Helpful Tips for Your Next Booksigning

July 16th, 2010

For an author, booksignings can be fraught.  Sure, there’s the easy part at the beginning when the author just has to be able to read out loud without falling over her own voice.  The Q and A usually goes pretty smoothly too. (I suggest bringing a few ringers: my kids are excellent at coming up with questions whenever a silence falls, and they’re available for hire.)

It’s the actual signing that’s tricky.

I mean, you’re at this event, everyone’s talking at you, the adrenalin is pounding, you’re wondering why so few people showed up (okay, maybe that’s just at my signings), and the person who’s thrusting a book at you looks so freakin’ familiar that you KNOW you know her name but you just can’t remember it and so you say, “What would you like me to write?” and she says brightly, “Oh, just make it out to me,” and now you’re totally screwed because you can’t risk writing the wrong name but as soon as you ask her what her name really is, she’ll know you don’t remember her, and she’ll turn out to be like your sister-in-law or something.

I’ve actually inscribed a book to the wrong person.  My father had two friends who were brothers and who looked and spoke alike, at least to ME.  Years after I signed a book for him, one of them informed me I’d written his brother’s name instead of his.  Great.  And that’s only the one I know about–I’ve probably messed up a dozen more times and not found out.

One common trick authors trot out at these moments is the “How do you spell your name again?” line, pen poised above title page.  This works well if you’re signing a book to a Kristine, Ke$ha, or Meghan.  It does not work so well when you say to a 9-year-old boy–as a friend did to my son last year–“Remind me how to spell your name,” and that 9-year-old boy’s name is spelled, “W-I-L-L.”   Busted.

And even if you get the name right, you’re still on the spot.  You want to come up with a different inscription for each person, but–if you’re like me and have my anxiety issues–you panic that by sticking your neck out and writing a personal, “So glad our kids are in school together!” you’ll realize too late that wasn’t one of the moms from school, it was the childless teacher.  Because I get nervous about making mistakes, I tend to write, “Best wishes!  Enjoy!  Hope you like it!” and other scintillatingly brilliant bon mots.  Dorothy Parker I’m not.

One very funny guy I knew would write, “Thanks for paying retail!” to everyone who bought his book at the reading.  That’s a good solution.

Another one is to throw the problem right back at your reader and let her cast around for a good idea.  “What would you like me to say?” is a classic exhausted author line.  It works best if you’re signing a book that’s going to be a gift for someone else.  But I’ll write anything anyone tells me to.  One friend asked for her inscription to be, “You’re the inspiration behind everything I do,” and I obediently wrote it down in ink.  Hey, it meant I didn’t have to come up with anything.

This week I went to see the luminously brilliant Maile Meloy read from her much-admired collection of short stories (now out in paperback) Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. My sister Nell was also there and had already worked out what she wanted Maile to inscribe in the copy she was about to purchase:

“Dear Cashier, This one’s on me.  Maile.'”