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Getting readers interested in a debut novel is hard. Getting to the top of the New York Times bestseller list? Surprisingly easy, if you know how to game the system.
On Thursday, the Young Adult (YA) book Twitter community noticed something was off when Handbook For Mortals, a new YA novel that few people had heard of, knocked Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give off the No. 1 spot of the Times‘ YA bestseller list. Handbook For Mortals was published by GeekNation, a website that just recently decided to jump into book publishing. The author, Lani Sarem, is an actress and former band manager.
Writer Phil Stamper started the investigation.
I find it... strange that a mediocre website can decide it wants to be a publisher, and one month later hit #1 on the NYT Bestsellers list. pic.twitter.com/RS1UoWl6H4— Phil Stamper (@stampepk) August 24, 2017
The story took several weird turns.
This is what I'm referencing. A book that's out of stock on Amazon and is not currently in any physical B&N in the tri-state area. pic.twitter.com/HV9l0neRgG— Phil Stamper (@stampepk) August 24, 2017
At this point, writer Kayleigh Donaldson also began investigating the saga, which she chronicled on Pajiba. She noted that the author of the book was already set to star as the lead character in the movie adaptation. That’s….not normal.
THE AUTHOR IS LISTED AS PLAYING THE LEAD CHARACTER IN THIS "IN DEVELOPMENT" MOVIE!https://t.co/g8mfm3iWhx— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) August 24, 2017
So how did the book make it to the top of the list? Buying in bulk, it seems.
It looks like they found a way to purchase the book in many regions, not as bulk orders. (Still, NYT should know something fishy happened..)— Phil Stamper (@stampepk) August 24, 2017
Stamper exchanged DMs with bookstore employees, who told him they received calls about ordering the book in bulk for “events.”
Keep up with this thread. Two more booksellers reported info. We've got reports literally all over the country now! https://t.co/8Q8T1vwVFv— Phil Stamper (@stampepk) August 24, 2017
Jeremy West, another writer, also did some sleuthing. He called for more sources to come forward anonymously.
Don't be afraid to call your local indies to ask about this and report back to @stampepk and I. We will keep everyone anonymous.— Jeremy West (@JeremyWest) August 24, 2017
It turns out the author worked as a band manager before she decided to write YA books. One of the bands she managed? Blues Traveler. Yep.
The band tweeted about the author on its official Twitter account: “yes, this is weird but not surprising…We fired her for these kind of stunts. Her sense of denial is staggering!”
Post also updated to include full Blues Traveler Twitter statement.— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) August 24, 2017
Yeah I just typed that. This day, you guys...https://t.co/lB85Jz1S14
The band has since removed the tweet. But that isn’t this story’s only celebrity twist. JC Chasez, the author’s cousin (!), promoted the book when it was released last week.
Sarem thanked Chasez and tweeted a brief description of the book, which doesn’t sound like an appropriate plot for a YA book.
A young woman goes to Las Vegas to work for a magic show but she can do real magick! 🙂— Lani Sarem (@RockanRollGypsy) August 16, 2017
In the end, the investigation into the book’s mysterious bestseller status paid off. The NYT quickly got involved and updated the list.
Okay, NYT is on it and is reaching out to the booksellers for more info. My work's done here.— Phil Stamper (@stampepk) August 24, 2017
*dies in an avalanche of notifications*
Angie Thomas was thrilled to be back in the #1 spot.
Stamper summed up the whole drama-filled incident in this tweet:
But wait, there’s more!
Sarem has not publicly commented on the scandal as of Thursday evening. But West got some dirt from a new source.
NEW SOURCE has sent me a thorough email regarding the preconceived intent of gaming the NYT bestseller list for film purposes. (THREAD)— Jeremy West (@JeremyWest) August 25, 2017
It seems the author was aware of the shady methods to launch her book to the top of the list.
SOURCE: "Lani has directly stated that her publisher planned to push the book onto the NYT bestseller list by selling it in bulk..."— Jeremy West (@JeremyWest) August 25, 2017
Also, she always planned to star in the movie.
Regarding the film, SOURCE claims that Lani "has always planned to star in it." But she needed buzz first so turned script into book series.— Jeremy West (@JeremyWest) August 25, 2017
SOURCE claims she was "promised full funding as long as it becomes a bestseller" which is where the bulk buying comes into play.— Jeremy West (@JeremyWest) August 25, 2017
So, the whole plan was to buy the books in bulk to promote a film. Luckily, the YA Twitter community worked together to shut the whole thing down.
Meanwhile, the rest of the internet went wild for the story.
Hey, @serial, the YA book world has a new case for you.— Adi Alsaid (@AdiAlsaid) August 24, 2017
Hearing about Handbook for Mortals and I'm just over here like... pic.twitter.com/RDiTtlcy57— Lauren Knowles (@knowles_editor) August 24, 2017
Non-Fiction NYT List: remember that time a dude spent a million dollars to end up on us? That was bananas.— Justina Ireland (@justinaireland) August 24, 2017
YA NYT List: Hold my beer.
Author and illustrator Whitney Gardner drew the YA Twitter “detectives.”
We’ll await the podcast/TV show/movie/book series that comes out of this scandal.
Tiffany Kelly is the Unclick editor at Daily Dot. Previously, she worked at Ars Technica and Wired. Her writing has appeared in several other print and online publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Popular Mechanics, and GQ.