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Where an Author Should Sign a Book–and Other Pithy Questions

Bethany Grenald of Bauman’s Rare Books responded to some of my questions about where authors should sign books and what makes a signature of value…

1. Is there a “proper” place for an author to sign a book? We’ve heard it should be on the same page where both the title and the publisher’s imprint are.

There’s no proper place to sign a book. Authors are relatively idiosyncratic when it comes to signing books. Some, such as Hemingway, tend to sign on the first page of white paper as you open the book. Some, such as Ian Fleming and Robert F. Kennedy, tend to sign on the endpaper, even if the endpaper is a colored piece of paper and you can’t see the signature very well. J.K. Rowling tends to sign on the title page. Some English authors, such as Patrick O’Brian, will cross out their own printed name on the title page, and sign their name below. Some authors will sign on the half title, which is the page before the title page that generally has just the title printed on it. Lately, when I have gone to book signings, there has generally been an assistant there who goes through the line and opens up each book to the preferred page (most commonly the title page) and puts a Post-it there, with any extra info the book owner wants the author to write, to make it easier on the author. Some authors will only sign their name and nothing else. It’s all a matter of personal preference. Some writers prefer to use a certain kind of pen. For example, both Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde almost always signed in purple ink.

2. What increases the value of a signature? Does personalization (like writing “To Jennifer”) increase or decrease the value? Does adding the date and location of the signing matter?

From the rare book dealer’s perspective, the more writing that is in a book, the better it is, because it means the author took a little extra time and care with the book. Signatures that are inscribed to a particular person are desirable as a result (like: “To Jennifer. Best, John Irving”). Even better is if something entertaining has been written. James Ellroy writes shocking and humorous phrases in many of the books he signs (“Slash! Rip! Gouge! Eviscerate! James Ellroy”) and some authors include doodles or the date. However, in the past 15 years or so, as the market in very recently published books has increased, many buyers have started to prefer books with NO recipient name, since it becomes obvious to others that it wasn’t signed by the author to you personally. So something neutral, like “best wishes” or the date, is better than an inscription that includes a name, from many buyers’ perspectives. It probably won’t sell for more money than a copy that just has the author’s signature, it’s just preferred, and therefore might sell more readily. Doodles generally enhance value, while an inscription to someone else makes the book a bit more difficult to sell. The most desirable books have interesting associations, like an inscription to the author’s friend, relative, or colleague.

3. Is there any other general information you can give us so that we approach signing in such a way to enhance the value of the book we’ve signed?

Keep the book, especially the dust jacket, in clean, as-new condition. People don’t want to pay a lot of money for a signed book if it’s not in good condition. Don’t write anything else in the book, like your name or a gift inscription to Aunt Sally.

4. Do only hardback books have value for collectors?

With modern books, generally, only the first printing of the first edition, hardcover, has value to a collector. In very rare cases, if the first printing came out in paperback only, it might have value. But if the author’s name isn’t James Joyce or Vladimir Nabokov, forget it. If the author is from the United Kingdom and you have bought the first American edition, then that will have lesser value for a collector, because people tend to collect the first edition from the writer’s country of origin.

5. If someone were to build a collection of “rare” books, how might he/she start? Do you have any information for a would-be collector?

In building a collection of rare books, I would suggest the novice start with the books he/she loves best, and have fun with it. Every region has a rare book fair at some point, so keep a look out for those and then go and walk around to see what’s out there. Pick your category of books you want to collect. Fiction in general? Science fiction? 1930s Detective fiction? Medicine? Nautical fiction? There’s a very good book collecting book called ABC for Book Collectors, by John Carter, that I recommend.

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