Publishing is a tough industry. Building an audience can be hard, competition is tight, profit margins even tighter, and most authors have annual wages below the poverty line. Making your way to the still-coveted New York Times best-seller list remains one of the biggest markers of success as well as a reliable way to sell more books. If everyone else is buying the book, surely you have to too, right?
Nowadays, you can make the bestseller list with about 5,000 sales. That’s not the heights of publishing’s heyday but it’s still harder to get than you’d think. Some publishers spend thousands of dollars on advertising and blogger outreach to get that number. Everyone’s looking for the next big thing and that costs a lot of cash. For the past 25 weeks, that big book in the YA world has been The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a searing politically charged drama about a young black girl who sees a police officer kill her friend, and the fallout it causes in her community. Through publisher buzz and exceedingly strong word of mouth, the novel has stormed to the forefront of the YA world and found thousands of fans, with a film on the way. Knocking that from the top of the NYT YA list would be a major deal, and this week it’s going to happen. But something’s not right.
Handbook For Mortals by Lani Sarem is the debut novel from the publishing arm of website GeekNation. The site announced this news only last week, through a press release that can be read on places like The Hollywood Reporter, not a site known for extensive YA coverage. Sarem has an IMDb page with some very minor acting roles, several of which are uncredited, but details on the book are scanter to find. Googling it leads to several other books with the same title, but most of the coverage for it is press release based. 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).
YA writer and publisher Phil Stamper raised the alarm bells on this novel’s sudden success through a series of tweets, noting GeekNation’s own low traffic, the inability to even buy it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and its out-of-nowhere relevance.
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
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
You shouldn't be able to buy your way onto the @nytimes list. But here we are.— Phil Stamper (@stampepk) August 24, 2017
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.
I'm baffled by this too and have discussed longform offline already. Bookscan is 18k for last week alone. SOMEHOW.— Jeremy West (@JeremyWest) August 24, 2017
Buying your way onto the bestseller list is not technically illegal, nor is it that hard if you know how. Many conservative publishers have found success through bulk-buying books then giving them away as, say, subscriber gifts if you sign up to Newsmax or the like. The thing is, usually the New York Times make note of this and include this as a footnote of sorts to the list. Here, there’s nothing. Pulling this kind of trick is hard to conceal, but here it’s especially glaring.
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
How does a book with such a low Amazon ranking that’s ‘temporarily out of stock’ suddenly become the most read book in YA? How does something that has next to no organic blogging coverage or even Twitter buzz do this? If the only Twitter gossip for your book is variations of ‘Seriously, has anyone heard of this book?’ you’ve got problems.
If you have actually heard of or even read this book, please get in touch because we are baffled.
Phil Stamper received this DM, which he shared with the user’s name redacted, which confirms our questions.
Well this clears things up… (they asked for their name to be redacted) pic.twitter.com/WkzUynUwsB— Phil Stamper (@stampepk) August 24, 2017
*sigh* pic.twitter.com/lwBAKLQwDC— Phil Stamper (@stampepk) August 24, 2017
Jeremy West received a DM confirming another instance of this.
I have received a second source claiming this happened last week. pic.twitter.com/ot0vFBMjb2— Jeremy West (@JeremyWest) August 24, 2017
We don’t know who this mysterious bulk book buyer making a movie of the novel is, but we do know that Thomas Ian Nicholas from the american Pie series is supposedly attached to star and produce in any such adaptation (the author used to manage his band. On top of her many other jobs, Sarem works for Amplify, a music marketing agency. ). Geeknation, according to the Hollywood Reporter, are said to be planning a feature film franchise from the book.
My theory is that someone, whoever they may be, hopes to use the “#1 New York Times best-selling novel” moniker as a launching pad to a studio deal for this planned film. The problem with that is that studios, producers and the like still require solid numbers before making a call, and you can’t provide said evidence when you just bulk buy some books then never pick them up. Handbook for Mortals, conveniently, has an IMDb page ready to go.
So this gets wilder. The IMDb page for the film, at least on mobile form, lists the author as attached to play the lead character of the story. Well, that’s one way to get your career going.
Thank you to an anonymous source for providing this Bookscan detail. Itasca Books are a distributor, mostly for indie books, a way to get your book out there to as many stores as possible. According to Nielsen Bookscan, they helped to distribute a whopping 18597 books in one week, all across the USA. To do this all in the first week with no pre-sales or early numbers before that is basically impossible. As my source noted, ‘Bookstores/amazon/etc. almost never perfectly embargo anything.’ This is all far too neat to be anything other than organised.
More news from Phil. Essentially, for Barnes & Noble, buying 30 or more copies of the same book is considered a corporate sale, something that would probably be noted by the New York Times Bestseller team. For indie stores, that number seems to be 80. A lot of work went into this scam (a second tweet in this update was removed to protect anonymity):
And now we've had a third bookseller report (w/photo evidence!) A guy called to place an order for <30 copies at all 3 B&Ns in their city.— Phil Stamper (@stampepk) August 24, 2017
Thanks to another anonymous source who works in the library world and provided us with some more revealing numbers. As she told me, she tried to find out if her library had ordered the book but they hadn’t, it wasn’t listed with their prefered vendor and it wasn’t on Edelweiss (a key source of review copies and promotional material for bloggers and librarians). Our source notes, ‘I did find it available from Ingram and was really surprised by the on-order numbers— they have 19,055 book on-order and no copies on hand. For comparison, the perennially popular James Patterson’s latest novel The Store, which came out 10 days ago, has 5,262 copies on hand.’
They also offered some screencaps to show those numbers for a stark comparison. All those books on order but nothing on hand? If you ask me, this is a big case of a scam greatly over-shooting its mark.
The author used to manage Blues Traveler. They tweeted their thoughts on her but then deleted them. I have included a screenshot since John Popper gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly saying he wished he hadn’t deleted them. He also helped to fund a Texas classroom library with diverse books during all this so kudos:
On Thursday, Blues Traveler posted these since deleted tweets stating that they fired Lani as manager due to "these kinds of stunts." pic.twitter.com/uBKbAbfp17— Jeremy West (@JeremyWest) August 26, 2017
(It’s been a very layered day)
I also recommend checking out that thread of Jeremy’s for further details on why the tweets were deleted in the first place.
On Saturday, actor-singer Jackson Rathbone sent out a shady tweet. Rathbone, who you may recognise from the Twilight movies, was formerly in the band 100 Monkeys, who Lani Sarem used to manage. So this is very interesting…
"Her sense of denial is staggering!"— Jackson Rathbone (@JacksonRathbone) August 26, 2017
Spot on, Mr. Popper. Spot on.
Phil is the detective we need and deserve during these times.
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*
FINAL UPDATE (?):
Just got our "revised" NYT list — Hate U Give #1!— Belmont Books (@belmontbooks) August 24, 2017
And lo, justice was served.
Pajiba received details from two separate anonymous sources who got in touch, each claiming that author Lani Sarem herself admitted plans in multiple meetings with potential business partners and investors to push the book onto the New York Times Bestseller list by fudging the numbers. Both sources also noted that the author and publisher’s primary concerns were to get a film deal, with the movie having been promised funding if it became a bestseller, hence a bulk buying strategy with a focus on reaching the convention circuit. We have kept our sources anonymous for privacy and safety reasons, but we trust our contacts.
Pajiba will keep you updated as details come to us.
It’s been a long day, you guys.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE:
Both Pajiba and Jeremy and Phil, our intrepid detectives, confirmed with a number of sources that a 3rd party marketing company named ResultSource, who specialise in “bestseller campaigns” on behalf of authors, were involved with the bulk buying strategy for Handbook for Mortals. ResultSource are not unknown entities in gaming the system but they tend to do it more for non-fiction stuff like conservative books and business related materials. Both Jeremy and I confirmed with sources that orders were placed with ResultSource for a large number of copies of the book.
We have CONFIRMED that Krista, an employee of ResultSource and "associate" of Lani placed at least ONE bulk order. https://t.co/tu0DNSyutf— Jeremy West (@JeremyWest) August 25, 2017
Given the sheer number of copies we have heard being ordered from multiple sources, as well as everything discussed above, we have reason to believe ResultSource were used for more than these source-confirmed orders. This isn’t illegal, we must stress, but it is a concerted effort to game the system, something the author has denied doing. Noted by Jeremy:
in her acknowledgements "for help in other major areas that we needed." To me, that seems like prior knowledge.— Jeremy West (@JeremyWest) August 26, 2017
The question remains as to who hired ResultSource for this plan. We believe the author knew about this but may not have instigated the plan. According to sources, it was Thomas Ian Nicholas who took the book to GeekNation after it was unable to find a publisher and this was what started the publishing wing of a near-abandoned website with a terrible reputation. Nicholas did an interview with WGN Radio, where he seemed aware of high sales, which he credited with pre-sales on the convention circuit.
This offered another hole in the author’s story. An anonymous bookseller contacted Jeremy to say they had received a strange phone call directly from the author, who needed 98 copies of her book for DragonCon. The author is not scheduled to appear at DragonCon as a guest, author or speaker.
Many of you have gotten in touch to ask about the novel’s cover and the artwork it “coincidentally” resembles:
Ryan M. Kincaid, the cover artist of the novel, claims he was asked to create a homage to the work of Gill del Mace, but with assurances that proper credit would be given. He claims to have no prior knowledge of this problem until this week.
Ryan M. Kincaid, cover artist for Handbook For Mortals, regarding "homage" to Gill del Mace. pic.twitter.com/6ZAQgmoklv— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) August 25, 2017
I emailed the gallery who represent Gill del Mace and received this message on Sunday 27th August:
UPDATE:— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) August 27, 2017
Agent for Gill del Mace, the artist whose work Handbook for Mortals' cover rips off, responds. pic.twitter.com/BErUu9Wqrh
I received another update from del Mace’s agent and his inability to get proper credit for his client’s ripped off work.
Update: Gill del Mace's agent emailed again & noted his inability to get Handbook for Mortals to credit the artist they ripped off. pic.twitter.com/xftqLjJjnm— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) August 31, 2017
I have tried to find information on ‘Mike Lawier’ but drawn a blank. A ‘Michael Lawyer’ can be found in the acknowledgements of the book, where Sarem says ‘To Michael Lawyer for always protecting me and being the voice of reason.’
SORRY, I HAVE TO:
In what may be the weirdest update to this case I can possibly think of (yes, even weirder than everything above), a FictionPress claiming to be Tara, the author of the infamous ‘worst fanfic of all time’, My Immortal, would really like the world to know she didn’t have anything to do with Handbook For Mortals.
‘Tara’ is savage and we love it, but alas, the detectives of Tumblr were on the case and have debunked this too-good-to-be-true genius.
We’re sticking with this and will update as we find more.