April 13, 2015

Did Barnes & Noble sell bogus signed copies of Jerry Lee Lewis’ biography?


Trust, but verify.

Trust, but verify.

Pulitzer winner Rick Bragg’s biography of rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, published in 2014 by HarperCollins, was warmly received upon release and appeared on multiple best-of-2014 lists for nonfiction. Lewis, who still records and performs at 79, appeared at promotional events for the book, including an appearance at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square on October 29th of last year. At the event, the store offered for purchase a limited supply of copies pre-signed by the Killer himself.

However, one local news station is claiming that the pre-signed copies may not have been genuine. PIX11 reports:

A Barnes & Noble employee told us there were 274 signed books. They sold out and some people who wanted them were turned away.

But a PIX11 investigation has found that Jerry Lee Lewis may not have actually signed the books. We’ve seen no evidence that he did beyond unsubstantiated assertions by Barnes & Noble and Harper Collins. There is circumstantial evidence pointing to the likelihood that someone else signed for him.

According to the report, the signatures on the books sold at the B&N event don’t match up with other confirmed Lewis autographs. PIX11 hypothesizes that they were signed by Lewis’ assistant, James “J.W.” Whitten, and they were certain enough to follow the investigation as deep as the Lewis autograph truther hole can go.

First we called author Rick Bragg, now a professor at the University of Alabama. He told us he had nothing at all to do with the business end of things and had no idea when the books were signed.

So we called Barnes & Noble. They told us they believed the signatures were genuine. But that the publisher handled the signing and we should talk to Harper Collins.

So we contacted Harper Collins. The company expressed confidence in the authenticity of the signatures and told us Jerry Lee’s manager, Greg Ericson, had witnessed the signings.

So we called Ericson at his office in Memphis. He said he hadn’t witnessed them. Instead, he said the pages to be signed were sent to Jerry Lee’s Mississippi ranch where J.W. Whitten witnessed Jerry Lee signing. Then the pages were sent back for inclusion in the special edition books.

So is it possible that a somewhat frail septuagenarian who’s expected to pound piano keys semi-regularly might have not hand-signed almost 300 hardcovers? Certainly, though these are new copies, and suspect signed books are usually found on the pre-owned side of the market. After all, signing is a tried-and-true way to quickly boost a book’s salability, especially when the author’s a celebrity. Some eldritch process allowed for signed copies of Ted Kennedy’s posthumous book, after all.

Those who collect autographed memorabilia have the responsibility to authenticate the signature before purchase, but if Lewis and his people are in the business of providing bogus signed copies, that would likely put liability on the publisher and bookstore chain as well. Or maybe not, but either way, dig deeper, PIX11. The truth is out there.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.