This afternoon on Book Expo America's lower level — home to vanity presses, bookmarks and gadgets, and other ephemera big houses generally avoid — a Canadian company called Longpen has attracted what’s rarest of all: a crowd. A line 40-people strong has gathered for a signing by novelist Margaret Atwood. Atwood is in Vancouver, and she’ll be signing books thanks to her brainchild the Longpen, a remote-autographing system that allows authors to conduct book signings over the Internet.
Sara August, a cheerful fifth-grade teacher from Westfield, New Jersey, steps up to the Longpen — a pen on a robotic arm suspended over a table — and smiles into the Webcam just above. On the large flat-screen monitor in front of her, Margaret Atwood smiles back. They share a brief, semi-awkward conversation — Atwood checks the spelling of her name, their voices crisscrossing and interrupting each other through the ether — and then Atwood signs a touch-tablet in Vancouver. Here in New York, the robotic arm springs into action and signs Atwood’s signature on a copy of her book Moral Disorder.
“It’s like you’re looking at her across a table,” August says afterward. “It’s not as good as meeting her face-to-face, because it’s a little hard to talk, but it’s kind of amazing.” Asked what author she’s always wanted to meet, August thinks for a moment, then smiles. “Margaret Mitchell,” she says. “If they could come up with a Longpen that can talk to Margaret Mitchell, I’ll be really impressed.”