Chloe Gordon, a 32-year-old filmmaker, describes herself as “a person who somewhat ironically engages” with the work of the novelist Dan Brown. She has read all but one of the eight books Mr. Brown has published under his name.
So when she stumbled upon an internet rumor that identified Mr. Brown as the author of a tongue-in-cheek dating guide from 1995 called “187 Men to Avoid: A Survival Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman,” she immediately bought it on Amazon.
The 96-page novelty book, which was originally published under the name Danielle Brown, promised very short descriptions of men the author considered unsuitable romantic partners — a book of red flags, if you will. “Men who think Lamaze is a famous French car race,” for example. “Men who decoupage.” “Men with pet rocks.”
But when she opened her mail, Ms. Gordon realized that the wrong book had arrived (“Heretics of Dune,” a 1984 science fiction novel by Frank Herbert). She forgot about it for about a year and then went on Amazon and bought the book again. This time she received Elizabeth Taylor’s 1988 dieting memoir, “Elizabeth Takes Off.”
Having struck out twice on Amazon, Ms. Gordon tried eBay. She paid a seller for the book, and a few days later received a refund and an email explaining that the book did not exist in the seller’s inventory. She ordered a copy from a different seller. This order, too, was canceled and refunded.
Ms. Gordon, who lives in California, did not give up. She ordered the book on AbeBooks, a subsidiary of Amazon. Once again, she did not receive “187 Men to Avoid” but, this time, “The Ghost Light” by Fritz Leiber.
She began to anticipate receiving wrong books. On July 19, she filmed herself opening her most recent Amazon package, which turned out to be a copy of Bill Cosby’s 1992 musings on youth, “Childhood,” and posted it on Twitter. “Oh no,” she groans. “This is worse — it’s getting worse!”
“This breaks my brain every day,” Ms. Gordon said by telephone on the afternoon her unsolicited copy of Mr. Cosby’s book arrived. Every book she received appeared to have the same bar code printed on its cover — and most of the books’ back covers featured an additional stick-on label from their resellers insistently identifying them as “187 Men to Avoid.” Every label was patently untrue.
And why did the error appear to extend to every independent secondhand seller, too? “I still, to this day — I have no proof that this book is real or exists,” Ms. Gordon said.
Information about the slim, square-shaped book is difficult to come by. But both the original 1995 edition and a Berkley Trade reprint published in 2006 are listed in various places online. The covers are almost identical — a pigeon-toed blond cartoon woman in a cherry red coat and floppy hat clutches herself protectively as she stands before a large assembly of suited men. The 2006 reprint amends the cover text to read, “Early Humor from the Author of ‘The Da Vinci Code,’” and recasts the author as “Dan Brown Formerly Writing As Danielle Brown.”
Data from NPD BookScan, which has tracked book sales data since the early 2000s, shows that the 2006 edition sold about 1,200 copies.
Ms. Gordon began to entertain conspiracy theories, including about the possible existence of a “person at some warehouse somewhere that’s putting the wrong bar code on everything.”
But what would be a warehouse employee’s motivations for falsifying stock numbers of an obscure, out-of-print dating humor book from 1995?
“There’s not really a version of this that totally makes sense,” Ms. Gordon said. “If I’m using my Dan Brown brain, it’s obviously Dan Brown putting the bar codes on fake books so that no one ever sees this really embarrassing book that he wrote in the ’90s.”
Proof of Existence
In 1995, the year “187 Men to Avoid” was published, Mr. Brown was working as a high school English teacher at his alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and he had begun writing his first novel: the thriller “Digital Fortress.”
His circumstances overlapped neatly with the author bio of “187 Men to Avoid”: “Danielle Brown currently lives in New England — teaching school, writing books, and avoiding men.”
In Lisa Rogak’s second unauthorized biography of Mr. Brown, “Dan Brown: The Unauthorized Biography” (a 2013 follow-up to “The Man Behind the Da Vinci Code: An Unauthorized Biography of Dan Brown,” published in 2005), Ms. Rogak, an exhaustive if often unsanctioned chronicler of celebrities’ lives, wrote that Mr. Brown had written “187 Men to Avoid” with his future ex-wife Blythe Brown.
According to Ms. Rogak, the couple (who were not yet married at the time “187 Men to Avoid” was published) had found inspiration for the book in “the ludicrous characters and dating and mating methods of the men and women they had witnessed” while living in Los Angeles.
Ms. Rogak’s research also turned up a rare public acknowledgment from Mr. Brown of “187 Men to Avoid,” given in an interview about his novel “Angels and Demons,” which was published in 2000.
The interview, which was published on The Book Review Cafe, a defunct website, includes this quotation from Mr. Brown: “Yes, I did write a book before ‘Digital Fortress.’ It was a silly little humor book whose title will forever remain a secret! The book, I believe, is now out of print (rightly so).”
Mr. Brown’s publisher said he was unavailable for comment for this article. A publicist for Ms. Brown said she was also unavailable for comment.
Despite Mr. Brown’s wish for secrecy, “187 Men to Avoid” has been a detail on his Wikipedia page since January 2006.
It was added there by Elonka Dunin, a cryptographer and management consultant. Ms. Dunin, who has made tens of thousands of edits to Wikipedia articles, is an acquaintance of Mr. Brown.
In a telephone interview, Ms. Dunin said she met Mr. Brown as a result of a 2003 contest advertised on DanBrown.com. Entrants who solved a series of puzzles incorporated into the dust jacket of the first U.S. edition of “The Da Vinci Code” would be eligible to win a free trip for two to Paris, where much of the novel takes place.
Two of the puzzles on the dust jacket related to “Kryptos,” a sculpture by the artist Jim Sanborn that is located at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va. The artwork incorporates four encoded messages — one of which remains unsolved. (Ms. Dunin is known as an expert on the sculpture, which is famous among puzzle-solving enthusiasts.)
“He wanted to chat with me about ‘Kryptos’ since he was going to be talking about it the next morning on ‘Good Morning America,’” Ms. Dunin said.
Ms. Dunin said she stayed in touch with Mr. Brown after their conversation, and later corresponded with him to confirm biographical information while expanding his Wikipedia page. Her best guess is that she learned of the existence of “187 Men to Avoid” from searching Mr. Brown’s name in a library catalog.
A search for “Dan Brown” in the Library of Congress catalog turns up a hit for “187 Men to Avoid” and categorizes it under the heading “Mate selection — Humor.”
To Err Is Human
We can say, then, that “187 Men to Avoid: A Survival Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman” is the work of Dan Brown, and possibly, to some degree, Blythe Brown, now his ex-wife, but then his future wife. (The extent to which Ms. Brown was a collaborator on Mr. Brown’s books has been a matter of much litigation.)
But the identity of the book’s author does not itself explain why Ms. Gordon received so many other books that are being sold online under its title.
The book Ms. Gordon received from her first ordering attempt came from a company called ZBK Books — an Amazon reseller that operates out of three northern New Jersey facilities.
Reached by phone, the owner of ZBK Books, Shirzad Zarei, was apologetic about the mix-up. He was also confident he could explain how it had happened. The mystery, he said, was likely set in motion the first time someone — anywhere — listed “187 Men to Avoid” for resale online. Like the secrets of Leonardo da Vinci as imagined and explicated by Mr. Brown, this issue stemmed from a code hidden in plain sight: the book’s bar code.
Bar codes help businesses track inventory and sales. In the case of books, the bar code is a graphical representation of a numerical sequence called an International Standard Book Number, or ISBN — different combinations of 13 digits that identify published books, including alternate versions of themselves. (Hardcover editions of “The Da Vinci Code” have a different ISBN than paperbacks, for instance.)
When a book is listed for online resale for the first time, the data the seller enters about the title can become the default information generated for all future scans of its unique ISBN. (If other sellers subsequently notice an error, they can report the listing as incorrect.)
“The first person that tried to sell it used probably just entered some wrong information,” Mr. Zarei said of “187 Men to Avoid.”
Because unaffiliated resellers are working from the same shared book data, Mr. Zarei said, “if one of us is making the error, everyone is making it.”
A Glitch in the Matrix
While Mr. Zarei was able to explain how the error had flourished like a weed in the online book reselling ecosystem, he could not determine the basic question of its existence: Why had so many books been printed with what appeared to be the exact same bar code?
“That’s certainly not what we would call best practice,” said Brian O’Leary, the executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, a publishing trade association.
Although the books mailed to Ms. Gordon were as unalike as members of the nightshade family, close inspection turned up trace similarities. All of the books were published between 1984 and 1995. All were published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons or its paperback affiliate at the time, Berkley Books.
The common lineage led Mr. O’Leary to speculate that the reused bar codes may have been the result of “a production problem” at the publisher level.
For instance, Mr. O’Leary said, “when you’re laying out a book and you put the cover together for the first time, you may not know the ISBN.” Perhaps, he said, someone had inserted a “dummy” bar code and ISBN, so that, say, the publisher and art director could see what the finished product would look like. If so, it may have been the case that they sometimes forgot to later swap out the “dummy” elements for the real ones.
Or perhaps they remembered, but only halfway. Bar codes were still gaining popularity in the 1980s, after all. (A representative for Penguin Random House said the publisher was unable to locate an employee who felt they had “the proper insight” to answer questions about this instance of bar code confusion.)
It’s possible, Mr. O’Leary said, that “somebody just said, ‘Oh, we’ll change the ISBN’ without thinking, ‘We need to change the bar code’” — which is meant to encode that same number.
“187 Men to Avoid” was probably not the progenitor of the shared bar code; the publication dates for “Heretics of Dune” and “The Ghost Light” predate it by nine years. But it’s plausible that out of all the different books printed with this bar code, “187 Men to Avoid” happened to have been the first to pass under the scanning laser of an online used-book seller.
It’s virtually impossible to know how many books have this bar code, according to Mr. O’Leary. In other words, if Ms. Gordon sticks to her current strategy, there is no way to know how many online orders for “187 Men to Avoid” she will have to place before she receives the correct item. It’s possible none of the sellers will ever possess this book again, despite what their internal records show.
Still, she remains optimistic that she’ll acquire it eventually.
“I have to stay positive,” she said. “I’m going to get this book if I have to go to New Hampshire and pry it out of Dan Brown’s hands.”
Alexandra Alter contributed reporting.