Electronic Autographs: Addressing a Drawback of Modern Social Media?

more than half of people died before 53 in the middle ages? at least they weren't on twitter | Grumpy Cat 1

Many of us crave interaction with the authors of our favorite books. We “follow” them on Twitter, “like” them on Facebook, read their blogs, write them emails, and/or maybe, just maybe in these digital times, even send them a handwritten letter. Remember the days when the U.S. Postal Service delivered more than bad news (as certified letters always are), bills, and junk mail?

Well, obviously, those days are largely gone. An increasing portion of our interactions occurs through our laptops, cell phones, and tablets, rather than by face-to-face communication.

By now, most of us are familiar with the arguments against these forms of communication. An example of such a rant came last month from Jonathan Franzen, a recurring real-life “Chicken Little.”* In a dense essay called “What’s Wrong with the Modern World?,” Franken makes several questionable statements, including a dubious analogy between Twitter and cigarettes as he longs for the “steadiness” of being age 53 in the High Middle Ages (forgetting, for a moment, that most people who made it out of childhood were dead by age 53, often by way of The Crusades, depending on where you lived during that time).** Nevertheless, his point isn’t as easy to dismiss as his roundabout way of getting there: our reliance on modern technology does indeed have its drawbacks.

To Franzen, writing from the perspective of a traditionally published author of literary fiction, some of these drawbacks include:

the physical book goes on the endangered-species list … responsible book reviewers go extinct …  independent bookstores disappear … literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion … the Big Six publishers get killed and devoured by Amazon…

As a reader and “amateur writer,” as someone called me recently, some of Franzen’s concerns don’t bother me as much as they bother him. Others on his list do, such as the disappearance of independent bookstores and the growing power of a single for-profit company, Amazon. Another possible drawback is the decrease in “face to face” interactions, which could have implications on our ability to empathize and sympathize with other people and to understand the repercussions of our actions.

As a perpetual optimist, despite my tendency to complain, I assume that we will be able to address whatever drawbacks technological innovation throws our way without returning to the Middle Ages. The answers could come from more technological innovation, more consumer-friendly judges, and better laws, particularly in the area of anti-trust so that we don’t have to fear what Franzen calls “the human and cultural costs of Amazonian hegemony.” Let’s not forget, though, that five of the six entities Franzen sees as important for defeating Amazon’s dominance had illegally conspired with Apple to restrain trade. Collusive behavior is dangerous whether it’s to keep prices up to maintain the old order or to keep prices artificially low to usher in a new order. Substituting a single-company monopoly for a multi-company monopoly is no improvement.

Over the last two weeks, Apple made the news again for filing an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to patent technology that will allow authors to sign e-books. As I understand the application, Apple claims that its autographing system takes the current available technology a step further by allowing authors to sign fans’ e-books while their devices are within “a coverage area capable of communicating” with each other. So, with Apple’s system, fans can, for example, go to a book signing, meet their favorite author, and receive a personalized message on their e-book that has been authenticated as truly coming from the author.

This technology appears to further legitimize e-books while also encouraging a direct, face-to-face interaction between authors and fans. It may also increase the numbers of people stopping at their local bookstores and libraries for events.

E-book autographs aren’t new. A more remote way of doing it than Apple proposes is available on Authorgraph. I’ve never tried this service, but based on the descriptions I’ve read, I’ve gathered that readers can browse the authors willing to provide electronic signatures (Jonathan Franzen isn’t on the list) and request a handwritten autograph, which arrives in a PDF format. This is similar to how fans of yore sent letters to authors in an effort, much to author E.B. White’s dismay, to get to know the man or woman “behind the book” (in some cases, the response was nothing more than a form completed by the celebrity’s family member or employee).

E-book autographs are different in other ways, though. Some hardcopies of celebrity signatures sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars, but that can’t happen when the signature is on a device/item that the fan doesn’t even own. We license our ebooks, rather than own them, and to the extent the electronic handwritten signature is saved somewhere else on the device, the lifespan of such devices likely isn’t the same as a paper book. Will Apple’s authentication still work in fifty years when today’s college students try to give an autographed copy of their favorite college book to a grandchild just starting as a freshman? I have my doubts.

So, for those electronic autographs that come after face-to-face encounters or are at least accompanied by personalized messages, the real value is purely sentimental. It reminds us of a positive experience we’ve had—a brush with a celebrity—which is valuable in the hearts and minds of many. It may make a seemingly impersonal modern world feel a little more human.

Image: Franzen’s words inspired my husband to create a grumpy cat meme.

*Many people wrote about Franzen last month (see, for example, Critical Margins).

**Franzen writes, “Maybe people will get as sick of Twitter as they once got sick of cigarettes.” Well, only the latter actually makes you sick. A figurative “cancer” isn’t the same as a literal one. Franzen also writes, “If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at 53, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending.”


  1. I read a long article in one of the papers about Franzen,, generally his arguments leave me cold, it just appears as a middle aged man having a moan….. as to the future, I don’t know but if we draw a comparison with records, vinyl is making something of a comeback, maybe books will too?

  2. This is funny because I have had the opposite reaction..interacting through the internet made it possible to meet my husband..who was in England at the time and we would have never possibly known one another if it hadn’t existed..I have made a lot of IRL friends through it as well…so to me it enables me to talk to people with similar interests..which is sometimes hard to find IRL. That being said part of the fun of going to author signings is getting to meet the authors in person..that is half the fun..getting an e signature is just about increasing the resale value of a book and to me that is meaningless because I want to keep my books forever. SO I don’t think it should be the only way to interact..I think it is just different and people fear things that are new. Great post…you always give me food for thought!

    1. Thanks! There are pros and cons to all forms of modern technology and social media. I’m hopeful that we can fill most of those gaps through technological innovations, better judges, and better laws. We can’t forget the importance of face-to-face interaction and the sense of community that comes with visits to the library and bookstores, though (I can do without large commercial chains with bland selections, but it’d be sad if all of our quirky indie stores disappeared, too). Based on the articles Elephrasis linked to in the comments (below), it looks like there are many people who feel that way.

  3. Franzen’s defense of the old guard is predictable elitist twaddle. If you are paid for your writing, you’re a professional writer. If you have an audience (beyond family) which buys your work and recommends it to others, you’re a success.

    Most readers do not need the guiding hand of the NYT to pick a book to read. I love how Amazon et al have upended that intellectually inbred cabal. It’s a great day to read and to write.

    1. I agree that it’s a “great day to read and to write.” I love the services Amazon provides, but I am wary about any single company with too much of the market share (of course, it’s only illegal if such a monopoly uses that status to manipulate prices or competition). I don’t think returning to the heyday of the Big Six is the answer, though. They may have settled the Department Justice’s anti-trust claims, but people shouldn’t forget how dangerous they are. They aren’t the victims.

    1. I completely agree! When I first read Franzen’s article, I decided to ignore it because I didn’t want to waste my time on his whining. However, when I read about Apple’s patent application and the gap it was trying to bridge, I kept thinking back to Franzen’s rant about modern social media. There are drawbacks to it, even though I happen to think they are outweighed by the benefits. Thanks for the comment! I hope you had a nice weekend!

  4. It’s so funny you are writing about this because I just received a book physically signed by the author, and I really don’t think I’d treasure it as much if it was digital. Knowing someone spent the time to physically sign my book seems more personal, whereas like you said, the digital rendering seems to try and bridge a gap for those who can’t get a physical signature. All in all, your post was very insightful and I may be mulling this one over for awhile. Great post, as always!

    1. Thanks! There does seem to be something special about holding a physical copy of a book that your favorite author held and signed. While I like the idea of e-autographs and personalized digital messages, it is definitely different from the “real thing.”

  5. The only constant, especially in our modern world, is change. I used to love going to the video store too, but Netflix cured me of that quickly (well that along with Hulu and Amazon). And I know a lot of people are worrying about Amazon, but remember when Netscape used to dominate? And now people are like Netwhat? Remember when Apple was the ONLY smartphone and people laughed at Android and now (at least IMO) it’s comparable (if not better)? The best way to “stop” Amazon is come up with a better way of doing business. I love my Mac computers, but something I’ve always hated about Apple is their tendency toward exclusivity. I think that’s why for a time it looked like Apple was going kaputz and PCs were dominating.

    I dislike cronyism in any form. If Amazon is doing it better they deserve their success. And much like Google did to Yahoo, when something better comes along Amazon too may become a name we vaguely remember who paved the way for even more innovation. Guess that’s my optimism too. 🙂

    1. Hi Jae! I agree, although I hope the success of these businesses has more to do with making a superior product/service than with poor enforcement of fair competition laws. I hope you’ve had a nice weekend (and that your rough patch is over)!

  6. I love bookstores, but I don’t see the point of rejecting e-books–one doesn’t necessarily replace the other, at least as far as my own reading habits go. Franzen strikes me as a bit of a whiner and a real snob. I definitely disagree with his stance on twitter. What’s wrong with an author wanting to interact more directly with his readers? I guess for Franzen there should be a wall up between the two. I remember how he wouldn’t go on Oprah years ago because heaven forbid there be a popular appreciation for his works of “art”.

    1. “Franzen strikes me as a bit of a whiner and a real snob.” I agree! With his personality (at least what we know of it publicly), he probably shouldn’t interact too much with fans.

  7. For someone who hates the internet, Jonathan Franzen is an excellent troll. Only someone intimately familiar with the internet would know that insulting Jennifer Weiner is an effective means of getting attention.

    Some good news on the indie bookstore front, though: http://www.publiclibraries.com/blog/number-of-independent-booksellers-growing-each-year/
    It seems that by killing Borders and weakening Franzen’s beloved Barnes and Noble, Amazon has opened up a niche in the ecosystem for independent bookstores. For now. We’ll see how long this lasts.

    1. Thanks for the links! I can see why independent bookstores might increase in popularity, particularly if they have a good selection of books (better than the same bestsellers available at every bland B&N). I like to support businesses in my community, and if we had an independent bookstore, I’m sure I would make a point to shop there. I hope the trend continues. As for Franzen, he is most definitely an excellent troll!

  8. “So, for those electronic autographs that come after face-to-face encounters or are at least accompanied by personalized messages, the real value is purely sentimental. It reminds us of a positive experience we’ve had—a brush with a celebrity—which is valuable in the hearts and minds of many. It may make a seemingly impersonal modern world feel a little more human.”

    This is a good point. I don’t see much value in the e-signature, otherwise. And honestly, I think the modern world is only, as you say, “semingly” impersonal. In reality, a fan is much more likely these days to be able (through twitter, blogs, facebook, or e-mail) to actually get a real response from an author (or other celebrity).
    Example: I joined a FB fan group for the “Outlander” series, and a few ladies were ecstatic that Diana Gabaldon had tweeted them directly in response to their tweets about the upcoming TV series based on her books. She also routinely responds to posts and comment threads on the page. It might be a shallow interaction, not the old “smile and sign my book with a sharpie” like in pre-electronic days, but I’t no less real. Actually, maybe it’s even more real, because it’s completely voluntary.

    1. Yeah, I think the modern world is only “seemingly impersonal.” I interact with more people of more diverse backgrounds as a result of the Internet and social media. Overall, it’s been good for me, but I don’t want to forget that these types of interactions have drawbacks, too (such as the possibility that anonymity and/or the lack of face-to-face communication encourages harassing/bullying behavior). For those who are particularly concerned that it’s impersonal, though, there’s nothing stopping them from leaving their laptops and iphones behind and seeking out face-to-face interactions.
      I hope you’ve been having a nice weekend!

  9. The vanishing of bookstores is disturbing. As for the rest, I read the Franzen piece a couple weeks ago. He strikes me as someone who has stubbornly dug in his heels and refused to progress. He’s made a lot of money off the Big Six, so of course he doesn’t want them to diminish and go quietly into the west. 😉

    But ebooks are here and they’re going to stay. Those who cannot–or will not–adapt will eventually go the way of the dinosaur.

    1. Yeah, Franzen makes many self-serving arguments. I hadn’t intended to write about his piece–the less attention he gets, the better–but it kept popping into my mind when I read about Apple’s patent application. I can’t believe Franzen really thinks times were steadier in 1159. Does he write in a vacuum without access to Google?

  10. I do miss walking leisurely through a book store. I think that is a good word for reading the actual book too. Things seem more relaxed. I know I read much more since being online than I ever did with hard copy books. Being slightly dyslexic, I rarely read a book, but online I do have many e-books (I let the iPad read to me if I have too much difficulty – mostly from being too tired). I think it is because online is fast paced and I don’t notice what I am missing as much. I am not inclined to cart around the iPad like I would with a book either. It is a completely different process for me. As for older people online on FB and twitter, I think it can allow more people access to having “friends” that a life of family and responsibility that “went away” through the years.

    1. I miss browsing book stores, too. The ones near me closed over the last few years. We still have our local libraries for browsing, but otherwise, our ability to thumb through physical copies of books before/without purchasing them is limited. I think ebooks and modern forms of social media have many benefits (and I actually prefer reading ebooks), but there are also drawbacks.
      I hope you’re having a great weekend!

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