Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 20 Dec 2021

The romance of a book signed by the author

Go to any shop or online website that specialises in ‘collectable’ books and you’ll quickly discover that, on the second hand market, finding one that is signed by the author always comes with a premium price. Of course, the book and the signee make all the difference to just how much extra you’ll need to spend to get something touched and inscribed by the writer. The desirability of author inscribed books presumably fires the imagination of readers because it’s hard to get hold of anything that is closer, materially or spiritually, to someone you might admire.

Opinions vary considerably on whether it’s more desirable to have the signature of the author and nothing else or to also have a dedication to the reader too. Most dealers I know prefer the unadorned signature but as a collector I often prefer the author to include a dedication to me – after all, I wanted the autograph and I went to the bother of attending whichever event brought us together. But then I’m thinking as a collector rather than a dealer – having a book dedicated ‘With best wishes to Terry’ is probably harder to sell to someone who doesn’t share my name.

In recent years publishers who understand the draw of the signed book have started including the author’s signature on signed labels inserted remotely – presumably by an underpaid lackey in the publisher’s basement – so that the writer can knock off hundreds of these signatures without touching any of the books. These are, naturally, even lower down the collector’s wish-list than the signature that is accompanied by a dedication. These inserted signed labels are often referred to as ‘tipped in’ and contrast unfavourably with the book signed in person by the author which carry the description ‘flat signed’.

Many publishers now issue a limited number of new edition books already signed. This is a simple ploy to maximise sales of the hardback and to feed the collector’s market for popular and well established authors. It is also a tactic used  to rouse some interest in new and emergent writers who might otherwise struggle to catch the interest of readers who are confronted with swathes of new editions every week.

Clearly a signature in the book of a well-known, dead author is more desirable than the contemporary signature of a modern author who may go on to sign countless numbers of their books. Death naturally means that there is suddenly an absolute limit on the amount of books that can be signed and, if the author is highly regarded but was also not given to signing books as a matter of course, the price people will pay for these examples escalates exponentially.

If, on top of being famous and dead, the author is well networked with other famous names, a book dedicated by one author to another – or maybe to a famous publisher or agent – is the thing everyone is searching for. These are usually called ‘association copies’ -  for example, Scott Fitzgerald dedicating a signed inscription in one of his books to Ernest Hemingway is the kind of thing that is a magic ticket for collectors and can increase the value of a book disproportionately.

Over the years I have accumulated quite a number of signed books – many of them by attending book festivals and meeting authors at events. Now and again, on the second hand market, I have been lucky enough to pick up signed copies – but, I must hasten to add, none that you’d describe as signed by literary ‘aristocracy’. With possibly, tantalisingly, one that I cannot verify.

Several years ago I purchased a copy of George Orwell’s ‘Critical Essays’ published as a second impression, with dust jacket, in 1946. I paid under £10 for it and was in most ways unremarkable. However, a little later on I had cause to slip the dust jacket off and on the inside front board of the book was the following inscription:

“With love and best wishes on your birthday


Well, you can imagine just how intrigued this made me. Was this a George Orwell inscription or just one of those coincidences where the giver of the gift just happened to be a George too?

I have always suspected – and continue to suspect – that the latter is the truth of this but having examined samples of Orwell’s handwriting, there are some close similarities . But, in truth, perhaps not enough to suggest a clear match. So I remain in possession of a book that might, just might, carry the signature of my favourite and most formative author – but then again I might not. But the romance is such that I actually prefer living with the doubtful possibility than knowing for sure that the George who signed this book was in fact the local butcher, civil servant or estate agent.

Sadly, whenever there might be money to be made from cultural artefacts, crime is never far behind and the forging of famous signatures has been a blight on the collector’s market ever since it became clear that a well networked signature and dedication could add thousands to a book. So beware of scammers and always try and establish the back story and provenance of a signed book if you’re tempted to part with serious money. If you go to a festival or author event and you get your books signed, hold onto the ticket, slip it inside the book – it will help reassure the next buyer that this isn’t just another fake.

Like all collecting, it’s a minefield that’s best negotiated by the knowledgeable, so if you’re going to venture into that field, do your homework; understanding what you want to collect and being very familiar with the subject is always your best protection against making mistakes.

Oh, and by the way, we all make mistakes…


Terry Potter

December 2021