WWW-third-anniversaryBefore you embark on this intriguing guest post from talented author https://coveringthecorridor.com/rxonline/online-cialis/43/ gradesaver essay editing reviews miss brill persuasive essay college homework helper thesis prize committee regions best online viagra write my thesis thesis follow url go here essay on utilitarianism ethics thesis and dissertation ppt http://v-nep.org/classroom/case-study-developmental-psychology/04/ click here prices for viagra buy viagra spain what should i write a story about logical format for writing thesis and paper can a psychiatrist prescribe viagra best cheap essay editing service usa go site chords for viagra in the water follow site go proof reading english go to link go to site save our mother earth essay for kids what are the risks of buying viagra online https://bigsurlandtrust.org/care/node-91/20/ click here custom paper editing service us summer essay topics J. Mark Powell, a few housekeeping announcements:

Tomorrow, May 1, our writerswin.com site celebrates its third birthday! You’ll see some changes on the site, including increased speeds and tune-ups to plenty of content. And, with “growing up” comes a minor change in our blog post/newsletter schedule:

Rather than blogging on odd days (1, 3, 5…) we’re establishing more “regular scheduled programming” that will allow you to better anticipate news/insights from us. It will also allow us to plan for better, more informative and comprehensive content. Beginning with this post, we’re now officially on a Tuesday/Thursday/Sunday schedule. Posts will release at 8:00 a.m. EST. For our blog subscribers, your email digest will follow on the same days at 9:00 a.m. EST.

We thank you, our favorite writers and authors, for hanging out with us these past few years, and look forward to many more! Stay tuned for more WWW news and announcements in the days and weeks to come. Now, onto some fun…

This is the story of how a talk radio pioneer (and his devoted fans) concocted a wildly preposterous hoax – and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Christmas-storyTo fully appreciate this tale, you must first understand Jean Shepherd, the satirical genius who was a masterful storyteller. He helped create the talk radio format, and was a gifted writer who gave the world A Christmas Story, which eventually became a movie in 1983 (narrated by Shepherd himself) that’s grown into an annual holiday tradition.

Shep (that’s how he identified himself) had a melodic voice that begged you to stop whatever you were doing and listen. It was only natural that he drifted into a career in radio after serving in World War II, eventually reaching that pinnacle of broadcasting, WOR Radio in New York City, in 1955.

The industry was in a transition phase just then. Television’s arrival in the early 1950s had ended the Golden Age of Radio, and the older medium was struggling to reinvent itself. Music and news filled most of its day.

Good-Shep-at-Mich-1Shep believed an engaging host could create an audience simply by talking directly to people, not reading from a prepared script. We now know the format as Talk Radio, but it was a cutting edge programming concept then.

So he was given the time slot most broadcasters loathe above all others: the dreaded graveyard shift, midnight to dawn. But Shep loved it. The long stretch of empty hours meant he could ramble to his heart’s content. And with management safely snoozing in their beds, he could say whatever he wanted, too.

His satiric brand of humor was ahead of the curve (he was satire when satire wasn’t cool) and quickly developed a fiercely loyal following among what he termed the Night People … including Beat poet Jack Kerouac and comedian Lenny Bruce.

Top-10Shep may have been working in Manhattan, but having been born and raised in Hammond, Indiana he still had Midwestern sensibilities. One thing that astonished him about New Yorkers was their slavish obsession with Top 10 lists. “The 10 Most Beautiful People…”  “The 10 New Looks for Summer…” “The 10 Hottest Movies…”

Shep felt New Yorkers blindly followed whatever appeared on those lists without thinking or questioning them. The one that got his goat most of all was The New York Times Best Seller list for books.

The Times has been printing this highly influential list since 1931. But here’s the thing: in Shep’s time, despite its name, the criteria for making the list involved more than just book sales. It included customer requests for and questions about books to book sellers.

So, if a retailer had a stack of a particular book that wasn’t selling, he could gin up enough queries about it to get the title included on the best seller list, which then made people go out and buy it.

Shep saw through this hypocrisy and ranted about it at length one night. In a burst of inspiration, he speculated that if enough people requested the same title of a book that didn’t actually exist, it could indeed make the coveted New York Times Best Seller List.

The Night People went crazy over the idea; WOR was flooded with calls from listeners pledging their support.

Shep-at-mic2Shep was like a kid in a candy store. He invited the Night People to suggest a title for their “book.” After receiving dozens of suggestions, he settled on I, Libertine. His creative juices were flowing now; Shep quickly created a fictitious author, a retired British military officer and scholar named Frederick R. Ewing. Ewing “lived” with his wife Marjorie on their English country estate, where he churned out a steady stream of literature on his manual typewriter.

And so, in the spring of 1956, the I, Libertine book hoax was set in motion.

Remember, this was before Amazon.com and big chains. Books were primarily sold by mom-and-pop book retailers. Hundreds, then soon thousands, of the Night People descended on these stores, asking with a straight face if I, Libertine was in stock and (because it obviously wasn’t), if it could be ordered.

One listener reported that a particularly snooty clerk responded to the query with, “Frederick R. Ewing? It’s about time people began noticing his work. I’ve long felt he hasn’t received the recognition he deserves.”

Another listener described how she mentioned the book at her weekly bridge club meeting; three women said they had read it, and then proceeded to argue over which chapters they liked and those they didn’t.

One Night Person who was a college student (Shep wouldn’t name the school, but strongly hinted it was Rutgers) submitted a lengthy term paper for an English Lit class on “F.R. Ewing: Eclectic Historian.” He even included extensive footnotes quoting from Ewing’s previous novels. The professor wrote “Superb research!” on the cover page and gave it a B+. The student later told Shep: “My whole education is probably phony.”

Because New York is an international city, Night People who were travelers took the hoax with them overseas. Requests for I, Libertine began popping up in London, Paris, Rome and Bonn, West Germany.

Banned-in-BostonIn perhaps the hoax’s crowning achievement, a church congregation in Massachusetts condemned I, Libertine, enabling proponents to claim with semi-accuracy that the book had been “banned in Boston.” Nothing, after all, drives sales faster than censorship.

And sure enough, it happened: by early summer 1956, the book that didn’t exist made The New York Times Best Seller List … and kept inching upward on it. One literary gossip columnist even wrote in a leading newspaper, “Had a delightful lunch the other day with Frederick R. Ewing and his charming wife, Marjorie.”

And the whole time this was going on, Shep and his Night People listeners were laughing themselves silly. There was never any secret to it; it was a hoax openly discussed and pulled off right on the public airwaves.

One day that summer, Shep was having lunch with his friend, real-life science fiction novelist Theodore Sturgeon, and the publisher of Ballantine Books. Sturgeon casually asked, “Would you like to meet the author of I, Libertine?” The publisher excitedly looked around the room. “Would I? Every publishing house in New York would like to buy that title. Where is he?” Sturgeon pointed to Shep and said, “Right here.”

i-libertineThey explained the gag and had a good laugh, then decided to actually produce a real book. So, working from the plot outline Shep had given his listeners, Sturgeon cranked out a real story. It hit store shelves in September 1956, and guess what? You got it – I, Libertine made the Times Best Seller list (again).

The cover artwork has a hilariously lurid painting featuring the ridiculous teaser line: “Gadzooks,’ quoth I, ‘but here’s a saucy bawd!’” A hint about the story’s true origin is hidden within it: an inn sign in the background features a shepherd’s staff. There’s even a black and white photo on the back cover of a forlorn looking Shep identified as Ewing.

In a totally classy move, Shep donated all profits from the real book to charity. His intention had never been to con people out of money; it was to expose human gullibility and to demonstrate how easily people can be manipulated by their blind desire to be part of the “in” crowd.

Shortly before the real book was released, a loyal Night Person who also happened to be a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and had eagerly followed the hoax from Day One asked, “Don’t you think it’s time to spill the beans?”

wsjournal-ilibertineShep agreed, and on August 1, 1956 the story appeared on WSJ’s front page (click on the image to enlarge and read!) It was big news for a week, with the Journal’s story even appearing word for word in Pravda, the official newspaper of the Soviet Union.

In time the matter was eventually forgotten. Shep, of course, went on to pen the tale for which he’s best remembered today, a story that has more to do with a certain BB gun than libertines.

As for the moral of this story, the news media at the time completely missed the point. They reported the matter as a simple book hoax, not a revealing expose on human nature. The I, Libertine experience proved what Shep had claimed all along: the vast majority of people simply don’t think for themselves.

I checked, and you can still buy I, Libertine on Amazon.com. Not bad for something that started nearly 60 years ago on a whim during an overnight radio program.JMarkPowell

J. Mark Powell is a former political reporter for CNN, and the author of Tell it Like Tupper, a novel featuring a hoax or two of its own. We expect he’s no doubt lurking out there somewhere, working on his own tribe of Night People…

6 thoughts on “The Bestseller Book That Didn’t Exist: Pulling Off the Book Hoax of the Century

  • May 3, 2015 at 8:40 pm

    Fabulous story! And funny. This is a modern “king has no clothes” story. It shows the power of advertising, and people’s basic gullibility. What’s more disturbing is the number of people who claimed to have read it or met the author. Truly weird.

    • May 3, 2015 at 10:29 pm

      I know, right? Would love to hear the backpedaling those folks cam with if/when confronted, eh?! A whole lot of “Oh, I thought you meant…”

  • May 1, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    Fascinating. I used to work in the data processing area of a record retailer, and was surprised to find that the Billboard charts were not totally based on record sales. First, the marketing people at each retailer would decide which items to watch, and they would only report sales of these items. When John Lennon died, only one album was on the list that week, so despite a surge in sales of records by him and The Beatles that week, the retailer I worked for only reported sales for that album. The next week, other records were added to the list.

    • May 1, 2015 at 3:27 pm

      Fascinating insights, thank you, Davey! I subscribe to the theory that if you tell folks it’s unavailable, they’ll all want it… a variation of the dead artist’s theme, eh?

  • April 30, 2015 at 9:00 pm

    The book was published Sept. 1, 1956. Yet, The Wall Street Journal exposed it as a hoax on Aug. 1, 1956? It was exposed as a hoax a month before it was published and sold and reached the NYT best-sellers’ list again?

    ‘Sturgeon cranked out a real story. It hit store shelves in September 1956, and guess what? You got it – I, Libertine made the Times Best Seller list (again).’

    People really ARE gullible….

    • April 30, 2015 at 9:25 pm

      I know, right? Expect by then they wanted to get in on the hoopla… All around hilarious — but a lesson we can take as authors — if you can convince a few influencers that it’s the coolest thing since lipstick, people will beat that path to your door…

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