In his Esquire review of Bob Dylan’s latest book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, Alan Light writes, “Lying is nothing new for the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature.” The book’s title, Light argues, is a false advertisement—and just the latest mistruth from an artist known for self-mythologizing. “He started making up his own backstory as soon as people started asking,” Light continues, “and his magnificent 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One is full of easily disproven fabrications.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that another scandal about alleged fabrications is brewing around The Philosophy of Modern Song. 900 fans spent $599 apiece to purchase a limited edition run of personally “hand-signed” copies, but now, those fans are set to receive refunds after supposedly sleuthing out evidence that Dylan’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, sold them a false bill of goods, knowingly or unknowingly.
When copies of the “hand-signed” books landed in mailboxes last Friday, fans were quick to compare notes and photographs. They soon came to a belief that the books were signed using “autopen,” a machine-powered pen that captures and reproduces real signatures. Dylan wouldn’t be the first celebrity author to land in hot water over a use of autopen; other musicians-turned-authors, like Brian Wilson and Dolly Parton, have been accused of the same scam. Though autopen saves time for celebrities, it’s frowned upon in the collector’s world, as a mechanical signature lacks the commercial and sentimental value of the real thing. Autograph Live, a fan site dedicated to authenticating celebrity autographs, makes the case that Simon & Schuster used as many as 17 different autopen templates to duplicate Dylan’s signature.
When requests for refunds flooded in on Friday, Simon & Schuster responded, “We certainly understand any concerns you may have, however—each individual copy of the limited signed edition of Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song was personally signed by the author and is accompanied by a letter of authenticity from the publisher of Simon & Schuster.” That letter of authenticity, signed by president and CEO Jonathan Karp, read, “You hold in your hands something very special, one of just 900 copies available in the U.S. This letter is confirmation that the copy of the book you hold in your hand has been hand-signed by Bob Dylan.”
But within 48 hours, as fervor mounted on message boards, the publisher changed its tune. “To those who purchased The Philosophy of Modern Song limited edition, we want to apologize,” Simon & Schuster said in a tweet. “As it turns out, the limited edition books do contain Bob’s original signature, but in a penned replica form. We are addressing this information by providing each purchaser with an immediate refund.”
Funny phrasing, right? “As it turns out” suggests that Simon & Schuster was allegedly deceived by Team Dylan—but how could the publisher, which facilitated the printing and the autographing of the books, not know the circumstances under which they were signed? Is it possible that Simon & Schuster knew full well what happened here and hoped to pull one over on fans? Or did the publisher ship the books off to Team Dylan with assurances that Dylan himself would sign and return them—and then, Team Dylan used autopen to complete the signatures, hoping that the publisher (and the fans) wouldn’t notice? We may never know the truth—at least, not until Dylan’s fans file the class action lawsuit they’re threatening on Reddit.
On early Sunday afternoon, another round of emails went around, also signed by Karp. “We apologize for the mistake that was made and are offering a full refund of your purchase,” he wrote. “Please keep your copy of The Philosophy of Modern Song at no cost. We hope you will enjoy reading it.”
Simon & Schuster has not responded to Variety for comment, while over on Dylan’s Instagram account, a post advertising the “hand-signed” copies has been deleted. Maybe Dylan will fess up to what really happened here in his next book, available in a collectible hand-signed format for the low price of $599…
UPDATE 11/29/22: Turns out, Team Dylan is at fault. In a statement shared on his Facebook page, Dylan wrote, “I’ve been made aware that there’s some controversy about signatures on some of my recent artwork prints and on a limited-edition of Philosophy Of Modern Song. I’ve hand-signed each and every art print over the years, and there’s never been a problem.” In the statement, the singer admitted that after he developed vertigo in 2019, which continued into the pandemic years, it became impossible for him and his team of five to organize signing sessions in close quarters. “With contractual deadlines looming, the idea of using an autopen was suggested to me, along with the assurance that this kind of thing is done ‘all the time’ in the art and literary worlds,” Dylan continued. “Using a machine was an error in judgment and I want to rectify it immediately. I’m working with Simon & Schuster and my gallery partners to do just that.”
As for what “rectifying” the error will look like, that remains to be seen. Could fans who purchased the book be in for a free copy signed by Dylan himself? One thing’s for sure: if this dust-up proves anything, it’s that robots won’t take all of our jobs. Watch this space for updates as we continue to learn more about what’s next for Dylan’s readers.
Adrienne Westenfeld is the Books and Fiction Editor at Esquire, where she oversees books coverage, edits fiction, and curates the Esquire Book Club.
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