Fifty Bucks a Letter | Newberry

Fifty Bucks a Letter

I can recall only once being rebuffed by someone I asked for an autograph. She had a great deal of money in the bank and I thought it would be nice if I had a personally inscribed check from her. She turned me down. I was younger then, and didn’t understand yet that celebrities hate to be asked to provide the piece of paper to sign. I’ll know better next time.

To be fair, I am not the autograph hunter other people are. I tend to get autographs at signings, where MOST of the celebrities are there just waiting for someone to ask for an autograph, and are gracious about it. (I did go to a signing once where it turned out I was the only person there besides the store staff and the celebrity. I was so terrified that the celebrity would be desperate enough to want to talk to me that I fled without the autograph.) Other people, seeing a celebrity in public, will jump up and ask for a signature. I never do that, first of all because I think it’s unfair and second because I never recognize a celebrity out of context anyhow. People who did not give me autographs because I didn’t realize who they were until somebody jabbed me and asked “Did you see who that WAS?” include…well, why go into name-dropping if it’s about people I DIDN’T meet?

Anyway, nowadays I deal with autographed items people donate to the Book Fair, and asking for signatures is unnecessary. Once in a while, someone with a great deal of optimism will come up with ways to get autographs for the Book Fair. The plan to get Barbara Bush’s autograph did not go as planned (got a nice note from her secretary), the one to get Phil Jackson simply fizzled (I tried to hint that people at the height of athletic fame have all kinds of protocols), and Daniel Barenboim DID sign a program from his prodigy days, but the messenger fell so much in love with the item that she just gave us cash for it, so I never did get to see the signed version.

But one of the things I need to keep track of in this line of work is that certain authors are known as Hard Autographs. Some people honestly don’t like signing autographs, or become so famous that the crowd around them will not allow anyone to get near them with a pen. Alfred, Lord Tennyson tried building a high fence around his yard so people walking past his house wouldn’t demand he sign their books, and Robert Heinlein is said to have responded to request for autographs by saying, “Why, certainly. May I have a pint of your blood?” (Some fans noted that when he was signing at conventions, it was frequently a convention that happened to be having a blood drive as part of the event. So either blood donations were a cause of his or he just never knew it would one day be fashionable to reveal you’re a vampire.)

The Book Fair just received a book signed by someone who is not known for going around the world signing a lot of things. He has ten letters in his name; his autograph in a book goes for about five hundred dollars. My first thought was that I wish I could get paid at that rate. Then I realized that this celebrity isn’t going to see a penny of that five hundred, either. A number of athletes and actors will not sign, or do their best to ruin whatever it is they’re signing, because they feel you’re going to go out and resell the item for a profit. An author who was intensely serious about this was the often-banned fantasy author James Branch Cabell. Cabell was apparently emotionally scarred when his first couple of novels became collector’s items almost at once…because they were illustrated by Howard Pyle. He seems to have had a grudge against book collectors for the rest of his days, and wrote on several occasions about why he would NOT sign books for people. After all, he said, his publisher issued special signed, limited editions, which he DID sign and which he got paid for. Why, he demanded, should he undercut his own publisher and sign books for you, when he wasn’t going to get a percentage of what you sold the book for? It was a complete violation of any kind of business sense. (He WOULD make exceptions if his wife insisted he sign for a friend, which shows good sense in its own way.)

The result, of course, is that many of these people who refused to sign now have signatures worth much more than those of more accommodating celebrities. An unlimited signed edition of a Cabell is harder to find than the signed, limited ones. Maybe that was the plan all along.

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