At a book fair I once signed two books to “Tom.” Tom turned out to be “Rod.” Rod refused my offer to sign new books for him. With a malicious grin, Rod said he planned to show my bloopers to his friends as evidence of our close personal friendship.

As we left the fair, I asked Bobbie Ann Mason if she’d made any mistakes that day. She sure had, said the Kentucky novelist. The worst one was inscribing a book of hers to patrons of the Anderson County Pubic Library.

What is it that makes signing books such a powerful bomb waiting to explode at the slip of a pen? For the average author, “Would you sign my book?” is a loaded question. What should be an occasion of high honor becomes one of low apprehension. Compounding their anxiety is the added fillip, “Could you personalize it?” People who were strangers a few seconds earlier hope for something warm, intimate, personal. At the very least they’d like to get a unique sample of the author’s wit and erudition.

I never know what to write in these pressure-packed situations. It’s like being asked to offer a toast to someone you’ve just met. Can I get away with “Best regards”? Or raise the temperature a bit to “Warm regards”? Maybe a stock “personal” message will do, something related to the subject of the book. But suppose two book buyers compare inscriptions and nail my promiscuity? Oscar Wilde had to stop signing books “From a poet to a poem” when too many of those he’d flattered with this phrase discovered how many other readers Wilde also considered poems.

Book inscribers have two basic alternatives: write something rote, bland, and safe, like Elmore Leonard’s stock inscription “Take it easy.” Or they can try to “personalize” their scrawled message and risk spectacular failure. The many eager young women who asked Melissa Bank to write something “personal” in their copy of The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing took home books inscribed “I feel so close to you right now.” Such whimsy can backfire, however. One frisky author wrote “We’ll always have Paris” in the book of a customer at Denver’s Tattered Cover bookstore. The book buyer returned it. She’d never been to Paris, the woman explained, had no plans to go to Paris, and if she ever did go to Paris, it certainly wouldn’t be with that man. Tattered Cover gave her a fresh copy.

Are books with botched inscriptions returned very often? A Tattered Cover events coordinator told me she had a stack of them in her office.

A little sympathy for book signers might be in order. In some ways, signing a book is harder than writing a book. While writing books we can take as long as necessary to get our words right and revise them as often as a manuscript demands. None of this is true when signing them. Then we must write swiftly and spontaneously with no margin for error, no opportunity to edit or revise. Authors routinely wilt under the pressure. “For me the worst is when I start an inscription and midway through the sentence I have no idea where it’s going,” says biographer Eric Lax (Bogart). “What the hell am I trying to say here? I ask myself. How am I going to finish this sentence and pass myself off as a guy capable of writing a book?”

It could be that those who write books are temperamentally unsuited to signing them. In some ways scribbling words on flyleaves and title pages has more in common with running for office than writing books. Among other things it calls for an ability to recall the names of those one has just met and spell them accurately. This can be harder than it sounds. Novelist Robert Olen Butler says that when signing books for acquaintances who assume he remembers their name, he often blanks. Asking “Is this for you or for someone else?” will sometimes get him off the hook. Or, “I’ve never gotten the spelling of your name.” “ ‘B-o-b,’ you say? Oh, right.”

Another author told me about being hosted by a college classmate in a city where he was giving a reading. After dinner, the classmate and his wife handed their visitor three of his novels to sign. He blanked on the wife’s name. Before taking out his pen, the novelist asked to use their bathroom. There, he frantically searched the medicine cabinet for a bottle with her name on the label. After finding one, the author returned and signed his hosts’ books.

Sometimes I’ve mused about hiring an impersonator to sign books for me. Undoubtedly there is somebody out there who could do a better job than I do, someone with better handwriting and more empathy: a calligrapher, say, or a clergyman. Oscar Wilde had a friend sign copies of The Ballad of Reading Gaol for his publisher. This man’s signature was more handsome than his, Wilde explained. And besides, he was tired.

Ralph Keyes’s 16 books include Euphemania, The Courage to Write, and I Love It When You Talk Retro. He lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio. For further information, see