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The Brief, Tumultuous Reign Of An Erstwhile Best-Seller

Lani Sarem poses with her novel <em>Handbook for Mortals</em> at the release party for the book in Chicago earlier this month.
Barry Brecheisen
Getty Images
Lani Sarem poses with her novel Handbook for Mortals at the release party for the book in Chicago earlier this month.

For a little while Thursday, young adult literature had a new reigning New York Times best-seller. In the paper's list of most popular YA hardcover novels, a new face had toppled Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give from the perch it has occupied nearly half a year. By mid-afternoon, though, the order the YA world had known for weeks was restored.

But what happened to the hours-long ascendancy of Lani Sarem's Handbook for Mortals? Gather round, everyone — that's going to take some explaining.

First, a little background: Sarem's debut novel hit the market earlier this month, the first book put out by novice publisher GeekNation, which has spent the bulk of its life online as a space for pop culture news and commentary. That lack of publishing experience didn't appear to impede Sarem, an actress and former music manager, or the prospects for her book, which was billed as "the first book in an urban fantasy/paranormal romance series" — and, according to the book's promotional website, is "already in the works to be made into a motion picture."

It got a positive writeup from The Hollywood Reporter, a supportive pitch from *NSYNC's JC Chasez (Sarem's cousin) and the backing of American Pie star Thomas Ian Nicholas, who has been closely involved with the book's planned film adaptation. All in all, not a bad start — which, when coupled with the distinction of being a No. 1 best-seller, seemed to destine the novel for big things.

That is, until several members of the extensive YA community on Twitter took note of the new ranking.

Writer Phil Stamper was one of the first to point out he smelled something fishy, pointing out in a series of tweets that he found it strange a website that's not widely known could catapult a book to such heights. He was soon joined by Jeremy West, manager of a Broadway fansite, who noted its exceptional sales numbers — 18,000 copies in a week, according to West — despite a relative lack of availability at major retailers.

"Pretty much immediately, more people in the publishing industry latched onto that and said, 'Oh, I had the same thought,' and also, 'We were just talking about that last night' — and on and on, " Stamper told NPR on Friday.

The allegations picked up steam when Stamper and West started getting notes from several booksellers who claimed to have been contacted by someone asking if they reported their sales to The New York Times. Then, the booksellers said that caller would place a large order for the book — but not large enough to attract notice — without regard for when it would be delivered, despite saying the order was for an upcoming event.

One of the booksellers said, in Stamper's words, "she had a feeling they were gaming the system, but she couldn't really know for sure." The suspicion was that the orders were part of an effort to misrepresent the book's popularity in pursuit of a higher ranking — and thus, greater hype for the planned film.

As The Wall Street Journal reported in 2013, the practice isn't unheard of in the publishing industry, where some marketing firms have sought to manipulate best-seller lists — and glean the sheen of being called a "best-seller" — by buying up books ahead of their publication date. Many such lists try to prevent this with a variety of "stringent rules and controls," Nielsen Bookscan's Jonathan Stolper told the paper, but occasionally the maneuvers prove effective anyway.

NPR has not been able to independently verify the claims lodged by Stamper and West.

But those claims were enough to catch the attention of Pajiba.com and from there, the wider media — and, eventually, even the Times itself. Within hours of Stamper and West's initial tweets, Handbook for Mortals had been stripped of its crown and ejected from the list, returning The Hate U Give to the throne it has long occupied.

"After investigating the inconsistencies in the most recent reporting cycle, we decided that the sales for 'Handbook for Mortals' did not meet our criteria for inclusion," a Times spokesperson told NPR in a statement. "We've issued an updated'Young Adult Hardcover' list for September 3, 2017 which does not include that title."

West posted a screenshot of the change.

"That's the amazing thing," Stamper said. From his first tweet to the Times decision, "it happened all in a workday."

Sarem, for her part, told NPR the past 48 hours have been "quite a roller coaster." When she saw the tweets circulating about her book, "my first thought was to just ignore it. It was just a couple of — you know, in my mind — silly tweets."

But as the day stretched on, and as she says neither Stamper nor West reached out to her personally, she reached a different conclusion: "I'm being cyberbullied, basically."

Sarem says part of the hubbub Thursday is owed to the fact that she "just didn't go about things in a traditional way": Rather than courting a YA audience, Sarem asserts, she and Nicholas attended comics conventions, speaking on panels, signing books and generally marketing to the "people that would go watch Wonder Woman."

"The YA community is a very close-knit community, and it seems like if you don't market to them, they don't want to accept if you have any sort of success," said Sarem, who maintains she never sought the YA label herself. "But the world we live in, there's all sorts of ways that people find out about things nowadays."

As for those suspicious bulk orders, Sarem chalks that up to conventions, as well — specifically, the 12 she says she plans to attend between Aug. 31 and year's end.

"We did have some calls made to some bookstores where some Wizard Worlds would be happening soon and would place the order, saying, 'We don't care if you have books right now, we just want to make sure they're there before the event.' "

Ultimately, whether or not it's on a best-seller list, she said she simply hopes her book finds the right audience.

"I've been in the entertainment business a long time. I've worked for bands, I've acted, I've worked for festivals, I've been on movie sets in front of and behind the camera — and I learned along the way there's lots of things that one group of people love and other people don't love," she said.

"I want my book to find its way to the people that are going to love it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.