We were told never to trust a hippy, but it’s likely we should also have been warned about publishers, rock musicians and the corporate world.
Bob Dylan’s recent book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, is a set of over sixty essays focusing on songs by other artists from Stephen Foster to Elvis Costello, Hank Williams to Nina Simone. The Guardian described it as “an enlightening listen-along” (1 November 2022); The Los Angeles Times said it is “revealing, misogynistic and a special kind of bonkers” (27 October 2022). Online, musicians have mostly expressed their enthusiasm about the book.
We can quickly get to the unfortunate disaster surrounding the “exclusive edition signed by Bob Dylan” – it’s the same hardback book save for the so-called autograph.
Signed copies were initially on sale though Indigo in Canada in October 2022 but were speedily withdrawn when they were thought to be signed by “autopen” – a device used for the automatic signing of a signature or autograph. Autopen signatures can often be identified by the signature being the same thickness and pressure throughout, and can resemble a signature in black marker pen, in a sometimes “shaky” signature; there may be unusual dots on the autograph, and it may be identical to other signatures.
On 12 November 2022 Coles Books (Bicester, England) had 99 signed copies for pre-order, which quickly sold out. On or around 15 November further copies were offered for sale to the US market through the publisher, Simon and Schuster (and also Premiere Collectibles). Simon and Schuster advertised each book as an “exclusive copy guaranteed to be personally hand-signed by Bob Dylan!” coming with a letter of authenticity from the publisher. On the face of it, this seemed like a winner for Dylan fans, although the Simon and Schuster website boldly declared “THESE ARE FINAL SALE AND NON-RETURNABLE”, and they were being sold at a premium (in the US, the publisher’s list price of US$599 compared to the standard version’s list price of US$45).
As “signed” books stared to arrive later in the week, recipients (particularly on forum Autograph Live) compared copies and raised the alarm by demonstrating that the signatures in the books were either identical to one another or a variation on a theme, probably through the use of different templates of autopen (the latter an elaborate method of trying to make the signatures look individual). Further signs of autopen use as described above were also identified. An authority on autograph verification expressed doubt as to whether the books were hand-signed. In other words, the general view was that Bob Dylan had not handwritten, in manuscript, his signature in these books. There was outrage by fans on social media who felt they had been duped.
Yet, somewhat amazingly, Simon and Schuster continued to actively maintain that these were personally signed books. They stated they were not offering returns or refunds (unlike Coles Books). It seems possible that Simon and Schuster then asked the Dylan team to back up the books’ authenticity. as over the weekend of 19 November bobdylan.com also advertised the “personally signed” edition on social media (they received a torrent of abuse in the comments in reply).
The tide seemed to turn on 20 November, when the description on the Simon and Schuster webpage advertising the book was amended to remove the reference to the book being “hand-signed”, and was marked as “no longer for sale” [the page is now completely deleted]. Emails then started being sent from Simon and Schuster stating: “We apologize for the mistake that was made and are offering a full refund of your purchase. Please keep your copy of The Philosophy of Modern Song at no cost”. The “mistake” was not explained, but this was a complete turn-around, with a publisher in full crisis management mode over what must have been a difficult weekend.
Simon and Schuster later released a statement (20 November) offering a further apology, advising that “as it turns out, the limited edition books do contain Bob’s original signature, but in a penned replica form”. It’s a remarkably strange attempt to be casual about something that was critical to the whole saga – authenticity, and the phrase “limited edition” now stood out like a sore thumb. Understandably they did not address what happens if any of these books get sold on the second-hand market on the basis of a much trumpeted letter of authenticity.
Indeed what about that “guarantee”? Perhaps Simon and Schuster took the view that it was enough to have the backing of the Dylan organisation, but when push came to shove there was no real evidence shown to buyers that the books had been hand-signed (as opposed to hand-stamped). Fellow rock star Bruce Springsteen recently seemed to issue a different type of guarantee in relation to his 2023 tour (Rolling Stone, 18 November 2022) – “if there’s any complaints on the way out, you can have your money back”. Springsteen is a consummate performer, but an unhappy customer could in theory try and enforce this on the way out.
We don’t know the inside story, but it could be that the contract for The Philosophy of Modern Song expressly required some signed books, but Dylan was not keen on putting pen to paper – this “exclusive edition” was the foolish solution. Some have been surprisingly quick to defend the artist, suggesting that Bob Dylan couldn’t possibly have known or been part of any duplicity. However if rock and roll is a corporate business, Dylan is the CEO, and must have some responsibility or duty – or are we just what Dylan calls “wussies and pussies” complaining about this stuff?
We expect rock stars to have integrity but we may be missing the point. When they are at the top of the industry, they will almost certainly be immersed in a world of Big Business, seemingly a long way from the grit and grime of the street, that which sets rock and roll hearts racing. Fans should be sceptical about what is in front of them, and be wary of publishers with “signed” books.
UPDATE: On 26 November 2022, a message was posted on social media by bobdylan.com as follows:
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Release Date: 01 NOV 2022 [“non-exclusive” hardback]