While some bookstores have traditionally specialized in signed first editions of rare books, a number of bookstores are finding success with signed first editions of current titles. “It’s a significant portion of sales,” said Kelly Justice, owner of Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Va. She does so well with exclusive personalized copies of Maggie Stiefvater’s books that the home page of her website (fountainbookstore.com) features a photo of Stiefvater with the tag line, “Looking for me?”
Justice isn’t alone. In fall 2011, Books of Wonder in New York City sold 1,100 signed copies of Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star online and another 200 in the store. Last summer Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., received 5,000 preorders of Neil Gaiman’s The Deep End of the Ocean. And just last month Lemuria Books in Jackson, Miss., moved over 1,000 copies of Greg Isle’s Natchez Burning in the first week of its release, through both preorders and a six-hour in-store signing. The book was also the April selection for Lemuria’s 31-year-old First Editions Club, which customers join to receive a recently released signed hardcover first edition—and occasionally two—every month.
Newer stores, too, such as the seven-year-old Word Books in Brooklyn, N.Y., which recently opened a branch in Jersey City, N.J., have benefitted from offering personalized copies of books by local authors like E. Lockhart (We Were Liars) and Sarah MacLean (Rules of Scoundrels series) through their websites. Although most of the promotion for signed forthcoming titles, such as Cory Doctorow’s graphic novel In Real Life (Oct.), illustrated by Jen Wang, or Emma Staub’s The Vacationers (May 29), takes place online, a copy of Staub’s novel is also prominently displayed on the front counter of the Brooklyn shop. “The bulk of the orders are coming from fans,” said Word events director Jenn Northington. “That’s one of the real beauties of the bookish community online; it brings fans and authors together in a way that wasn’t previously possible.”
“It’s good for the store, and it’s good for customers,” noted Maggie Stevenson, Lemuria’s community liaison, about contemporary signed first editions. She regards the store’s first-edition book club, which picked Stuart Dybek’s Paper Lantern: Love Stories for June, as a “great” way to develop a library of books that will gain value over time. In addition to the designated book-club titles, Lemuria acquires as many signed books for its inventory as possible. “That’s how we compete in our market,” said Stevenson, referring not just to online competitors like Amazon. Books-A-Million is directly across the street, and Barnes & Noble just a few minutes away.
BookPeople in Austin, Tex., has recently begun looking for ways to capture more preorders for its Signed First Club, according to publicist Julie Wernersbach. Last fall BookPeople was one of 20 independents selected to presell Maureen Johnson’s The Madness Underneath. For Wernersbach, what made the campaign work were the vinyl stickers that Johnson made for stores to give out as presents with orders. “Everybody wanted the stickers,” she said. BookPeople is currently taking preorders for several books by Texas authors, and it is the exclusive venue for personalized preorders of Sarah Bird’s Above the East China Sea, which releases May 27.
Fountain’s Justice attributed the success of her store’s signed books to the fact that she and her staff give online customers the same attention that they give to retail customers. “You wouldn’t let a customer stand in front of you for two days,” she said. “You owe your [online customers] your respect. I can’t imagine not giving the same experience. Otherwise, robots could do it.” To personalize online shopping at Fountain, she encourages customers to send a photo of themselves with the book when it arrives. The tactic seems to be working: Fountain has a number of repeat customers, including bloggers who order personalized books for their fans.
“Our Internet business is very much skewed to signed first editions,” said Elaine Petrocelli, co-owner of the Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., who labels them “a significant piece of business.” In addition to the store’s decade-old Signed First Editions Club, Book Passage actively promotes the books signed at the 800-plus author events it holds each year. “We don’t guarantee that every book we pick [for the club] wins the Booker,” said Petrocelli. “We just guarantee that it’s a book you’re going to enjoy.”
Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., which just sent out its 47th Indiespensable first-edition selection, is nearing its subscription cap, according to spokesman Michal Drannen, who declined to disclose the number of subscribers. Unlike some stores that require a full-year commitment, a Powell’s subscriber can choose one installment or stay on for life. Powell’s also promotes preorders for signed editions of books by authors who visit its stores.
Signed books account for a majority of online sales at Books of Wonder in N.Y.C., along with its Oz titles. “We’ve been doing this since the early 1980s,” said store owner Peter Glassman, who points out just how labor-intensive selling signed books can be. One or two booksellers need to open the books and help with the signing. Then the signed titles have to be packed and shipped on the on-sale date.
Glassman is one of several booksellers PW spoke with who prefers not to carry presigned first editions direct from publishers. “One of the things we’ve learned,” said Glassman, “is [that] people don’t like bookplates or tipped-in extra sheets. They want the regular edition signed by the author.” However, authors and publishers continue to experiment with ways to satisfy collectors. Two years ago John Green made headlines when he signed the entire 150,000-copy first printing of The Fault in Our Stars. This fall, Scholastic plans to launch its new middle-grade series Magisterium, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, by offering signed copies of the first volume, The Iron Trial (Sept. 9), in nine-copy floor displays available to interested booksellers.