Stephen King autograph on a Kindle

“Writers will begin signing e-books,” a headline promises at the web site TechEye. Er, wait a minute — then where are the writers going to put the pen?

But it turns out there’s a new technology — and also some other possibilities that I hadn’t thought of. For example, one PR professional suggested that instead of a signature, authors at a book-signing could pose for a digital photograph with all their fans who waited in line. (And yes, you could e-mail that photograph to your Kindle, where you could then access it from your home page.) And the photos could also be uploaded to Facebook or posted on weblogs — or even uploaded to your cell phone, so it’s next to the apps where you’re reading the author’s ebook!

Of course, it’s also possible to use a pen-shaped mouse to draw a digital signature onto the photograph, so the fans could still get their autograph after all. But according to TechEye, there’s an even more interesting possibility. A developer named Tom Waters teamed up with an IT contractor for NASA to create an application called “autography,” which captures a writer’s autograph on a digital blank page so that it can be inserted directly into ebooks! This could spread a new tradition throughout the world of ebooks, according to an insider for the publishing industry who was interviewed by the web site. “Autography has initially been developed as a iPad app which works with the iBookstore, although Waters says the final service will be device and format agnostic…”

This might be a better way to handle ebooks when authors are promoting their new releases at a bookstore. (I’ve already collected several stories about fans who asked the authors to simply sign the outside of their Kindles.) Last year at a Manhattan bookstore, this happened when humorist David Sedaris was promoting a new collection of essays called “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” — and he came up with the perfect inscription. “Mr. Sedaris, in mock horror, wrote, ‘This bespells doom’,” the New York Times reported, adding that the event “may have offered a glimpse of the future.” When the Times contacted Sedaris later, the author revealed that actually, he’d already signed “at least five” different Kindles — as well as “a fair number of iPods…for audio book listeners!”

William Gibson, the famous science fiction author, also experienced the same phenomenon — during a special book-signing at the Microsoft campus. (Gibson acknowledged to the fan that this was a first, and then autographed their Kindle with big, black letters using a permanent marker.) Later, the fan discovered that William Gibson was also talking about the incident on Twitter. “Signed very first Kindle at Microsoft,” Gibson announced to his fans. “Actually, *touched* very first Kindle.

“Appealing unit, IMO,” added the science fiction writer.

Gibson’s new book ultimately became Amazon’s best-selling science fiction book in September, and it’s possible that the extra publicity helped. It’s fun to think about this as two worlds colliding — that it’s the virtual world of ebooks confronting the real-world physicality of printed books (and their authors). But while this ritual may be undergoing simple changes, it could offer hints about something larger.

One fan even confessed to the New York Times that she actually felt embarrassed as she’d approached the author, because “if you’re asking for your Kindle to be signed, you’re taking the bookstore out of the process!”

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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson Kindle cover

My friend Patrick is a professional writer, and over the last 10 years he’s lovingly crafted several special and unusual stories which were eventually included in print-book collections. He’s settled into a cozy life of reading and writing, and he now eyes the Kindle very suspiciously. When Amazon announced their ebooks were outselling print books, Patrick was skeptical.

“Yeah, but those ebooks are all free,” he’d said quickly — maybe just a little too quickly. “All that proves is that Amazon gives away millions of free ebooks every day. And then they claim that that somehow proves their popularity over hardcover-format books…which you still have to pay for!” Patrick was very emphatic, and kept coming up with more challenges to the sales figures for ebooks. “Amazon’s statistics are rigged!” he continued. “Amazon deliberately leaves out paperback books for their calculations!”

I re-visited Amazon’s press release, which specifies that “Free Kindle books are excluded and if included would make the number even higher… Over the past month, for every 100 hardcover books Amazon.com has sold, it has sold 180 Kindle books.” But I still had to wonder. Did Amazon artificially lower the number of print-edition books that were sold, in order to claim ebooks were enjoying a greater popularity? I love my Kindle, so I’d had to ask myself: did I latch onto that statistic to justify my own excitement about this new way of reading? Or had Patrick rejected the statistic to justify his own personal biases? Your perspective is probably different if you’ve spent the last 10 years selling your own writing in printed books…

But the day we had that conversation, I discovered the Kindle had reached a milestone. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo had sold one million copies — the first ebook ever to do so. That’s not a free ebook. It retails for $7.14, and was an international best-seller. They’re even making a movie adaptation starring Daniel Craig (the actor who plays James Bond) as protagonist Mikael Blomkvist, after considering George Clooney, Johnny Depp, and Brad Pitt. I’d like to ask the book’s author, Stieg Larsson, what he thought of his new success — but unfortunately he died nearly six years ago. Ironically, he never saw a Kindle, and probably never even read an ebook.

But it turns out that Stieg’s Millenium Trilogy isn’t the only ebook that’s enjoying huge (paid) sales. PC World notes that two more authors “are quickly closing in” on the Kindle’s “million club” — Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, and James Patterson. Two other authors have already passed the 500,000 mark for sales — Charlaine Harris and Nora Roberts. And PC World speculates that actually, the first ebook with one million downloads may have been the free edition of a Sherlock Holmes mystery by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

But best of all, there’s another author who’s joined them in selling their ebooks — Patrick. Even though he’s skeptical about Amazon’s sales figures, my friend discovered that digital publishing surprisingly easy, so he’s decided to give it a try.

It all reminds me of one of my all-time favorite stories about the Kindle. Author David Sedaris was appearing at a New York City bookstore to read from his new book, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames.” The audience enjoyed the reading, and lined up afterwards for the traditional book-signing ritual. But one man, waiting patiently, had a surprise for Mr. Sedaris. The author looked up to see a smiling man named Marty, who wanted the author to autograph…his Kindle.

Sedaris thought for a moment, then smiled and took up his pen, and added a clever inscription.

“This bespells doom.”


Though I see now that even the book that Sedaris was promoting is available on the Kindle.

And click here if you’d like to read Stieg Larsson’s million-selling ebook, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Or buy The Complete Sherlock Holmes for 99 cents.