Ian McMillan: Charity shop? Me?

A man once came along to one of my writing workshops clutching a manuscript for a novel that, he said, 'would be the blockbuster that knocked the block of all the other blockbusters'. He wasn't lacking in confidence and he certainly had a very good turn of phrase: when I asked him what sort of style he wrote in, he replied 'I'm waving from the guard's van of the avant-garde' which is a phrase I admit I've used since.

Ian McMillan

He was reluctant to show me the book, and I didn’t mind, because it looked to be about a thousand pages and I didn’t want my block busting before I had my tea. To engage him further in conversation, I asked which part of being a published writer he was looking forward to most, and he answered without hesitation: “The book signings”. Bearing in mind that the book hadn’t come out yet, that was a bold claim but as I hinted he had plenty of front and quite a bit of side.

Ah, the book signing! Some writers love doing them, some take on the task with a reluctance that borders on the fanatical. I enjoy doing them, I admit, because I’m gregarious and I like meeting people and writing in their books.

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It’s an odd ritual, though. There are two types of book signings, the one in the bookshop and the one after the gig. After the gig I stand by a table of books and really the event is simply a continuation of the conversation that’s been going on with the audience all the way through the show.

In the bookshop you’re a little more isolated. You sit under a huge photograph of yourself and somehow it is as though the photo is more real than you are. People stare at you. A queue forms and you sign books and chat but your (well, my) eye is always caught by the people who stare. They look at you as though they know you from somewhere. Somebody mouths the words “Is it that Gervase Phinn?” to their mate. Somebody shakes their head sadly as though sitting at a table signing books isn’t a proper job for a grown man to be doing, although I think personalising a purchase is a job that carries great responsibility.

The person who buys the book has a responsibility too. I once signed a book for someone called (this isn’t her real name) Jane Jones. I put “To Jane Jones, all the best, Ian McMillan”. Five years later I found Jane’s purchase in a charity shop. I was, more or less, aghast. I bought it for a quid. I’d met Jane at a couple of writing events and I knew the firm she worked for, so I signed the book again: “Hello Jane. How are you? All the best, Ian McMillan” and I posted it off to the firm.

The moral is, and I hope the man who wanted to sign his own book when it came out knows this, if you don’t like the book, don’t give it to a charity shop. Keep it. You never know who’s going to buy it.

Happy signing!