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The Art of Forged Signatures

What one forgery scam can tell us about the tradition of author signatures-and where we go from here. This week's column comes...



What one forgery scam can tell us about the tradition of author signatures-and where we go from here.


This week's column comes from one of those kooky headlines you come across while you're on your way to check your account balance: "Exeter mag gets federal prison term for book-signatures scam," read the headline. I had to click.

Forest R. Smith III, 48, of Wister Way, was convicted of forging the signatures of famous authors and selling them on eBay. He managed to swindle over 400 people during a six-year period. Smith chose bestselling and literary authors to counterfeit, including Truman Capote, Michael Crichton, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Anne Rice, and Tom Wolfe. He was sentenced to 33 months in jail.

Dastardly, of course, but kind of clever, too. Apparently police were tipped off by "someone in the book-selling field" who noticed a buyer purchasing first editions and then reselling those same books shortly thereafter, this time as signed first editions.

Finding out how Vonnegut and Capote signed their names is not be hard, as a few Google strokes prove, but Smith apparently went to the trouble of obtaining authentic documents with the signatures of each author on it, and made ink stamps for each. To pull off the scam, he also needed to know who were collectible authors and enough about first editions to make the first eBay purchases before he flipped them.

There is something old-world and charming about this crime. As a sometimes collector of first editions myself, I understand the allure of a signed Norman Mailer at auction on eBay: Maybe all the big-time booksellers missed this one and I actually stand a chance. It is also somewhat comforting that book scams could matter enough to merit several years in jail.

The future of author signatures is uncertain, however; it seems unlikely that the tradition of authors signing books for readers will continue in an e-book future, after all. We have already seen the invention of the LongPen, which Margaret Atwood uses to alleviate the long lines at book signings. With the LongPen, authors can sign their books while lying in bed, and do not need to tromp off to an actual bookstore to be presented copies of their by actual, grubby readers. With this handy new device, "the distance between signing parties becomes irrelevant. LongPen™ transmits an original signature via a secure network-instantly."

But for many, "the distance between the signing parties" is exactly what we want to shrink. What we want from a signed book is the actual living breathing body of the author leaving a trace on our copy. Increasing the distance, as with the LongPen, is a crime of its own-though not one punishable by the courts.

But while the author signature may be in peril, intimacy between authors and readers is not. In fact, the future of literature may be about closing the distance between the people on either side of the book, as it were. Authors are becoming more involved in their own self-promotion, putting themselves out there in ways previously deemed unseemly. You can follow your favorite novelist on Twitter, or read their blogs, or become a fan of their books on Facebook.

Some forward-thinking publishing types are working to further reduce the distance between author and reader. Cursor is a new venture by maverick indie publisher Richard Nash. Cursor is trying to group together readers with writers, amateurs with professionals. Cursor will create memberships that will allow readers to have "access to established authors online and in person," as well as offer established writers and readers both professional and peer editing and advice. Or as they put it, they are "Transforming the social contract of publishing by restoring the writer-reader relationship to its true equilibrium"

In other words, in the future we will feel less longing for signed first editions, at least by recent authors, because we will already feel close to the author, to the originating intelligence behind the book. Smith's ingenious crime will become only more quaint in retrospect. We will have to invent new literary rituals to satisfy readers and fans, and new liteary crimes, so that confidence men and forgers can keep making marvelous headlines.

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