How Do You Sign an eBook?

How do you sign an ebook? It’s a common argument that comes up in the print vs. digital debate: printed books provide a tangible, physical artifact for author book signings.

GalleyCat (“Authors Signing eReaders Instead of Books”) mentions that ebook signing is becoming slightly more en vogue with the eReader crowd. But I don’t know. On the one hand, it’s an amusing idea. And yet, having a Kindle or iPad signed is something different, primarily because the author isn’t really just signing that single ebook. To put it in non-digital terms, an apt comparison would be like having an author sign your bookshelf — the eReader happens to contain a particular ebook, but you don’t associate the existence of that ereading device with a single ebook. Or, maybe it’s just me.

Other intermediary solutions presently exist, such as the Sony Reader Touch Edition which has a stylus for writing in a digital sort of way on the ebook itself. The New York Times (“Would You Sign My Kindle?”) brings news of Autography, a new app that provides a seemingly more elegant solution for ebook signings —

“Here’s how an Autography eBook “signing” will work: a reader poses with the author for a photograph, which can be taken with an iPad camera or an external camera. The image immediately appears on the author’s iPad (if it’s shot with an external camera, it’s sent to the iPad via Bluetooth). Then the author uses a stylus to scrawl a digital message below the photo. When finished, the author taps a button on the iPad that sends the fan an e-mail with a link to the image, which can then be downloaded into the eBook.”

It’s a neat idea and seems like a clever way of how to replicate that author/reader interaction from printed books, to ebooks. I’m actually quite curious how this will work out in practice. From the Autography website:

“Authors sign a temporary signature page until the customer has completed the online (or in store) purchase. The retailer’s online store merges the autograph page into the ebook and transmits to the customer’s eReader device.

After purchasing and downloading the ebook the author is notified electronically of the customer’s desire for a personal saluation. The customer can request a generic greeting or something specific, perhaps a birthday or anniversary dedication to a loved one, which the author then compeletes at a convenient time. The personal salutation is then inserted into a new copy of the ebook and transmitted to the customer’s device. The signed copy then replaces the customer’s originally downloaded ebook and they are notified that the ebook has now been signed.”

All of this brings up a good question, doesn’t it? What is that we care about in a book signing? Is it about the autograph itself and its ready eBayability? Or is it about what the signed book represents, that moment in time and the experience of a personal interaction with a favorite author? If the latter is the case, the iPad picture-taking (and subsequent Facebook-sharing) functionality from Autography could be interesting.

On the one hand, that digital signature could have a more robust virtual afterlife, making for easier transfer to different formats. It could make “virtual” author events easier and more affordable for smaller local venues. On the other hand, I don’t think I’m being too old-fashioned to think that there is something pleasantly romantic about the act of committing ink to paper, both for the writer and for the receiver of that writerly inscription.

Related: From The Atlantic’s Picture of the Day (“Obama Signs iPad”). This appears to be documentary evidence of the first Presidential iPad autograph*, since “the President doesn’t sign autographs along the ropeline because pens can be used as a weapon.” That’s a pretty cool souvenir, I have to say.

* Hey, Obama iPad autographs must be a new fad. (“Obama Signs Another iPad in Europe”)


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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