Christmas is a good time to remember Jean Shepherd, the iconoclastic radio raconteur of the 1950s and 60s who is best remembered today as the author of the stories on which the holiday film A Christmas Story (1983) was based. But he was also the driving force behind the most hilarious hoax in book publishing history, the "best-selling novel" I, Libertine.
Back in the mid-1950s, the Times best-seller list was based not only on actual book sales but also on reader requests for new and forthcoming books. Shepherd always had an eye for the ridiculous, and one night on his radio program he not only talked about how odd and prone to manipulation this system was, but also suggested to his listeners that they do something about it. He urged them to visit their local bookstore and ask for a copy of I, Libertine by the noted British author Frederick R. Ewing. If the manager asks for a description of the book, Shepherd suggested, say it's a bawdy tale of life in eighteenth-century London.
Of course, neither the book nor the author really existed. But Shepherd's prank, abetted by his thousands of loyal fans, caused an uproar. Soon booksellers everywhere were contacting distributors and demanding deliveries of I, Libertine. Publishers Weekly was flooded with inquiries about this hot new title. Gossip columnist Earl Wilson boasted about having lunch with "Freddy Ewing" to celebrate the success of his novel.
Eventually the publisher Ian Ballantine, himself a colorful iconoclast, decided this situation was too good to pass up. He took Shepherd and a mutual friend, science-fiction novelist Theodore Sturgeon, out to lunch and convinced them to actually write I, Libertine. Sturgeon reportedly tried to finish it in a single marathon session but fell asleep on the Ballantines' couch, whereupon Betty Ballantine wrote the final chapter. The book was published in 1956 with a suitable paperback cover by Kelly Freas, best known as one of the creators of Alfred E. Neuman for Mad magazine.
It has been too long since we had a really entertaining publishing hoax. (Anyone remember Naked Came the Stranger?) Where is Jean Shepherd now that we really need him?