Can You Autograph an E-Book?

What's to come?
Oct. 16 2013 8:15 AM

Jonathan Franzen’s Worst Nightmare

Apple’s exploring ways to autograph e-books. What does that even mean?

Novelist/essayist Jonathan Franzen attends panel 'An Exchange - Is Techonology Good for Culture?' part of The New Yorker Festival 2013 on October 5, 2013 in New York City.
Will you sign my e-book, Jonathan Franzen?

Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for The New Yorker

To many devoted readers, bookstores, and collectors, a book is good, but a signed book is best—and the absence of a title page to autograph is just another reason for purists to eschew those newfangled e-readers. A signed copy of a favorite book can be intensely meaningful to an avid fan. And in the world of rare-book collecting, something inscribed by the author can catapult a book’s price into the stratosphere.

But apparently Apple hopes that this charm of print publishing may have a digital equivalent after all.

The website Patently Apple recently posted the details of a proposed Apple e-book patent. The method would allow two e-readers to communicate, so that the publisher or the owner of the content could create a special autograph page in the reader’s device, ready to accept an image of the author’s autograph. The inscription could be transmitted when in the vicinity of an author at a book event or in a special online forum. Apple’s patent would also offer a certificate of authenticity and give readers the chance to add a photo or video of themselves with the author to the page.

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There aren’t too many sacred cows left in publishing, and it’s unlikely that the industry will go to battle with Apple in defense of the real-world author autograph. Nevertheless, the commodification of this one tradition seems like it won’t offer Apple many rewards. Although the e-book market in the United States is showing signs of maturity, digital migration has leveled off, and it’s doubtful that e-book signing capabilities will be the carrot that attracts the last remaining print loyalists. That’s because an inky signature has a certain personal quality that won’t translate easily to digital.

And naturally, for Apple to roll out this new capability, they’d need to have authors on board.

David Rees, a comedian and the author of How to Sharpen Pencils, says that he’d sign a reader’s e-book to be polite. But he thinks Apple’s patent sounded like a debasement of what an author’s signature is meant to be—the meeting of a reader and author in real space. “It sounds so sad,” he said “because they’re trying to figure out how to reproduce the physical authority that real books have. Next there will be a button for that musty old book smell.”

And how eager will bookstore proprietors—who usually host signings—be to accommodate the bells and whistles of a medium that has played a part in undermining their business?

According to Lacey Dunham, marketing director at Washington, D.C.’s Politics and Prose, it might depend on the retailer. If Amazon’s Kindle e-books were to take on this capability, the bookstore would have to have an internal conversation about whether they would allow Kindle e-books to be signed in their stores, she said. That’s because of the uniquely fraught relationship Amazon has with brick-and-mortar bookstores. But bookstores may be amenable to working with Apple, which has 20 percent of the U.S. e-book market.

In the world of rare and antiquarian book-selling, the question goes beyond the author-fan relationship: A signed book can be immensely valuable. Yet according to Allan Stypek, rare-book appraiser and owner of Second Story Books in Washington, D.C, the idea of a signed e-book is artificial—nothing more than a facsimile. It just won’t have the historical or literary value that a physical signature has and would appeal only to those seeking to be completest about a particular author.

“I wouldn’t categorically refuse to handle an exclusive, signed e-book,” he said, “but it’s unlikely, unless I found it was a justifiable commodity in the market place.”

E-book retailers are exploring ways to let readers sell “used” e-books. But the truth is that you never really own a digital title—you’re more or less leasing it. These blurred lines have produced some horror stories, like Amazon disappearing an e-book copy of Orwell’s 1984 or when Apple was uncomfortable with the male nudity in a graphic novel of Ulysses. And in its patent description, Apple doesn’t detail a means of transferring ownership of the autograph, ensuring that any attempt to resell an autographed e-book, in a market that barely exists anyway, will be doubly difficult.

But if you wait for hours to have Jhumpa Lahiri sign your copy of The Lowland, wouldn’t you want your rights to her personal inscription to be a little more permanent? And what happens if you decide to dump your e-reader and change to a new device—does the autograph move with you? Or when Amazon “bricks” your Kindle for transgressing their terms and conditions, will you lose that meaningful signature, too?

By all means, e-retailers are free to experiment with additions to their still fledgling medium. As Dunham said, “A signed book is not a concept that [a bookstore] owns. There are lots of things that an e-retailer can do, but they cannot replicate everything that a bricks and mortar store does, it’s just not possible.”

And should e-retailers even want to?

Apple’s patent illustrates just how surprisingly unimaginative e-book and e-reader retailers have been over the past few years—attempting to replicate nearly every feature of a book’s physical incarnation, just a little more portably and with a little less permanence. There have been some strong examples of enhanced e-books, like Mark Z. Danielewski’s The 50-Year Sword, and there’s talk of creating what could be a new and unique form of storytelling. So far, though, e-retailers have displayed a strong inclination toward copying publishing’s more dusty traditions, but without the charm.

Most people that come in to have a book signed seek that brief relationship with the author, Dunham told me. "The decision readers will have to make in the end is what they will connect to the most—something signed, visible on their shelf or a signed copy they cannot see on their e-reader."

Of course, Apple may never use its patent, but it might be better off if it left this one thing to the world of pen and paper. The future of digital publishing would be more exciting if they didn’t simply take all the traditions of print as their template, and tried something slightly more innovative. After all, if you really want his autograph, you can always just get Jonathan Franzen to sign the cold, hard plastic of your e-reader for posterity.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

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