Why Get a Book Signed?

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  • Why Get a Book Signed?

    When I was a new author, one of the more disorienting experiences was the first time someone came up to me with their copy of my book and asked me to sign it. I was happy to do it. I was also bemused–not that I wasn’t familiar with the behavior, but why would a person ask me to sign their copy of my book? It seemed to be a habitual thing: people who have a hardcopy of the book with them when they encounter the author ask for a signature. I was curious about this decision. What was going on in that person’s mind? My curiosity grew when another fellow said sadly, “Oh. I bought an electronic copy. I guess I can’t have your signature.” (This point is probably part of the ongoing discussion out there about digital rights and value.)

    Recently, I had a chance to find out why. I was at a presentation by Malcolm Gladwell, for his David and Goliath book tour. Everyone who bought a ticket was given a copy of the book. The organizers, a local book store called The Book Passage, promised we could queue up after the talk and get our books signed. (All 400 of us!) The organizer even made a quip about how the value of a signed copy is better than an investment in the stock market.

    Malcolm Gladwell presenting,  San Rafael, CA - 09-Oct-2013
    Malcolm Gladwell presenting, San Rafael, CA – 09-Oct-2013

    So, after Malcolm told an illustrative story about a domineering rich lady, Alva Vanderbuilt, becoming a leader for the womens’ right-to-vote movement, I had a whole theater-full of people to ask. “Why are you getting your copy of the book signed?”

    (Note: The other related question is “Why get a copy of a signed book,” but that didn’t apply to this scenario, if you interpret that question to mean, “Why buy a signed copy?”)

    Here are some of the answers I heard. I tried to ask people of all ages and genders and physical appearance. I even asked people who looked like the didn’t especially want to talk to me. I probably asked 12 people. Not a huge sample size, true. This subject deserves more in-depth attention. But here’s some of what I remember:

    • “I admire his ideas.”
    • “I want to thank him for writing about all the ideas he writes about.”
    • “I am a fan of his.”
    • “My father is a fan of his. So I’m getting my copy signed, too.”
    • “I want to say hello to him.”
    • “It’s something different. I only own two signed books.”
    • “I don’t own a copy of the book. I’m a student–a junior political science major–so they gave me a ticket but not a book. I can’t afford to buy the book. I brought my copy of Outliers for him to sign because I admire his work.” (I did try to offer this person my copy. Heh.)
    • “I’m building a nice collection of signed books by authors I admire.” (I should have asked why!)
    • “When I loan a book to my friends, they’re more likely to actually read it if it’s signed.” (Assumption: My friends say that authors who are asked to sign books must be good.)
    • “I want to give him a copy of the book I wrote.” (Assumption: I admire him and I think he’ll see that admiration in my work. I should have asked him about his book!)
    • “I’m not getting my copy signed. I’m in line because my husband wants to meet him.”
    • “I don’t know–everyone is doing it, so I want to, too.”
    • “Why? Are you trying to decide?”

    None of the people directly mentioned adding monetary value to their physical copy of the book. One of the comments obliquely reference it, as in “collection,” but that could be a collection for personal reasons. There might have been people in that theater who would have told me about the monetary value a signature adds to the book, but I didn’t happen to talk to them. So. This is not exhaustive research. It’s simply practice at being curious about what’s going on in other people’s minds.

    I was talking with my companion, Rainey Straus, and she told me she’s gotten books signed in the past because:

    • “My friend wrote the book, so it was in support of her.”
    • “My boyfriend got a copy of a book signed by an author I liked and gave it to me as a gift.”

    I tried to briefly get inside people’s minds. I went back and forth with them for a minute or two.  I didn’t have enough time to really ask for details, though, so any sort of translation I do is precarious. And this list is certainly not complete.

    Reasons Why People Get Their Book Signed By the Author

    • mark solidarity with the ideas the author writes about
    • express gratitude to the author directly
    • make a personal connection to the author
    • mark the ideas in this book as important, from all the books I own
    • celebrate a person I have a relationship with, by giving a signed book (more so than an unsigned copy)
    • encourage a friend’s (or family member’s) creativity
    • go along with what everyone else is doing

    And surprisingly, as I was wandering up and down the line of people, I found myself in line. So I went along, got in front of the table, and had my book signed by Malcolm Gladwell. I asked him how his hand was holding up. “It’s getting there,” was that I remember him saying, implying that he was starting to feel some fatigue. I don’t think I could equal his endurance.

    Thank you, Malcolm!

    Signed title page of Malcolm Gladwell's book: David and Goliath.
    Signed title page of Malcolm Gladwell’s book: David and Goliath.

    5 Responses to “Why Get a Book Signed?”

    1. Simon Parker

      Hey Indi – I’ve still got the signed copy of your book from 2008 sitting on my bookshelf. Funny thing is the book next to it is Blink by Malcolm Gladwell – but that one is not signed. Simon.

    2. David Hendler, content strategist currently at Rackspace, wrote email to add his experiences with getting books signed.

      “As a person who gets as many books signed as possible, for me it’s about connection with the author. In the world of mass produced darn well everything, the signed book becomes unique. And if I’ve gotten to talk to the author during the signing, all the better. To use your example, I have way too many books signed by David Sedaris. My favorite inscription? “I’m honored you came all this way to see me.” But it pales in comparison to the 5 minutes I got to talk with Allen Ginsberg when he signed my ratty edition of his collected poems when he explained why he signed “AH” on everything. Ginsberg signed “AH” because it represents breath and inspiration. It’s both the sound you make breathing in and the sound you make breathing out.

      ” Lynda Barry, in addition to her wonderful books on inspiration and creativity, wrote a few novels. One of them is a book called Cruddy. For the purposes of this story, you have to know that there is a sock monkey that figures prominently in the novel. I had been fortunate enough to buy some artwork off her through ebay, back when she was doing that, and one day I saw that she had a first edition of Cruddy on auction with a picture of the sock monkey drawn inside with her signature. I lost the auction. BUT, when she was coming through town signing for 100 Demons, I snuck my beat up copy of Cruddy in and told her how I lost the auction. I expected her to just sign it, but she said, “Well I can draw you a sock monkey!” and scribbled it right off. It’s awesome. How could you do that with an ebook?”]

    3. David DeMello

      I don’t always stand in line for book signatures, but when I do…

      I do so for three reasons. The first is to chat with people online – first about the book, and then about whatever else that leads to. The second is to have a chance to meet the author and have some kind of exchange with them. This never goes as I think it will, but it is often very interesting. Most authors in this situation don’t have more than 10 to 20 seconds to spare, so communication is very economical. It can be a very clear and essential impression of who that person is, and a chance to just be present with them, without trying to “sell” them anything about me or my ideas of myself. The last reason I do it is to have a copy of their book that they have physically touched and marked. I love that spark that comes from holding and reading the book and knowing that it was once in their hands. I think I am more attentive to its contents.

      I’ve never thought I’d make a dime off of any of them. In fact, it has usually cost me quite a bit to win the opportunity to stand in that line, so maybe, in a way, the New Englander in me is just trying to get his money’s worth.

    4. Alex Gregory

      I have a signed Gladwell book too.


      I’m a collector and have a lot of signed books. I enjoy being able to have something the author held or touched, and they are little personalized pieces for my collection.