There are few better forms of publicity than landing a spot on the coveted New York Times bestseller list. It's especially notable when a debut, by a largely unknown author, pulls off such a feat. But for Lani Sarem, whose new novel Handbook for Mortals hit #1 on the newspaper's YA hardcover list, it's been a brief, controversial perch at the top. Her achievement caused a firestorm on social media, with members of the young adult writing community claiming the book's sales had been manipulated to force it onto the list. The outcry resulted in the Times backtracking, and removing the title from its list.
The Times sends out an advance copy of its list to publishers and members of the industry on Wednesday evenings, 10 days before the list appears in print. It was on this list that Handbook for Mortals was at #1. After a little more than 24 hours, and various accounts of conversations with booksellers who had received dubious-sounding bulk orders for the book, the paper sent a note to subscribers of the list alerting them to a revision.
In a statement, a New York Times spokesperson told PW: "After investigating the inconsistencies in the most recent reporting cycle, we've decided that the sales for Handbook for Mortals do not meet our criteria for inclusion. We'll be issuing an updated Young Adult Hardcover list for September 3 which will not include that title."
The title also appeared, briefly, at #2 on the paper's list, after the statement was issued about it being dropped. Addressing this, the spokesperson said that "a production error" occurred, but that it was "quickly addressed after hours."
While it's highly unusual for a book to be dropped from the paper's bestseller list, so-called gaming of the list is not new; there are even companies that specialize in manipulating sales to help authors hit the list. The effort is fairly simple, but often costly. Because the Times culls its list from point-of-sale data collected by a select (and secret) group of retailers, books with particularly high sales from these specific outlets have a better chance of hitting the chart. This, according to some YA authors—as well as a few agents and editors—is what happened with Handbook for Mortals, which was released on August 15 by a new publishing arm of the pop culture news website, GeekNation.
Phil Stamper, a YA author who was among the first to take to social media to unmask what he believed to be a false bestseller, said the book started raising flags among those in the YA community right away. Calling the informal YA community "extremely close-knit," Stamper said he and others "know and support" new books and authors. So, when a title no one had heard of landed at #1 on the Times' list, "we were all a little stumped." (The YA writers had seen the book charting in the paper's advance list.)
The theory was that Handbook for Mortals had benefited from the classic approach to gaming the list, landing at #1 thanks to a series of bulk orders from outlets that report their sales to the newspaper. Although the Times tries to ward against this—it puts a symbol next to a book that has been ordered in bulk—it can be difficult to stop scammers who know precisely how many titles to order to remain under the paper's radar. This is what Stamper believes those pushing Handbook for Mortals have done.
He said whoever is ordering the book has made "small bulk orders"—throughout the country—which have "gotten past the New York Times." (The book did not initially appear on the Times' list with the icon denoting it had been ordered in bulk.)
Stamper said he and a team of others who have been investigating the book's rise spoke to a Las Vegas-based bookseller who reported that 29 copies of the title had been ordered at all three of the city Barnes & Noble stores; Stamper noted that if the order had been any bigger "it would have been [considered] corporate sale" by the Times.
One bookseller outside of Las Vegas, who spoke to PW on the condition of anonymity, related a strange order for the book that she had fielded. She said the caller, who was looking to order the book, asked if her store was "a reporting one," referring to the Times. He said he wanted copies of the book for an upcoming event, and insisted that the order needed to be placed on the day he was calling, which was Saturday. He wound up ordering 87 copies.
PW has also heard from sources that another independent bookstore received an order for 1,200 copies.
According to NPD BookScan, the book sold 18,597 copies during the last week, though it did not include Handbook for Mortals on its bestseller list because it did not meet its eligibility requirements.
Jeremy West, a writer and former YA book blogger, has, like Stamper, been investigating the matter. "As soon as I saw the list yesterday, it didn’t make sense to me," he told PW. "The lack of social media buzz [for the book], the fact that no one in the young adult community was talking about it or had even heard of it… it all sounded fishy."
West said after he started poking around, he wound up speaking with five booksellers who shared similar stories about orders they had taken for the book. "They all said the same thing: someone called and placed a large order or asked about placing a large bulk order 'for an upcoming event.'"
For the author, though, the Twitter uproar is much ado about nothing. And, moreover, a disappointment.
Sarem, contacted by phone, said she has seen some of the backlash online, but believes it's off base. She said she has been promoting the book, for months now, just not in the places that the New York publishing world is accustomed to looking.
Claiming that she has been championing the title at Wizard World events (which are trade shows focused on comics and other pop culture properties), Sarem said the book landed with a lot of buzz, even if the YA community was not aware of it. And, having worked in Hollywood in various capacities—she has done some acting, and managed various bands, among other things—Sarem also said she has gotten some invaluable plugs for the book on social media. Among others who have tweeted about the title are former N'Sync band member JC Chasez (who is Sarem's cousin).
Speaking about those who have disparaged the title online and questioned how it could become a bestseller, Sarem said: "It's silly to say I didn't know about this book, so how can it be doing well? We should all be supportive of each other." She then added that she has not read many of the books by some of the YA authors who have disparaged her novel on Twitter, but that doesn't mean she would question their success if they became bestsellers.
NOTE: This story has been updated from its original form to reflect new developments.