Pleased To Meet You, Hope You Write Your Name: A Confused Rant On Autographs

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 15.678% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

As someone who’s starting to get requests for autographs, I have to admit they puzzle me.  I’m not sure what an autograph is supposed to represent.
I mean, let me tell you that I have the entire Sandman trade paperback series scattered throughout my basement, a series I quite enjoyed.  I was also lucky enough to spend a week in Neil Gaiman’s company at Clarion.  And my friends routinely ask: “Why in God’s name didn’t you have him sign your books?”
I didn’t see a point.  Either I know Neil enough well enough to have him wave “hullo” to me at conventions, or I don’t.  If I know him that well, the signature is superfluous.  And if I don’t, well…
…there’s another author who I also spent a week learning from.  When the workshop was over, so was our relationship.  I’ve seen him/her at conventions at least six times since then, and despite a happy wave s/he has never acknowledged me once.  The single time I attempted to start up a conversation with him/her made it painfully obvious that s/he had bigger fish to fry than me.  Which is fine!  Not every teacher/student relationship needs to end in a happy acquaintanceship.  I paid my money, and got my value; series ended.
But I could have had his/her signature on a book, too.  It would have been a cold, sad thing, a timestamp to say, “We interacted here.”  Yet if that person doesn’t want to interact with me now, then what does that signature prove?  A mere co-location in time and space, coupled with a societal obligation to scrawl their name on a page.  That’s really not that much.
Yet despite the difference in our post-workshop interactions, both Neil and Unnamed Author would be a signature in a book.  And if the autograph is that useless in measuring how I know them, why have it?
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve asked for autographs myself, mostly as an excuse to make feeble conversation with someone I admired.  That’s something I understand, that need to have some reason to approach your Big Damn Writing Hero.  And it’s certainly a thrill to have a memory that you met someone whose writing helped to shape who you are.  Here’s the evidence that you had thirty seconds in the presence of your hero!  Wonderful.  What a way to stimulate fond reminiscences.  Because good authors will not just sign your books – they’ll look you in the eyes, ask a question, establish a brief connection so that for a moment, you feel like they were aware of your presence and let you take that home with the book and their name in it.
The autographs themselves, however, are just this weird dross.  An afterthought.  I’m always puzzled by people who show off their autographed books proudly, as if the signature was worthwhile in and of itself.  And there are autograph-hounds who patrol conventions, looking to get signature after signature, just plopping the book down in front of you as though this was some onerous task they have to get through.  “Just sign there, don’t make it out to anyone,” they say, thumbing to the right place, valuing your scribbled name over the potential time of interacting with you, then half-turning away before you’re even done.
I don’t get it.  I’m not bashing it – hey, if it makes you happy, it’s two seconds of my time, I can do it all day.  I just don’t get the idea that a signature is worthy in and of itself.  I’m the sort of person who’s of the opinion that an autograph isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on – what matters is the moments you have with people, commemorative or not.
Thinking the ink is more important than the smile just strikes me as being very, very odd.


  1. Sarah
    May 22, 2012

    In the Fine Arts, artists frequently sign their work; it’s a way of saying “yes, I made that and I’m proud of it”. To me, getting a signature on a comic (especially the original pages), book, or DVD cover serves the same purpose: it lets its creator – the artist – sign their work which makes it feel more completed to me. It’s like owning a painting instead of a print of the painting.
    Without question, interacting with the artist (whatever the medium) carries more weight than the signature, but getting their signature also means that when the interaction is over I’m left with a work of art that no longer feels mass produced.
    Then again, maybe I just have too many friends with MFAs 😉

  2. Mishell Baker
    May 22, 2012

    I get books signed entirely for the future monetary value. I also coax writers I truly have a relationship with to write more than their names. I have some books from Mark Lawrence, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Robert Crais that are more like saved greeting cards than books, they wrote such nice things in them.
    But mostly I like to collect signed first editions just because when the time comes for my estate sale, they’ll be worth more to my heirs than they would be unsigned, especially (contrary to popular belief) due to the personalization on most of them. Personalization makes the book that much more unique, and therefore that much more valuable.
    Callous? Perhaps. But I’m like that.

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