Earlier this week, debut novelist Lani Sarem seemed to accomplish a surprising coup: her book, Handbook for Mortals, a fantasy novel slated to be the first in a series, unseated Angie Thomas’s acclaimed The Hate U Give as the top-selling Young Adult book in America. With little pre-publication buzz and none of the fan base that often propels YA books to the top of the New York Times’s best-seller list, Handbook for Mortals somehow managed to surpass sales of Thomas’s book, which had been number one on the Times’s YA best-seller list for 25 weeks and is being adapted into a movie with a cast that includes Amandla Stenberg and Issa Rae.
Sarem’s overnight success seemed suspicious to the YA community and, after YA writer Phil Stamper raised questions on Twitter, the pop culture blog Pajiba followed up, alleging that Handbook for Mortals had manipulated its numbers and bought its way onto bestseller lists. As Pajiba continued to follow the minor publishing scandal, the story itself became its own mini-melodrama, with appearances from D-list celebrities from ’90s movies like American Pie and the band Blues Traveler. It culminated on Thursday when the Times said that it pulled Handbook for Mortals from the bestseller list after “inconsistencies in the most recent reporting cycle.”
Sarem’s book is the stuff of standard YA fantasy, with a familiar plot line that doesn’t quite explain its overnight success. According to early press coverage from the Syfy Network, Handbook for Mortals follows a “young woman named Zade who has magical powers.” There’s a whole magic show plot involving Las Vegas and, of course, the heroine saves herself by using her rare gift. Sarem’s series was published by GeekNation, who launched their new publishing arm with Handbook for Mortals. Pre-publication, The Hollywood Reporter noted that series was designed to be adapted into a “feature film franchise,” and that Handbook for Mortals was already slated for a movie adaptation. THR reported:
As part of the franchise deal, actor Thomas Ian Nicholas — best known for his work in the American Pie franchise and Rookie of the Year — will produce and likely take a role. Also producing will be Sarem and Chris Kenner, who has served as a longtime executive producer to iconic magician David Copperfield.
A handful of pre-publication write-ups sound a lot like THR’s report—clearly taken from a press release with the intent of drumming up interest for the future movie adaptation. That pre-publication buzz is part of what set of the YA community’s alarm bells. “There’s little real excitement or details on it coming from the YA blogging world, which is a mighty community who are not quiet about the things they’re passionate about (believe me, first-hand experience here),” Pajiba blogger Kayleigh Donaldson wrote.
On Twitter, Stamper pointed out a number of inconsistencies, including the low traffic of GeekNation and the fact that Handbook for Mortals was practically impossible to buy, suggesting that someone had bought the book in large, bulk orders (a not-unusual tactic in the conservative book industry).
There were other signs, too, that Handbook for Mortals had bought its way onto the bestseller list. Again, from Pajiba’s incredible sleuthing:
Another user, writer Erik. J Brown, noted the questionable quality of the book’s Amazon reviews, which Fakespot deems of unreliable and low quality. The book currently has 9 Goodreads reviews, all of which are 5 stars and some of which are duplicates. If you know anything about Goodreads, you’ll already hear the bullshit alarm.
Jeremy West, manager of OnBroadwayish, pointed to the book’s sales, which according to Nielsen Bookscan, are 18k for the past week alone. That’s weird. Very weird.
Meanwhile, Stamper tweeted at DMs from an anonymous bookseller who said that a producer of the film adaptation called-in a large order of Handbook for Mortals after confirming that the store was a Times-reporting bookstore. The numbers at Bookscan and Edelweiss, standard tools to track book sales or measure the temperature of a book, also looked suspicious. Basically, everything pointed to the fact that the film’s producer (or producers? Remember the guy from American Pie?) were proverbially cooking the books, forcing Handbook for Mortals into the number one spot by bulk-purchasing their own product.
If the saga of the Handbook for Mortals wasn’t already confusing enough, let’s pause to consider that, in the middle of this story, Blues Traveler weighed in. Yes, the Blues Traveler of “if you’re Rin Tin Tin or Anne Boleyn” fame shared their thoughts on Twitter (now deleted) because Sarem used to work for them.
For her part, Sarem told Publisher’s Weekly that the speculation was “silly.” “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,” Sarem said. She noted that she’ll be promoting the book at an upcoming con.
The drama now concluded with appropriate justice doled out by the New York Times who returned Thomas’s The Hate U Give to its rightful place at the top of the bestseller list, we can now return to our lives with this small, delicious gift. I desperately look forward to reading Susan Orlean’s surely touching treatment of this wonderful story.