven for getting a little tired of it. (And since Handmaid’s Tale, I’m sure her crowds have been massive. You know, auditorium-sized signings on college campuses and the suchlike.)
    And two other points, both having to do with the kinds of books she writes:
    If you read any of her novels, you’ll discover quickly that Atwood does not have a great deal of faith in the essential goodness of the human soul. In fact, sometimes I’m surprised she can leave the house.
    And on the flip side, her books are the kind that will make certain people feel that she is talking directly to them, and that they have some kind of deep mutual relationship. Yeah, I know in a way that’s what we all want our readers to feel — but a couple dozen lonely people who believe in your special friendship and are waiting for you, the only person in the world who understands them, to rescue them can make a signing a long, long night.
    Again, I’m not defending her idea or his pieces in the Times. But for a writer who has spent the better part of four decades turning out powerful, emotional, serious novels (and selling them like crazy), I think I can cut her a little slack.

  7. If she doesn’t want to do booksignings, she can always do what Sue Grafton, Robert Parker, John Sandford, Minette Waters, Carol O’Connell, Dennis Lehane, Jasper Fford, Nevada Barr and many authors have done — she can sign “tip ins,” blank pages which are inserted into the books during the printing stage. Granted, most of those authors I mentioned do the tip-ins in addition to signings…
    She could also just make one stop at a warehouse to sign books, or even have books shipped to her home. Any of those options would be far less creepy and rude than her notion of a “remote booksigning device,” which reveals a fundamental disdain for her audience.

  8. Furthermore, I don’t know about anyone else, but when I sign on a pad at the store, it looks very little like my signature. So this just sets up problems down the road of collectos claiming something wasn’t really signed by the author. Then again, I don’t think the machine was the author….


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