“Who Do I Make This Out To?”

  • By Tara Laskowski
  • February 10, 2020

And should I even bother?


Every writer dreams of the day when they crack open a copy of their own book to sign it for a reader. It’s a cool part of a process that’s often fraught with rejection and worry, and it should definitely be enjoyed. Here — after many years of work and toil — is finally proof you’ve made it. You’re signing books!

As a writer, I’ve always had anxiety around signing my books. I worry that the messages I write are just silly or too earnest, too long or not long enough. I freeze sometimes when trying to sign a copy of a dear friend’s book, not being able to capture how much I love them in a tiny scribble. I worry about spelling people’s names wrong, or not remembering their names at all. (It’s happened! It keeps me up at night!)

Turns out, I’m not alone. I did an unscientific poll on social media about this topic, and many of my writer friends feel similarly. But I was also curious about readers’ perspectives: Do they care about signed books? Do they want messages, or do they just want a signature? What makes it special for them?

For some, the thrill of a signed book just isn’t, well, a thrill.

“I don’t feel much of a pull toward having writers sign my copies of their books. Just not sure what the autograph is supposed to do for me,” says Eric Gary Anderson. Others liked signed books from friends, but don’t care about strangers. “I almost never stand in line to meet a writer I don't know,” says Michael Sims.

But the majority of my friends love an autographed book.

“I have such beautiful sentiments from authors I admire,” says Frances Badgett. “Some draw, which is also very cool.”

Anjili Babbar loves signed books to the point of obsession. “I love special messages from authors I know, and I love finding signed books from booksellers. I love them so much that I often don’t crack the spines at all and instead read an electronic copy so the signed books can stay pristine.”

Readers also shared some of their personal favorite inscriptions, which reminded them of the moment they got the book signed or was just quirky or odd. “Sharon Olds wrote ‘1/4 1/4 1/4’ in my copy of Stag's Leap. It's my most prized possession,” says Christine Guaragno MacNaughton.

“Once I spoke with Ray Bradbury after a reading that happened to be on my birthday, but he was a little jet-lagged and accidentally wrote the wrong date,” says Jeff Fearnside. “I cherish that even more because I always remember our meeting so clearly every time I see that mistake.”

I, too, treasure my signed books, especially those from writers I know personally. They are little time capsules, for one, evoking fond memories of the event I was at when I got the book signed, or the interaction I had with the writer. The book feels more important somehow once it’s been signed.

I love that I can crack open my copy of The Magicians and remember the rainy evening when I walked with Lev Grossman and some other writers and friends to a cocktail event at a literary festival, and he gave me some gossip about an uber-famous writer I admire.

My signed copy of Steve Almond’s My Life in Heavy Metal reminds me of his reading many, many years ago when I was still a graduate student, still one of the best readings I’ve ever heard.

My favorite inscription of all is inside Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me, where she writes: “With thanks for the very memorable arrival experience.” I’d picked her up to take her to her reading, and we were running late due to DC traffic, leading to a moment where we ran up the down escalator to beat a massive crowd. This moment was the beginning of our friendship, and this book inscription is — like the woman herself — a treasure.

Signed books can also be a comfort when the writer is no longer with us. When news of Mary Higgins Clark’s passing came to light last week, my friend and book blogger Kristopher Zgorski posted a picture of Let Me Call You Sweetheart with Clark’s inscription to him: “Dear Kris: Thank you for being such a dedicated reader.”

He says though he has many books signed by Clark, that one is his favorite. “She always acknowledged to me that without readers, what she and others do would not matter,” he says.

And what do we dedicated readers do with our signed books? Some of us will keep them forever, adding more shelves to accommodate an ever-growing collection. Others will donate them for others to find their cryptic messages later in a library sale or used-book store (“Dear Cathy, We’ll always have Subway!”).

Or, perhaps, we can see the potential of a signed book in a different way: The money it’s worth.

As Ryan Hudson tweeted to me, “Gary Snyder signed my copy of [Jack Kerouac’s] The Dharma Bums at Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, around 1996. He signed it: ‘Japhy?’ I sold the book for food in 2013. It was delicious.”

Tara Laskowski is always happy to sign copies of her debut novel, One Night Gone, which is a finalist for a Lefty Award, an Agatha Award, and the Mary Higgins Clark Award. She is also the author of the short story collections Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons and Bystanders. She lives in Virginia.

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