In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, Margaret Atwood confessed that her greatest extravagance is "mad, gamble-packed entrepreneurial enterprises." Indeed, you owe Margaret Atwood a small debt of gratitude if you use Dreamweaver, GoLive or FrontPage, as she was one of the early investors in Yuri Rubinsky's company, which created the world's first graphical Web editor, HoTMetaL. And now she is at it again. Her latest mad-cap idea will bring, in a manner of speaking, this year's Giller prize nominees from the Toronto International Author's Festival to Westmount's Nicholas Hoare bookstore in Montreal.
The authors will be using Atwood's latest invention, the LongPen, developed by her new company, Unotchit. This company name, incidentally, is text-message-speak for You No Touch It-an apt description of how LongPen signings work. The Giller nominees can have a short videoconference with readers while signing an image of their book's title page on a screen-it works much like the gizmo you use to sign for Purolator packages. Author and reader then get to preview the signature before the author hits a "Send" button, which commands a robotic arm in Montreal to sign the book. The machine can also record a digital copy of the virtual meeting, for a fee of around $10. Atwood's company will donate this money to PEN Canada and BirdLife International.
For her efforts, Atwood has been publicly accused of being crazy, lazy and bent on destroying the intimacy of in-the-flesh book tours. But she defends the LongPen as a "democratizing device" to increase book-selling and signing opportunities for authors whom publishers wouldn't otherwise send on tours. It could also allow more remote towns, cities and even countries (apparently Atwood's Serbian publisher is interested) to host internationally famous authors.
LongPen can sign CDs, DVDs and hockey sticks, and it will likely soon be able to sign basketballs. There is also potential for its use in other sectors, such as law, where contracts could be signed long-distance, or medicine, where doctors could issue emergency prescriptions to out-of-town patients.
At least one of the Giller nominees is stoked about his chance to use the LongPen. "I love toys and this is a cool one," says Vincent Lam, Giller-nominated author of Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures. He also loves Montreal though, so he confesses to being slightly disappointed that just the writing end of his pen will be there. His hand and the rest of his body will be in his home-city, Toronto, a city which he says "is fantastic, but doesn't have nearly enough poutine."