FlatSigned or Inscribed?

by Timothy Doyle

#53, 10 October 2005

The Inscribed Side of the Story

In a previous Collecting Science Fiction article ("Thoughts on the Past, Plans for the Future") I expressed disagreement with the FlatSigned™ view that signature-only signed books are better than personally inscribed copies. Certainly part of the reason I have books inscribed to me is simple personal preference, and I would not want or expect this to be sufficient reason to change anyone's mind on the matter. But I strongly believe that there are practical reasons for preferring inscribed books as well - reasons rooted in provenance, authenticity and monetary value.

Tim Miller, Chairman & CEO of FlatSigned, Inc., recently asked BookThink for an opportunity to clarify some apparent misperceptions about FlatSigned™ books. Following is my response to his article, which begins with an excerpt from Miller's preceding article:

"This presumptiveness and lack of knowledge about what FlatSigned is and what FlatSigned is all about exemplifies the current argument over FlatSigned versus Inscribed books. Once anyone is educated, they all agree that FlatSigned is the best!"

I would not characterize discussions about the merits of FlatSigned™ versus inscribed as arguments but more as conflicts between differing philosophies. And it is worth noting that many of the conflicts between various philosophical views can be traced to differences in essentially arbitrary assumptions and definitions. So at the risk of sounding like a real estate agent, let's take a look at the foundations.

First, both Tim Miller and I talk at length about value as it pertains to signed books. Now, value is a tricky word that means different things to different people. In previous BookThink articles I have referred to what I call personal versus monetary value. In one instance, I cited an example of a copy of a very collectible fantasy novel I found while bookscouting that coincidentally contains the bookplate of one of my favorite high school teachers. Conventional book wisdom would suggest that the presence of the bookplate reduces the monetary value of the book. However, because of its increased personal value, this is a favorite book in my SF and fantasy collection. It is this distinction in value that I refer to when I say that "many people who go to signings to get books signed for their personal collections are listening to the flatsigned crowd, cheating themselves of a more pleasurable collecting experience because they think they are devaluing their books by having the author add an inscription."

Regarding the issue of personal value, Tim Miller writes: "It is entirely a different story if it is your desire to treasure books which have been personally inscribed to you, if that is your only goal - to personally enjoy them. In this case there is no argument. Only you know what you prefer, and you should do what makes you happy." I hope it is clear that Tim Miller and I are in total agreement on this essential truism: as a collector, you should collect what makes you happy, in whatever manner you see fit.

In the next sentence Miller goes on to say: "So, if you have no interest in preserving value and are only thinking of what makes just you feel good, then by all means have all your books signed that way and see how fast your children throw them away after you see Grisham and King in the hereafter." Here is where Miller and I part company. By using the word "value" as shorthand for "monetary value" in the same breath with the dismissive "only thinking of what makes just you feel good," Miller is suggesting that the only real consideration in serious book collecting can and should be the commercial aspect of the books collected. This elevation of commercial interest is readily apparent in the FlatSigned™ branding, the infomercial tone of his writing - for example, "FlatSigned is the best!" - and even in the melodramatic cautionary text that predicts that your kids will throw your personally inscribed books in the trash when you're dead. Perhaps they will be kind enough to donate them to my local Goodwill instead?

To be fair, in this context Miller is talking about contemporary authors like John Grisham and Stephen King, both of whom have signed many, many copies of their books, but he goes on to speculate about monetary value of these same books fifty years out as well, baldly claiming that only those inscribed to someone notable (the author's mother, Bill Clinton, etc.) will be more valuable than a FlatSigned™ copy.

But not even long-deceased, highly collectible authors are safe from the inexorable FlatSigned™ logic. Miller writes: " ... in the case of Hemingway or Steinbeck, an inscription may be a slight plus for the value of a book, but even in these extreme examples, I promise you that when it comes time to sell your signed book, it may will be more difficult to sell because it is inscribed ...." At the risk of being presumptuous or showing my over-active ego, I feel very comfortable with the assumption that any collector willing to pay the kind of money necessary for a signed Hemingway or Steinbeck would be delighted with any kind of additional inscription from the author, associational or no. Indeed, take a look at the top 20 listings (prices ranging from $9,500 to $35,000) on www.abebooks.com for signed Steinbecks:

Top 10
Top 20

Obviously, it would be more definitive to use a larger sampling of prices actually realized, for example, at auction, but this data strongly suggests that high-end dealers offering signed literary classics believe that their customers prefer and will pay higher prices for inscribed books.

To recap Miller's position, both highly collectible authors (even those whose signed books routinely sell for well over $1000) and modern living authors with relatively large numbers of signed books in circulation should be FlatSigned™. But this grouping also happens to match exactly the demographics of author signatures that are most likely to be forged - uncommon firsts that are worth a small fortune when signed and common ($5 to $30) books that increase five- or ten-fold in value if signed.

And in case there is any question that forged items are plentiful, take a look at Stephen King Signatures - Fakes and the Real Thing.

An entire website devoted to tracking known and suspected sellers of fake autographs of just one author: Stephen King. On eBay alone there are dozens of seller IDs referenced, and these are just the ones too clumsy to do a halfway decent job of it. More on King later.

Now, here is a key element of my philosophy: collectors want some assurance that the signed books they purchase are genuine (and they will pay a premium for signatures that they can believe in). A reputable dealer, preferably with a no-questions-asked return policy, can elicit trust, so can a book that possesses a solid, believable provenance or one that has been declared genuine by a licensed authenticator.

Miller rightly points out that large firms have too much to lose by knowingly trafficking in forgeries, not to mention too many employees to effectively keep anything secret. Customers will of course pay top dollar for these books. eBay, on the other hand, is an ideal venue for shyster book sellers. One-man operations are viable, the selling process is largely anonymous, and it's easy to circumvent security features or, failing that, simply change identities if the old one becomes a liability.

Provenance can be a key factor in building buyer trust. Because signed, limited editions are virtually impossible to fake, they possess pretty much unquestionable provenance (note that fully 25% of the Steinbecks discussed above are signed, limited editions), but I have also argued that you can build provenance for the books you take to signings by having them personalized, also by asking the author to include place and date, and by keeping copies of promotional flyers advertising the signing.

Miller counters by saying that modern forgers are so good that adding additional text, whether an inscription or a date, is easily accomplished, and genuine flyers can be photocopied ad infinitum. It is my sense that nearly any licensed authenticator will tell you that additional handwritten text can only help with authentication. It simply stands to reason that the forger's job is easier in a world populated with collectors who believe that a FlatSigned ™ signature is preferable to an inscription. I believe that acquiring the kind of provenance I discuss above, particularly in the context of a larger collection of similarly documented books, will certainly add value to your collection. But perhaps Miller and I will have to agree to disagree.

Essentially, we are talking about three different types of buyers for signed books:

  1. The Collector - somebody who doesn't give a damn about anything except personal value.

  2. The Investor - a book collector who wants to maximize the monetary value of their signed books.

  3. The Seller - an individual (eBayer, full-time professional bookseller, etc.) who perceives a signature as a profit-enhancer.

In addition, the book may be purchased already signed, or the signature may be acquired in person at a signing.

As discussed, Collectors will do whatever makes them happy, and more power to them. The Investor and the Seller are just two faces of the same coin: the Seller offers whatever the Investor is most willing to buy. Tim Miller would argue that his financial success proves that FlatSigned™ is the preferred product for the Investor (and by extension, the Seller), and I find it difficult to fault his logic on the surface. My problem with the FlatSigned™ philosophy is two-fold. First, I think he has convinced large numbers of people who might have been happier as Collectors that they need to behave as Investors. But deeper than this, I don't believe that the FlatSigned™ value model will hold up over time, and ultimately many Investors will end up with books that have less personal and monetary value.

As the collecting public becomes more experienced and as market forces continue to adjust to the new dynamics imposed by the Internet-generated boom in collectible book sales, I believe that the demand for provenance for signed books will continue to increase. This is already evident on eBay, particularly with high final value auctions of Stephen King titles. The vast majority are signed, limited editions of unquestioned provenance. Why? Because collectors know that King is one of the most commonly forged signatures out there. Equally instructive are items at the low end. For example, a movie script purportedly signed by Stephen King, the director and the male star recently sold for $15.85, and another one (from the same seller) has been relisted twice at the same price with no takers. If the buying public thought this article was genuine, do you think it would be selling for the price of a movie ticket, popcorn and a drink?

An inscribed book has more provenance built in to it than does a FlatSigned™ book for the following reasons:

  1. There is more text to analyze for handwriting authentication.

  2. Internal clues in the text (date, location, name of recipient, etc.) can all contribute to establishing authenticity.

  3. If the book originates from a large collection of personally inscribed books, the collection as a whole transfers provenance to each piece within it. I have many dozens of signed SF and fantasy books personally inscribed to me, and I can document that I have spent years going to book signings and conventions where I have collected these signatures in person. If I were to sell any of these books, my name in the inscription becomes part of the provenance chain that links the signing of the book to me - and then to the person who buys it from me.

One final thought: the very strong branding that Miller has worked so hard to build could be its ultimate undoing. If the quantity of forgeries on the market continues to rise - and there is no reason to think that it won't - then all it will take is one high-profile scandal involving a talented forger cranking out signature-only fakes, and the value of all FlatSigned™ books could suffer.

In matters of value, whether monetary or personal, perception is everything. The current perception in a significant segment of the signed collectible market seems to prefer FlatSigned™ books, as evidenced by Tim Miller's success. But the recently hatched FlatSigned™ philosophy ignores the long-standing tradition in collecting signed books that "more is better" - a tradition that many modern collectors still firmly adhere to, particularly at the high end. Issues of forgery, authentication and provenance have been around for as long as collectors have been willing to pay a premium for signed books. I believe that the current excesses of unscrupulous sellers of forged materials will ultimately force all collectors to re-examine the provenance issue and that more will again be generally recognized as better.

Further reading

Bookseller Ken Lopez has written two articles on this subject, with more discussion of the traditions of book collecting as well as insight into issues of authenticating signatures and the importance of provenance. The first is "Signed vs Inscribed," a 2002 Firsts article reprinted at his website.

The second is "Is a 'Stand-Alone' Signature Better?" published in Volume VI, Number 1 Spring Edition 2005 of The Standard, IOBA's online newsletter.

Finally, I would recommend reading John Dunning's latest Janeway novel, The Sign of the Book. A central plot element involves a ring of low-life booksellers profiting from selling thousands of mid-level books with forged author signatures - e.g., buy a book for $5, forge the signature (author's name only), and sell it for $75. Anyone who reads this book can't help but re-think their opinion of FlatSigned books.

BookThink's interview with Dunning appears here.

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