There's a story about a first-time author who was doing his maiden book-signing. It was on a weekday lunchtime in a northern town. And the story is: nobody came. Well, that's not strictly true. There was a solitary Yorkshire matron, of the sort who crochets her own toilet-roll cosies. "I normally go to the library on a Monday, but I thought I'd see if you were any good," she said, eyeing the undwindled stack of hardbacks at the writer's elbow as if they were so many slabs of shop-bought parkin.
Even in the less fashionable corners of Grub Street, bookshop appearances by scribblers have changed out of all recognition from what they were just a generation ago. Once, inky-fingered types would have been flogging their nearly-new review copies. Now they're more likely to be practising their signatures, albeit needlessly in some cases. When Cyril Connolly identified the distractions faced by writers in Enemies of Promise, he cited "the poppies" (escapism) and "blue bugloss" (journalism), but failed to anticipate the black bag (Waterstone's). Like those other diversions, the book-signing has been elevated to an art form in its own right. The closest parallel is with the concert: the idea is that you've enjoyed the artist's shiny new release at home and now you want to hear him live.
Substituting the bestseller lists for the top 40, what are our headline acts like when they're on the road? Bubbling under the top ten is Michael Frayn. His performance is like a tight set of chamber music. I've seen him with his chin in his hand, in the classic fiction-god pose, riffing about his fear of disorder. The book-roadies and pen-wranglers must have been sniggering into their sherry backstage, because the promoter of the gig was Foyles, the retailer whose reputation for disarray was at one time rivalled only by the more easygoing reggae bands. The big surprise of the signing circuit is Martin Amis, the outstanding studio act and product-shifter of litpop. Justly acclaimed for his brilliant solos on the page, he once turned in a performance at Deansgate, Manchester, that would have had him gonged off by a Pop Idol-style panel of Tom Paulin (Nasty Simon), Mark Lawson (Dr Fox) and Mariella Frostrup (that blonde woman).
While Amis is as stiff as a nonagenarian bluesman with a trapped nerve, Will Self of these very pages practically moonwalks through his PAs. Given Self's collaborative dabblings in music, not to mention his well-advertised former rock'n'roll lifestyle, it's little wonder that he's number one with a bullet on the Billboard of books.
Taking this trend for in-store appearances by writers to its logical conclusion, fans can presumably look forward to the authors of audiobooks miming to their greatest hits. As for the signing session described at the outset, it was as lonely as karaoke. In fact, the writer might have made a better job of entertaining his one and only customer if he had launched into a medley of songs from the shows, but unfortunately I can't sing a note.