stealth authors

Stephen King was recently mistaken for a vandal when he was spotted signing copies of his own book in an Australian bookstore.  Only when the bookseller saw his signature did she realize it had been the author himself who’d been in her store.

King was only doing what I (and every other author in the universe) feel compelled to do, even while on vacation: drop into local bookstores and check out how many copies of my books are on the shelves.  I also want to autograph them, because I know readers love signed copies, but too often I leave them unsigned. And you know why?

Because then I’d have to snag a bookseller and ask for permission to do so.  You have no idea how much energy is involved just trying to get the attention of harried clerks.  Then the reaction is often a weary sigh and a “Let me find the manager.”  You may think booksellers would be delighted to see an author in their store, but reality is much less glamorous, and sometimes downright discouraging.  I’ve blogged about my experiences in Honolulu bookshops, where I was allowed to sign only a few copies, and they made it clear they thought they were doing me a favor.  Sometimes I’ve had to produce I.D. to prove who I was.  A lot of the time I’m greeted with a shrug and a “yeah, whatever.”

As a result, I’ve often had the urge to be sneaky about the whole thing and just sign the books, slap an “autographed” sticker on the cover, and slink out of the store without talking to anyone.  Much more efficient that way, right? 

But you could get into trouble, as King almost did, being mistaken for a vandal.  I remember talking to one bookseller who was livid at an author when he did a sneak signing.  She caught him back among the shelves, signing and stickering his own books, and she confronted him.  He proved to her satisfaction that he was indeed the author, and you’d think she’d be thrilled.  But no, she was outraged that he’d sign books without asking for permission first, and as a result, she said, “I will never have that man in my store for a formal signing!  Never!  He did it without asking me first!”

Boy, talk about being territorial.

Aside from not pissing off the booksellers, the real reason to approach them is that they could be your best allies.  Yes, I know that many of them don’t give a hoot that you’re an author.  Many of them would rather you’d just go away and not bother them.  But there are always a few who are thrilled you’re there and will tell their customers “guess what, those are signed copies!”  And that alone makes it worth having to endure the occasional “yeah, whatever” greeting.


21 replies
  1. struggler
    struggler says:

    That’s just nuts. It goes to show that few of the people who choose a career in book retailing – even those who get to management level – have a genuine love of reading or a respect for the writers that, indirectly, give them a job in the first place. It must make you despair. Oh well, at least there’s some sanity HERE.

  2. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if some facsimile of that store shows up in one of King’s future novels, LOL. You just know, somehow, the outcome isn’t going to be all that pleasant.

    I’ve been practicing my autograph for when I get published. If a bookseller ever trys to stop me, I’m going to say, “You know who you’re talking to, pal? I’m Dean Koontz, for chrissake!”

  3. Tatiana
    Tatiana says:

    Well, not that it applies to the likes of Stephen King or Tess, but I’ve heard that signing books makes them unreturnable to the publisher if they don’t sell, which is why store owners aren’t too thrilled at the prospect, especially for lesser known authors.

    Of course, I’ve also heard that they ARE returnable so I’m not sure what the publishers’ policies actually are, or whether they just differ.

    With the very slim margins in book publishing, you can probably make an enemy for life of a bookseller if your books don’t sell and they are not returnable because you signed them. Short term gain, long term pain.

    I can see both sides, though if a national bestseller came in and wanted to sign books I would hope the response would be different than if an “unknown” asked.

    I’d rather put up with the humiliation and aggravation of asking than make an enemy of even a single bookseller … but then again it’s not like I have those kinds of problems quite yet. 🙂

  4. Sadie
    Sadie says:

    As a “harried” bookseller myself I would be thrilled if Stephen King or Tess Gerritsen visited the store where I work and autographed copies of their books, but I fidn Tess’ comments rather hurtful. Yes I’m going to be freaked out if I walk by and see a random individual writing in our merchandise. It does happen and damaged items hurt our image and therefore our business. Yes, I’m going to have to ask a manager. It is store property and as Tatiana mentioned signed items are not always returnable. It also seems like the courteous thing to do ask permission beforehand. Yes, I’m going to ask for ID. While I would recognize Stephen King if he came into my store, he’s the exception, not the rule. We get some pretty interesting customers in our store and not all of them are who or what they claim. When a customer asks me if an autographed book is genuine I want to be able to assure them it is. Checking ID allows me to do that. One of the things I love about book culture is that it is not image obsessed. Good authors may be anonymous in appearance but their writing speaks for itself. I appreciate this in a celebrity obsessed world where real talent is valued less than what one looks like on a magazine cover. And yes, I’ll be harried and probably very busy and it will take me a few moments of an author’s time to talk to me. The store where I work is chronically understaffed and customers as well as authors are the reason I have a job and can make a living so I would hope an author would understand if I can’t lay down the red carpet with no advanced notice. I don’t think any of this is too much to ask and I’d be thrilled if a big name author was interested in signing books at my store. Stop by if you’re ever in Palmdale, Ms. Gerritsen.

  5. dustinhood
    dustinhood says:

    Wow. I never knew that. I would be delighted if I ran a bookstore and the author came and signed books. IT reminds of something that my best friend’s mom said. She’s a Transplant Coordinator and she ran into the band members of a famous Rock band, Daughtry. She asked for their autograph and they said that they couldn’t because the main band member, Chris Daughtry, was not there. Kind of a bummer if you ask me.

    Also, I got your bookmarks in the mail today. Thank you so much! I love them!


  6. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:


    As much of a thrill it is to find a book in the store that’s been signed, it still can’t beat the experience of having one signed in person. I know I’ll value my books by you, Tess, and Dennis Lehane, Elizabeth Kostova and Christopher Paolini (okay, I’m bragging a bit now!) much more than the one I have from John Connolly and a few others. Yes, it’s still great to know that the author was there and that they touched the book (and I am definitely grateful you/they would take the time to do so for your fans).

    I can’t see why the store managers would get angry, especially if you can prove you’re you. I’d probably wet myself if I were the employee you flagged down… They should know that you are just trying to do something nice for your readers, you’re not asking money to do it. They should just be grateful, and let you do your thing.

    It is a funny thing how author celebrity (sans a select few) is very anonymous… Don’t you ever get the urge, when you see someone reading one of your books, to poke them in the head and shout, ‘GUESS WHO!’…? I, again (and I hope this doesn’t reflect poorly on me or my bladder), would probably wet myself…

    You just keep doing what you’re doing. You do more than most for your fans, what with your website/blog, all of the events you go to, and even the bookmarks you sent out to us for free (and signed!) and all… We appreciate it, even if the booksellers don’t! 🙂

  7. Craig
    Craig says:

    Let me tell you what happened to a local bookseller. Someone “spiked” their pyschology section. Someone went through their books and left fliers for some sort of study or workshop that was being held locally. The store had no knowledge of this and some customers apparently approached them asking them about the workshop. They took it as an endorsement by the bookstore. I can certainly understand why booksellers would be concerned. I’m sorry that you were treated rudely, Tess. There is no excuse for that.

    Incidentally, my local bookstore had an unusual and unpleasant experience recently. Keep in mind that I live dead center in Oklahoma County, the heart of the Bible belt. Recently a MAJOR author contacted them wanting a book signing 10 AM Sunday morning. Most of the staff are devout church goers and would have to miss to accomodate this author. The book chains
    open early Sunday morning so they naturally figured the same applied here. (The bookstore is open 11 hrs a day Mon-Sat and 4 hrs Sunday PM) The bookstore refused the author’s request.

  8. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    To be honest from what I understand its the return thats the major problem. As the publisher expects the books back in the same condition as they were sent out (or as near as.) So it is understandable when a seller finds someone hiding in the stacks busily scribbling away that they might get a little crotchety.

    Now on the other hand, as a buyer I love signed stuff, I want to know that the author took the time to think of me especially when a lot of the “independent” (well family owned I should say) don’t get the option of an author signing as you see, when a tour is going ahead its the big chains that get the authors. Why? Well its a guarantee that they’ll sell the books, it works financially for the publisher, for the bookstore and for the author. The downside to this philosophy is ashamedly that a lot of people who cant get to a major town and seller lose out on the whole deal.

    It would be nice if publishers thought “Well we’ve hit the biggies now lets throw a bone to a small store in x as its on our way to Y.” It would mean a hell of a lot to a small store and will not only generate extra business for them but they’ll remember it and thus promote the books. It is also something that fans like as when I grew up in Cumbria the nearest I could get to a major signing was Newcastle, Manchester, Edinburgh etc. Now these were hours of travel away so it did hurt when you knew that author you wanted to meet was there yet you couldnt go.

    As a fan I think its great that stock is signed, however I can see the store owners point in regard to if they cant sell it its dead stock and if they cant return it they lose money. Perhaps getting more publishers to send out a statement to each bookstore (it wont cost them anything as they could easily slip it in a delivery, that if an author is coming in and they would like to sign stock it can be returned.) That would give peace of mind to the seller and also help give fans a little bonus.

    Asking for ID is a fair enough thing to do, after all Ive recently had to stomp on some fake signatures online with people trying to pass of a friend of mines books as signed. It really does hurt me to see it especially when theyre obvious fakes to me and I know its the fans who suffer at the end of the day.

    So really I suppose to surmise, its swings and roundabouts. LOL

    All the best and yep I love those signed copies.

  9. periwinkled
    periwinkled says:

    I work in one of the big bookstores in the Washington, DC area, and so we get a lot of authors who’ve written a book about some aspect of DC politics or politicians. Many of these authors are local folks who have self-published their books and then assume that the area bookstores like us will naturally carry them based on the subject matter alone. It’s those authors who drive us crazy. They assume we carry their book without checking, and then randomly stop in to sign a few copies, putting us in the awkward position of having to inform them that no, actually, we don’t have any copies for sale, much less for them to sign.

    It’s also a matter of simply not being prepared to do an author signing every hour of every day. While we have plenty of “Autographed Book” stickers, we don’t necessarily know where they are at any given moment, as a book signing is an event which generally requires a good bit of prior preparation. This is not to say that if you or Mr. King were to stop in to sign a few books we wouldn’t be willing and able to make it happen, but it’s true that it might take a little fancy footwork on our part. You’d certainly always be welcome in my store!

  10. Irina
    Irina says:

    I think it’s great that authors try to help their book sales by signing them, but doing so without first asking the owner? It’s like coming to someone else’s house and just assuming, that they wouldn’t mind if you help yourself to some of the food or drinks in their fridge 🙂
    I applaud the sales clerk who cared enough to run outside of the store after S.King, thinking he was some vandal! She was doing her job and doing it well.

    I believe that it’s very simple- you just need to ask for permission before doing something like that.

  11. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    Actually- if more and more authors (large like King or small time first timers) would do such things (but being certain to ASK permission from the store owner first of course- perhaps even going so far as to maybe signing ONLY two and placing a sticker on the cover indicating that it is INDEED signed by the author—theres no reason a bookstore staff should go out of their way to have AUTHOR SIGNED stickers in the backroom) I feel that maybe business would pick up AT THAT STORE if word of mouth got around in the community indicating that a customer might happen upon an actual author in a particular bookstore if they tend to shop at THAT bookstore regularly.

    Lots of ordinary Joe’s get star struck when they spot a celebrity someplace, heck, it makes for a great story at the watercooler on Monday morning.

  12. Craig
    Craig says:

    I don’t know if this is true or not but a knowledgeable used book dealer in town insists that if you are collecting books as an investment (I am not) it’s a huge mistake to have a book personalized, autographed is fine but not personalized if you want to sell it off later.

  13. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    seems like common sense is about as rare a commodity as truffles these days-like when a little 6 year old brings a plastic butter knife to school to spread cheez whiz on bread they call out SWAT and maybe a hazmat team and put the kid in cuffs-if i were a bookseller i’d welcome an author adding a personal touch-but i’m not a bookseller so maybe i have this wrong

  14. Tess
    Tess says:

    If the book is published by a mainstream publisher, then signed copies are indeed returnable — so it doesn’t hurt the bookstore to have them autographed, and will actually help them get sold. HOWEVER, self-published books, depending on the agreement between the store and the author, may not be returnable, and in that case it is absolutely in the bookstore’s interest to control what gets signed.

    Irina, you’re right — we really should approach the bookseller before we sign books. And I do, but it often feels like such an imposition on their time.

    And as for whether signed books are collectibles — yes, I too have learned that an autograph increases the value of a book, but a personalization hurts the value of that book. Unless, of course, it’s personalized to a really famous person!

  15. NLGassert
    NLGassert says:

    Showing I.D. is a great idea … if you don’t use a pen name. Unless there’s an author photo, how go you prove you are who you say you are?

    That issue aside; I wouldn’t just walk into a store and offer to sign my book. I’d walk the aisles first to make sure my book’s actually carried by that store, then bring them to the front and offer to sign them. And return them to their spot on the shelves, of course.

    Stickers are another issue. Different stores/chains have different stickers. They might or might not like my generic “autographed copy” or “local author” sticker. Asking for a few extra at an official signing is the way to go (then remember what kind of sticker went with what chain).

  16. l.c.mccabe
    l.c.mccabe says:


    I worked for a few years at a Barnes and Noble Superstore back in the nineties. One day I saw Charles Schulz come in the store and he asked me politely, “where are my books?” I didn’t have to ask who he was since he was a local celebrity and his image was regularly in the press.

    I took him to the humor section where his titles were shelved, but I didn’t think to ask him if he would like to autograph anything.

    I had heard from others that he was painfully shy, and I wanted to express to him how much his cartoon strip had meant to me as a child, but while showing deference and respect to him. I had actually thought about what I would say if I ever had the chance to meet him and hoped I could say something that he wouldn’t have heard umpteen times before.

    I told him how when I was a child that I loved “Peanuts” and that my mother bought a sweatshirt that was way too big for me, but since it was the last one left I would have to “grow into it.” I loved the shirt so much that I wound up wearing it for at least fifteen years until I finally threw it away after it had become nothing more than rags.

    Snoopy was holding a trophy and the slogan, “Natural Born Champion” was emblazoned across the top of the shirt.

    Mr. Schulz smiled, then asked me what I was a champion in. I shrugged and answered, “I dunno, I just really liked the sentiment.”

    He then told me that he had pitched a new television special to one of the networks. I was surprised that he wanted to share something with me. I had simply wanted to express my gratitude to him for enriching my childhood, and I had not considered he would then wish to engage me in conversation.

    If I had not been so star-struck, I might have been able to talk with him. Instead, it was an awkward moment, simply because I didn’t know what else to say to someone that I admired so much.

    Another famous author anecdote was when one of my co-workers came back to the stock room to tell us that he had sold books to Robert Fulghum. He had no idea that he had a bestselling author at his cash register until he recognized the name on the credit card. It was only as he was telling us that story that he said, “D’oh! I should have asked him if he would sign some of his books.” I have no idea if Mr. Fulghum did so on his own, because I don’t think anyone thought to look at the books we had in stock.

    I know that we as non-management booksellers wouldn’t have been upset if he had done such a thing on his own. We would have been thrilled and then been sure to put stickers on the outside.

    I also remember thinking it was cool when our store received signed copies in our shipments. We knew that most likely it had been overstock from a signing that was returned, but we thought it was special.

    So, I’d say the next time you are browsing in a bookstore that you find a bookseller and say, “Hello, I’m Tess Gerritsen and I’d like to see where my books are on your shelves.”

    Then you can follow up with “I’d be willing to sign them if you’d like since many customers like to buy autographed copies.”

    I know that I would have snapped right to attention and stop shelving books or any other task I had been doing to help.

    Since you have lovely photos gracing your books, I don’t think you should ever pull out your ID if I bookseller asks for proof of who you are. Simply pick up one of your books, open it to your picture and flash a dazzling smile.

    That ought to work.

    I know I would have been thrilled had someone of your stature walked into my store and approached me.


  17. ec
    ec says:

    “…like when a little 6 year old brings a plastic butter knife to school to spread cheez whiz on bread they call out SWAT and maybe a hazmat team…”

    Joe, I would agree that the SWAT team is a significant overreaction to a plastic butter knife, but I’m completely on board with the hazmat team. We’re talking CHEEZ WHIZ here. No one knows what might be in that stuff.

  18. Sue
    Sue says:

    I would be so thrilled to see an author in the bookstore (especially Stephen King or YOU… some favorites!). As a customer I’d be scared to approach, though… I’d just quietly slip up after you’d gone and see what you’d done. 🙂

  19. JMH
    JMH says:

    Most bookstores, especially the chains, only purchase books that are returnable to the distributor (e.g. Baker & Taylor, Ingram) A book that is signed at the store is fully returnable to the distributor, and then from the distributor to the publisher. Signing does not effect returnability in any way. In fact, stores can even return books that have been trashed by browsers, had coffee spilled on them in the cafe, etc.

    That said, no author should mark a book without the store’s permission. I always ask, plus use it as an opportunity to meet the store managers. When the managers know the book has been signed, they will almost inevitably display it somewhere. Then, of course, some lucky customer spots it and off it goes.

  20. wendy roberts
    wendy roberts says:

    I love finding a signed copy in my stores. Personally, I’ve had mixed reactions. I’ve politely asked booksellers if I can sign shelved books and some are enthusiastic (especially my local stores) but I’ve also been met by clerks who say they don’t know if it’s allowed and don’t want to bother asking the manager.

  21. l.c.mccabe
    l.c.mccabe says:


    I read this post month’s ago and had wanted to provide a link to another author’s experience, but couldn’t find it when I went to look for it.

    Eureka, I found it.

    Holly Kennedy shares a funny story about her own experience at a large retail store and autographing her own books.

    Have a great trip to the U.K.


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