View from the queue
The Author, Spring 2006 issue
‘(Another exhausted author) will be signing copies in the book tent.’
Surprising as it may seem, even educational authors sign a lot of books. The first signing session I ever did was in Lisbon in the heady days of the first Portuguese English Teaching conferences, when such gatherings were exciting and novel. My publisher announced that I would sign copies. Like many novices, I painstakingly signed Peter S. Viney until I was asked for the twentieth time, ‘What does the S stand for?’. I dropped the S there and then, have never replaced it, but had to replace my credit cards as soon as I got back because my signature had irrevocably altered. The longest signing I did was in Mexico City. Mexican teachers like certificates of attendance for educational talks, and OUP had had a rubber stamp made and put my facsimile signature on every one of over 900 certificates. The trouble was that one listener had the bright idea of getting the real thing next to the rubber stamp, a queue formed and I was there for over two hours, signing books and certificates. Mexican teachers tend to have names like Maria Consuela Guadalupe Rodriguez y Juarez, and they do like an inscription with accurate spelling. The somewhat shorter signing the day before finally taught me how to spell Guadalajara because they also like the city and date in the inscription. I hope I’m never asked to speak in Netzahualcoyotl.
I never mind signing, and it’s gratifying when a teacher produces a tattered copy covered with handwritten notes that they’ve been using for years. But, and it’s a big but, my signature has only ever served to reduce the value of the book it’s on. This reduction in value is not true for novelists, biographers and other mainstream authors. In many cases their signature immediately enhances the secondhand value of the book. I have quite a few signed copies myself. I’ve stood in the queues, said a few words to the author and been delighted with the inscriptions To Peter …. I especially value an inscription from Douglas Coupland after we’d been first in line in the Cheltenham book tent, and spent five minutes chatting to him before the bookshop representative shouted ‘On your marks, get set, sign!’ To me, the value is that I was there, we spoke, and the inscription’s personalized. I can’t see any point in a piece of paper with a signature on it if you weren’t there yourself. Then again, I don’t understand the magic attached to first editions. I collect Richmal Crompton, and I’m interested in the condition of the covers, not the edition number.
The signing queue has changed, especially at festivals. There’s usually a notice asking collectors and dealers to wait until the end. That’s fair. There’s also often a sign suggesting that it’s a ‘courtesy to the author’ to buy a book there and then to have signed. I can see Waterkkars point, but that’s a difficult one for me. If it’s an author I like well enough to go and see, then I probably bought the book as soon as it came out. I’d also want to have read the latest book before attending the author’s talk. I can see that it’s a ‘courtesy’ to have only the current volume signed, but say you bought it a week earlier at the same store?
As we waited for George MacDonald Fraser at Cheltenham this year, we realized that half the queue were holding hardcover editions of older titles with the tell-tale collectors’ plastic covers protecting the valuable dustjackets. Most had several. Maybe there were fans with copies they had collected themselves, but at least some of them were dealers. My wife had our copy of the latest Flashman. I felt guilty asking him to sign my copy of The Hollywood History of The World because it happens to be a first edition, and that’s because I bought it the week it was published. It also happens to be a great favourite and I’m not going to sell it, but I didn’t want to look like a dealer exploiting his time and generosity.
On to Mark Haddon in the evening, and the lady in front of us had six identical plastic wrapped copies of The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-time. Perhaps she’d decided to give six favoured relatives a copy for Christmas. Odd then that she said, as those in front of her had, ‘No inscription, please. Just a signature.’ Mark obliged with far better grace than I would have, but when I presented my single copy and asked for the offered inscription, he smiled and said, ‘At last! A real one.’ You see, generally books are worth more if they’re signed without an inscription. There are notable exceptions, and you can find some in Rick Gekoski’s Tolkien’s Gown and other stories of great authors and rare books. An inscribed copy of the Olympia Press edition of Lolita sold for $264,000 in 2002, but then again it was inscribed to Graham Greene from Vladimir Nabokov. Gekoski points out that he’s never sold a book that’s been inscribed to him personally.
Let’s try and put a value on those plain signatures by looking at ABE books on the net. Secondhand booksellers are quite sniffy about the accuracy of ABE books internet prices. I tried searching my own titles (none were on offer ‘signed’ though a couple were stamped gratis). One seller in Brooklyn has several at £108. As these are in print and available new at around £10.80 elsewhere, it’s likely to be a misplaced decimal point. However, if a lot of copies are on ABE from different sellers, you can begin to get a picture of the price range. By the way, mint means pristine, unread. Oxfam’s specialist bookshops haven’t worked this one out yet, and often price tatty grubby copies at ABE Books mint prices.
The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-time comes up on ABE books website (as I write) in a rare proof copy at £725, then signed British mint first editions appear at £195 (UK), £174.91 (USA) and £160 (UK). The highest unsigned prices are £146 and £125, with a large batch at around £100. So Mark Haddon’s signature raises the price by a conservative £15, or £95 at the other extreme. So six mint signed first editions might be worth an additional £570, which makes it well worth a visit to the festival and time in the queue
A little research in the second-hand book trade indicates that George MacDonald Fraser’s secondhand prices have been creeping up for years. In March 2005, Book Collector featured the Flashman series and mentioned the rising value, fuelled partly by the stunning jacket illustrations, and accelerated by the recent publication of Flashman on the March. Since the Book Collector feature, I am reliably informed, the secondhand values of original editions of Flashman books have nearly doubled across the range. Let’s look at a few Flashman titles in their first editions in mint condition. Flashman’s Lady comes up at £130 to £150 signed, around £95 unsigned. Flashman At The Charge has almost identical figures, though a ‘signed but not inscribed’ copy comes up at an optimistic £195. So the signature adds £35 to £55 to the value. A ‘fine’ first edition of the first in the series, Flashman will set you back £350 to £500 with a signature. If you’re not bothered with the signature it drops to around £150. The net search indicates that secondhand books are worth more again if they’re dated in the year of publication. Steve Augarde’s The Various, published in 2004, already has a long list of copies available on ABE books at huge prices (£995, £974, £856, £724, £704) because he was kind enough to add small coloured drawings next to his name.
Authors can see the value of signing a pile of extra copies for a shop on a promotional tour. The shop has treated them to lunch (at the best) or a cup of tea (at the worst). They’ll sell the copies, and the author will gain goodwill and royalties. On secondhand copies the author gets nothing. So how would George MacDonald Fraser feel if someone offered him a fine first edition of Flashman to sign and added, ‘Oh, and could you just put 1969 under your name? ‘
Authors might like to follow the example of a well-known rock musician of the seventies, who has been known to slip the odd signed and dated LP onto ebay auctions (via a friend). It seems he can pick up good quality secondhand copies of his own albums for £15 to £20 and move them on signed for £200 to £300. It may seem small change for a major star, but his sales aren’t what they were and the effort is minimal. He just has to be careful not to flood the market.
The photo is Peter Viney doing a book signing in Hungary in December 2005