Since When Is a Book Signing Not a Good Thing?

Author Events and Book Signings
Might Become Harder to Find

By Kristina Sepetys

A state law creates barriers for bookstores that host book signings with authors like Alice Waters
(in photo at left). At right, people line up outside of Omnivore to get books signed by
French Laundry owner Thomas Keller. Photos: Celia Sack

That new cookbook you were hoping to get signed by the author at a bookstore event? Sorry, but a newly passed law could make getting your book autographed difficult or impossible.
AB 1570, a law passed by the California Legislature last year, expands California’s autograph law, which formerly applied only to sports memorabilia. It now covers any signed commodity worth over five dollars, including books. Anyone offering autographed books, including bookstore owners, must personally guarantee the authenticity of each autograph through an onerous certification process (which includes disclosure of personal information for both buyer and seller), and sellers face significant financial penalties if the signature is proven fraudulent. 

Top: Mrs Dalloway’s owners Ann Leyhe (left) and Marion Abbott at a Bernie Sanders event the shop sponsored last fall. Photo courtesy of Mrs. Dalloway’s.
Celia Sack, owner of food-centric Omnivore Books in Noe Valley, which has hosted some of the best-known names in cooking. Photo courtesy of Celia Sack.

While perhaps well-intended, there’s general agreement, certainly among booksellers, that it’s a poorly worded law that should be repealed or at least amended. According to Ann Leyhe, co-owner of Mrs. Dalloway’s book shop on College Avenue in Berkeley, the bill is “a poorly thought-out attempt at controlling a problem that doesn’t really exist.” There’s no additional fee for a new book with the author’s signature. And since most signings happen in the store in full sight of the reader and the owner, there’s no reason for the burdensome paperwork and administration required to certify the signature, which could impose significant and unnecessary costs on booksellers.
Celia Sack, owner of Omnivore Books in San Francisco, a wonderful local resource specializing in new, antiquarian, and collectible books on all things food and cookery related, hosts hundreds of author and book events each year and ships books worldwide. Says Sack, “I sell signed copies of books by Julia Child, James Beard, and other culinary luminaries, and my customers trust that as a specialist, I know when a signature is authentic or not. I’ve been in the rare book business for nearly 30 years, and like any autograph specialist, can recognize when a signature is ‘right’ after seeing them so many times.” 
Meeting authors in person and hearing them read from their books and discuss their work makes for a richer reading experience, connects readers with like-minded folk, and of course, helps to sell books. A popular part of author appearances is the opportunity to purchase an autographed copy of a book or better still, have an author sign it in person. Booksellers are willing to go to the expense of hosting book-signings because the events increase sales. But as Hut Landon, former director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association observes, “The paperwork and record-keeping and the cost associated with the bill as currently written will make most bookstores simply stop presenting author events, unless it is for some big name with a guaranteed audience. This means the communities served by independent bookstores will no longer have exposure to first-time authors, most local writers, and many ‘mid-list’ authors, or to the conversations and dialogues these appearances trigger.”
Says Leyhe, “People are worried about what this bill will mean. Book events are a huge part of our business.”
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a donor-supported public interest legal group, has challenged the bill in a First Amendment lawsuit filed in the Northern District of California on behalf of Book Passage, a San Francisco bookstore. If you’d like to lend your support to repealing AB 1570, sign the online petition here.