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How This Agency Got a Deceased Author to Sign Books at a Book Fair


Literary fans love a good book signing. But absent the actual author, the next best thing might be an autograph from a mechanical arm in his or her own style.

That, at least, seems to be the premise of a stunt from European online bookseller Bol.com and DDB Brussels at the Antwerp Book Fair this month. To mimic the handwriting of eight popular authors, the agency worked with research and design lab Beyond to analyze their original penmanship, and build a machine to recreate it.

Now, the robot is standing in for names like Nicci French (the pseudonym for thriller duo Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) and novelist David Baldacci, writing personalized notes non-stop for 12 days, at about 90 seconds per message. To make things even weirder, one of the writers, Belgian poet Paul van Ostaijen, has been dead for almost 90 years (no word yet on whether his brain, kept in suspended animation in a jar, was controlling the machine).

It's a fun idea, and a clever use of technology. DDB, for its part, maintains all the authors, and the group responsible for managing van Ostaijen's name and works, were eager to participate. It's also hard to imagine, novelty aside, that something isn't lost without the unique physical touch of the author (as in most art forms, die-hard audiences would want to connect with the actual human who created a work, not a reproduction).

Then again, it's all fairly tongue-in-cheek. The agency isn't passing off the autographs as real. And the gag is most popular for the author who genuinely couldn't be there—of more than 1,000 signatures doled out so far by the robot, some 31 percent have been van Ostaijen's.

For anyone who wants to geek out on how the machine achieved its feat of imitation, Kevin Verelst, art director and co-founder at Beyond has some insight. "It was essential to completely fine-tune four important elements," he says, citing "the choice of pen, the angle of the writing, the pressure of the pen on the paper and the writing speed."

Or if you happen to be in Antwerp and want a signature for yourself, it's not too late. The robot began its marathon Oct. 31 and will continue through this Friday.

Client: bol.com
Contact: Niels Moes
Agency: DDB Brussels
CD: Peter Ampe & Odin Saillé
Creation: Danny Vissers
Ad & Copy: Tom Meijer & Silke Beurms
Accounts: Francis Lippens & Romy Vierhouten
Strategy: Dominique Poncin, Jorian Vanvossel

Digital Design: Wieste De Ridder
Motion Design: Sven Verfaille
Producer: Stefanie Warreyn
PR: Kenn Van Lijsebeth
TV producer: Brigitte Verduyckt
DOP: Adrien Moormann

Design lab: Beyond.io
Thanks to: Matthijs de Ridder, Genootschap Paul van Ostaijen

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