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Margaret Atwood unveils the LongPen

Writing instrument allows authors to autograph faraway books
/ Source: The Associated Press

Margaret Atwood has had enough of long journeys, late nights and writer’s cramp.

Tired of grueling book tours, the Booker Prize-winning Canadian author on Sunday unveiled her new invention: a remote-controlled pen that allows writers to sign books for fans from thousands of miles away.

Some fear Atwood’s LongPen could end the personal contact between writers and readers. Atwood says it will enhance the relationship.

“I think of this as a democratizing device,” said Atwood, whose appearances draw hundreds of fans willing to stand in long lines for a word and an autograph.

“You cannot be in five countries at the same time. But you can be in five countries at the same time with the LongPen.”

Atwood’s democratic device underwent the most universal of experiences on Sunday: the last-minute technical hitch. Its first-ever public demonstration, at the London Book Fair, was delayed as project director Matthew Gibson and his crew engaged in some frantic tinkering.

“We’ve had a setback, and we’re trying to address it,” Gibson said.

Anxious minutes later, Atwood picked up a pen to autograph her new short story collection, “The Tent,” for Nigel Newton, chief executive of her British publisher, Bloomsbury. She wrote the words on an electronic pad while chatting to Newton over a video linkup.

A few seconds later in another part of the exhibition center, two spindly metal arms clutching a pen reproduced the words onto Newton’s book in Atwood’s angular scrawl: “For Nigel, with best wishes, Margaret Atwood.”

Later, Atwood planned to give the device its trans-Atlantic “Marconi moment,” signing copies of “The Tent,” for readers in New York and Guelph, Ontario.

When Atwood, 66, announced her invention late in 2004, many assumed it was a hoax. But the inventive spirit is not surprising from an author whose interest in science and technology informed science fiction-flavored novels such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Oryx and Crake.”

Atwood, however, said the invention sprang from her own technological ignorance.

“You know those people who come around with a package and you sign a thing?” she told The Associated Press in an interview. “I thought my signature was whizzing through the air and landing somewhere else, and I thought as I was crawling through the night on another maniacal book tour, wouldn’t it be great if I could sign a book like that?

“It turns out they don’t work that way. But I asked some technically minded people if such a thing was possible, and they said it was.”

Atwood set up a company with Gibson and several others to produce the device, naming the firm Unotchit — pronounced “you no touch it.”

They plan to lease the gadget, rather than sell it, renting it out to publishers for one-time signing events or tours. Atwood hopes publishers will use it to promote lesser-known authors and to bring author signings to small towns and small countries that usually aren’t on the book tour circuit.

Publishers are intrigued by the idea. Both Bloomsbury and Atwood’s other British publisher, Virago, invested in the project.

“This creates the possibility of an entirely new book-promotion event that will inject new life into the marketing of books and authors’ relationship with their readers,” said Bloomsbury’s Newton.

Dejan Papic of Atwood’s Serbian publisher, Laguna, said the device could help bring international authors — at least virtually — to his small, poor, European country.

“We are not always in a position to invite international authors and pay their costs,” he said.

Some readers were less sure of the LongPen’s merits.

“I might do it if she wasn’t in the same room,” said Jeff Doorn, a small-press author lining up at the book fair to have Atwood sign his copy of “The Tent” — in person. “But it’s nice to have the personal touch.”

Atwood said the gadget had applications — from education to law — beyond the traditional book tour. It can already sign hockey sticks; Gibson and his team are working on basketballs.