Friday, October 21, 2011

Signing Books

by Kathleen Ernst

In the (many) years between first finished book and first published book, I dreamed of that most writerly of tasks: sitting at a table and signing copies. The notion that someone might actually want me to was almost beyond comprehension.

Well, books got published and sometimes people do want me to sign them. What I didn’t know, way back then, was that I’d be so bad at it.

Malice Domestic 7

Not meeting readers—I adore that part. Not giving programs about my books—I’m pretty good at that too. I even have nice handwriting and a couple of lovely pens.

The problem I have is trying to chat while signing. It’s a reader’s moment to ask a question or tell me something important, and I like that bit of one-on-one. But I’m not good at multi-tasking. When someone is talking with me I have trouble remembering my own name, much less theirs.

Once a family stopped me in the parking lot as I was leaving a signing. I’d written a lovely inscription in the book they’d just purchased, but in the midst of our conversation, I’d somehow forgotten to actually sign my name. Twice I’ve had to purchase my own books because I botched the inscription.

I run into more trouble when someone approaches the table and asks, “Remember me?” I have a horrible memory, and I’m afraid I don’t always remember a reader I met three years ago. Even worse, my Chloe Ellefson books are (so far) set at a place where I worked 20-30 years ago. Sometimes former colleagues come to my programs, and every now and then I can’t for the life of me find their name in my mental vault. (In my own feeble defense, I did supervise 60-80 people a year, for a decade.)


I try to get around such lapses by keeping a pad handy. Whenever someone hands me a book, I ask them to spell their name, and I write it down. “I always like to check spelling,” I say cheerfully. (Me writing it, as opposed to them scribbling it on a Post-it or something, helps solidify the letters in my brain for a moment.) Everyone once in a while even that fails, as with the man I’d met before who gave me a disappointed look and said “B-o-b.”

I always write the date on the top of the pad, as well. I tend to forget.

If someone buys multiple titles, I try to write a little something different in each one. I’m not so good at that either, especially if they hand me five or six books.

KAE signing Waupaca

The hardest signings of all are with kids. I know this is a special occasion. I want them to leave with a happy memory and a legible inscription, but sometimes I do better than others. Kids like to see what I’m writing and watch me sign my name. They crowd around, sometimes jostling the table and sending the pen in a direction I did not intend.

All this is not to complain. Far from it! I’ve had a dream come true, and I try to savor every moment. But if you happen to ask me to sign a book, please don’t mind if I need you to repeat your name, or if I write the wrong date by mistake. The story itself will be much more polished, I promise.


Darrell James said...

Kathleen- I can totally identify. After repetitively inscribing a number of books in a row, my brain-to-hand coordination suddenly goes to heck. I have botched a number of inscriptions because my hand had forgotten how to write.

Alan Orloff said...

I'm with you, too. Not only do I have trouble conversing and writing at the same time, but when I try to add "smiling," I really botch things up!

Deborah Sharp said...

Yow! Someone's handed you five or six books to sign??? Lucky you!
I'm with you on how hard it is to coordinate all the tasks, and still write. Add in math, if I'm selling my own books, and I'm a goner.

Beth Groundwater said...

Great post, Kathleen, and yes, I, too, have drawn those total blanks when good friends I've known for years ask me to sign a book and for the life of me, their name just doesn't come to mind. I think the excitement and adrenalin of being a "star" at a signing messes with your memory.

I use the trick of asking everyone to spell their names for me while I write them down on a pad of paper, too, saying that even though I know them, I want to make doubly sure I don't make a mistake on the inscription. That trick has saved me many times!

And I've learned that I can't talk while signing. I have to create a little bubble of silence while I sign, then refocus on the conversation with the person in front of me.

Kathleen Ernst said...

So glad to learn I'm not the only one challenged in this department!

Jessie Chandler said...

Great post and great idea, Kathleen! And, yes, Alan, it's really best if no one talks to me when I sign or you just never know what I might end up writing in their book because sometimes my hand writes what's coming out of my mouth. Thank can sometimes get quite interesting!

Jess Lourey said...

I can relate, Kathleen. I also struggle to come up with something original to write on each of them. Of course, before my first book was published, I would have paid to have such problems. :) Oy!

Vicki Doudera said...

You're totally on target, Kathleen. I just did a library talk Tuesday night in Brunswick, Maine -- really nice crowd of people. And I found that I had to just block out their wonderful comments while I inscribed books or I would have scribbled gibberish.

Maybe we only think we can multi-task (converse on the phone and drive, e.g.) Maybe no one can really do it and we (writers) are the only ones who truly know htsi. (oops I was doing my nails while commenting on your blog...)