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The YA Book That Has the YA Community Crying Foul

25 August 2017

From Publishers Weekly:

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. For Lani Sarem, whose new novel Handbook for Mortals hit #1 on the newspaper’s YA hardcover list, the feat has not been met with plaudits from the publishing world. Instead, a number of members of the YA community have taken to social media claiming the book is only on the list because someone has manipulated its sales.

So-called gaming of the New York Times bestseller list is nothing 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 outlets have the potential to chart higher on the paper’s list. This, according to some YA authors—as well as a few agents and editors—is what is happening with Handbook for Mortals, which was published on August 15 by a new publishing arm of the pop culture news website, GeekNation.

Phil Stamper, a YA author who has taken to social media to unmask what he believes is a false bestseller, said the book started raising flags among those in the community right away. Calling the informal group “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.”

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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 talking to 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.’ “

. . . .

At press time, the New York Times sent a note to subscribers of its bestseller lists alerting them to a revision to its Young Adult Hardcover list. A 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.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG checked what was happening with the book on Amazon. When he checked last night, it had an average of three stars with 23 customer reviews.

When PG checked the reviews, he found about half were five stars with relatively short comments, some of which sounded pretty generic. One of the negative reviews noted that most of the five star reviews were by new readers who had only reviewed this one book.

The other half of the reviews were one-star, often emphatic that the book was terrible and a lot of the favorable reviews were fake.

There is a favorable “Editorial Review” by “Skye Turner, International Bestselling Author”.  PG checked Skye’s latest book, published in May, 2017, and discovered its sales rank is #627,532 Paid in Kindle Store.

Here’s the author’s bio:

Lani Sarem basically grew up in the entertainment industry. She began acting at age three and continued to act and perform through her early years. Lani began writing scripts when she was eleven. Over the years she has become a jack-of-all-trades in the entertainment business. She became a rock n’ rolly gypsy at fifteen and started touring with bands and working on festivals. She’s toured with everyone from Ryan Adams to Gnarls Barkley. She also became one of the youngest female managers in the business and managed bands like the Plain White T’s, 100 Monkeys and Blues Traveler. Lani has appeared in films like Mall Cop 2, Jason Bourne, and Trailer Park Shark. Handbook for Mortals is a debut novel of a series of books, which are also being made into feature films.


Advertising-Promotion-Marketing, Bestsellers

55 Comments to “The YA Book That Has the YA Community Crying Foul”

  1. If only there were a way to know if a book were an actual bestseller. If only one could actually count all sales. If only books had some sort of scannable code that let the manufacturer know it was sold. Or maybe even a sales report from the online booksellers.

    There must be a better way to track bestsellers. Perhaps someone will eventually come up with one.

    • @ Meryl

      So sorry, but who cares about “Bestseller Lists”? Not I. As a writer, all I care about are my own sales… and royalties! 🙂 IMHO, these lists are BS; gaming them is fairly easy to do, as history has shown. And the NYT’s BSL doesn’t track so much genre and ignores indie pubs and audiobooks, so it can hardly be said to be an accurate snapshot.

      This reminds me of the LA Times assiduously publishing opening weekend grosses for movies. Yeah, Hollywood cares about that, but the average LAT reader no doubt does not.

  2. By the right “buzz” do they mean something like a full page ad in the NY Times?

  3. That’s funny. “Skye Turner” is the name of a character in the book I’m reading right now called “The Seed Collectors” by Scarlett Thomas. The character is a young celebrity on the decline.

  4. Smart Debut Author

    The issue here wasn’t that the NYT list was gamed; that practice has been long institutionalized by big NY publishers — it’s one of the few differentiators they can bring to the table for (some of) their authors.

    The hue and cry is only because now the NYT got gamed by some outside entity without tacit institutional approval by NYT advertisers and the NYT list’s editorial staff.

    PS – ever wonder why a supposed “best seller list” even needs editorial staff?


    • And because tbey didn’t buy NYT ads.
      If they had the whole brouhaha would’ve been ignored at the NYT.

    • That’s it, exactly!

      And all those sour grape ads without verified purchase saying how awful the book is (and it may be, dunno, and don’t plan to find out). It makes it look like the YA community went hysterical, frankly.

      • Read just the “Look Inside.” It really is pretty bad. It starts with a Foreword that is a paean to the author and her book by a friend, telling us all how great the book is and how great the author is as a person. Then the text itself is… I will be nice and call it juvenile and self-indulgent and badly in need of editing, and leave it at that.

        • Yeah, I thought that was pretty hilarious/awful. Especially how the forward starts off right away with analyzing how to pronounce the author’s name. Which A) is not insightful or interesting in the least, and B) is something most of us wouldn’t even consider as being worth discussing because it’s not that hard a name to figure out.

          But yeah, that forward. I just can’t.

      • The YA community seems to be getting more hysterical in general. This isn’t the first major viral outrage this month. Too much Facebook, perhaps?

      • @ Mirtika

        “It makes it look like the YA community went hysterical, frankly.”

        YA has always a prime target for the SJWs and their outrage of the week!

    • good observation Smart Debut Author “ever wonder why a supposed “best seller list” even needs editorial staff?”

  5. Assuming that she did as accused, desperation can make you do crazy things.

    That said, it never ceases to amaze me how much time fellow authors spend policing what other authors are doing or not doing instead of focusing on their own books.

    It always seems to be authors whose Amazon ranking is in the hundreds of thousands that somehow find the time to go on a crusade saving the universe by exposing the bad behavior and mistakes other authors have done. It’s the only way they can get attention by rallying up other low-ranking authors with their pitch forks to punish other authors.

    Was this shady? Assuming it’s true, of course. Does this affect the pocket books of the authors whose rankings are in the hundreds of thousands and haven’t sold a book in weeks? Not so much.

    • So everyone should just mind their own business, smile and ignore the lie?

      • Why not?
        It’s the NYT “bestsellers” list.
        No credibility anyway.
        And it gets gamed weekly.
        Why such a fuss that it was gamed weakly?

        • *If* it was gamed.
          In past few years we’ve seen quite a few of these online lynching parties end up with egg on their faces.

          In this case I neither believe nor disbelieve the charges.
          But running up an online mob on the strength of two anonymous sources in a dispute over a book that received tens of thousands in publisher ad support vs a newcomer without ad support?

          Me, I wouldn’t be too quick to buy into either party’s narrative.

      • Well…yes. I’m a writer, not a policeman. My time is better spent on my next book.

    • Seems like other people are doing the policing. I suspect some indy writers (like me) are following this because:

      1. We kind of wonder if it would be possible for us to rig the list ourselves. (And pat ourselves on the back for not stooping to such low dishonest tactics.)

      2. We wonder how someone could be so stupid as to do it so badly they get caught. (And again pat ourselves on the back for not being stupid enough to try.)

      3. It amuses us to know that the NY Times list is so bogus. (So we can pat ourselves on the back and say it doesn’t matter if we aren’t on it.)

      4. It’s rather fun to think about how one might do it better. (And pat ourselves on the back because we won’t.)

      Little bit like reading about a botched bank robbery.

      • All of which hinges on the anonymous “tips” being real. 🙂

        Both sides smell. Kinda like the messes over the Hugos. One side may have clumsily tried to scam their way on a disreputable list. The other jumped a wee bit too fast to protect a publisher’s ad investment.

        I have no sympathy for either side.
        And if the tips are fake…

      • Then there are those like me, who keep a list called “How to Game the System” and tick off the boxes every time someone does it badly.

        (Adding smiley face so you’ll know I’m just kidding.)

        (Too lazy to add smiley face because it’s easier to type without looking for odd characters on a keyboard when you’re a touch typist and the shift key comes naturally but the smiley face does not.)

  6. Here’s something telling, from another link that discusses this CF – http://www.pajiba.com/book_reviews/did-this-book-buy-its-way-onto-the-new-york-times-bestseller-list.php

    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.

    So the gaming wasn’t really even to sell books – selling the books was just a stepping stone to getting a movie deal. Who cares about the books?

    • @ DaveMich

      LOL. Show me the option money! 🙂

      (But don’t expect any more $ if it’s actually filmed and is a hit. Hollywood invented Creative Accounting — something I know about firs-hand from working in the Industry.)

    • The problem is that most of those “sales” aren’t actual sales. The publisher ordered about 25 copies from something like 100 B&Ns around the country. B&Ns rules treat anything under 30 as a standard purchase. The book is not stocked, it gets ordered, and paid for on a credit card. This gets counted as a sale on the NYT bestseller list. (25 sales). By B&Ns rules, the order can be CANCELLED at any point prior to picking up the books, for a full refund. So, the publisher faked thousands of sales. The books get returned to the distributor.

      No money changed hands, but 5000 sales show up on the NYT best seller list.

    • It’s funny to act as if writing books strictly for the movie deals is a bad thing. Ian Fleming was fairly straightforward about writing the James Bond books specifically so they could get made into movies. He jumped the gun a few times, which is why there was that rights mess with Casino Royale. And the Bond books are now considered classics of the genre (albeit somewhat un-politically-correct ones these days).

      But gaming the bestseller lists to try to make that happen is definitely iffy.

      • How about Michael Chrichton?
        Most of his books were movie-bound projects from inception, even the ones tbat didn’t quute make it. In fact, many were just promos for the movie.

        Today, movies build pre-release buzz through online trailers and teasers but in the olden days were a staple buzz builder.

        I’ve noticed that movie tie-in books and novelizations are a lot rarer these days whereas in times past almost all blockbuster tent pole movies had a tie-in/novelization or two attached.

        • @ Felix

          “I’ve noticed that movie tie-in books and novelizations are a lot rarer these days whereas in times past almost all blockbuster tent pole movies had a tie-in/novelization or two attached.”

          Perhaps because the Millennials who flock to such movies don’t do much reading? 🙂

          • I thought it was because feeding the youtube and instagram beasts is cheaper than commissioning and printing a tie-in that might or not sell. Especially when some of those franchises are story-less light shows. (TRANSFORMERS, anyone?)

  7. I honestly don’t care if she gamed it by buying copies herself. If the bestseller list is about books that “sold the most copies this week,” then it’s about sales, not perceived quality or the credentials of the author or even who bought the books. Do books bought by friends/family/coworkers/church groups/club friends get disqualified as “just pushing the author’s numbers?”

    Are they gonna monitor who buys books now and vet the bestsellers? Because maybe we should end the practice of ads. I mean, a publisher can buy expensive ads in periodicals and radio programs, can pay to have books displayed prominently in stores, can pay for ads on FB and Amazon, can use connections to get them on TV programs and book clubs. And how is that not “gaming” in a way? It’s using what you have to get noticed. She bought a lot of books to get noticed. She found a way to “advertise” spending her own money.

    If the books sucks, she won’t sustain the status/sales.

    I guess it doesn’t twist up my panties that this person used this method. It would probably lose her money, anyway. ::shrug:::

    • But they’re not actual sales. See my comment above. The orders get canceled and B&N refunds all the money… but this is after the NYT list already comes out.

      • Then B&N and other booksellers should make ordered sales non-refundable and at least cost to them paid in advance. Problem solved.

        Again, if it was just one week, she’ll drop out of it the next. I still don’t see why it’s a big deal. She won’t sustain the bestseller status.

        • Because just being on the list one week can get your sales boosted. Physical books stores which DIDN’T stock your book at launch will order copies and have them on shelves available for purchase. Most libraries automatically order books that make it on to the NYT bestseller list. Your book goes from something no one has ever heard of to very visible. Just like if you charted on Amazon.

          The problem lies in the fat that by gaming the system, and essentially cheating to get on the list, the publisher has stolen a spot on the list away from someone else who probably deserved it legitimately.

          Saying that being on the NYT list doesn’t matter, or doesn’t boost sales is myopic, because being on that list means vendors will push your book for you more than if you weren’t on that list. It helps a book cut through the noise.

    • The NYT list is most assuredly *not* about which books sold the most copies.

      They were quite candid, after their last rejiggering, that the list exists to build buzz for new releases their Editorial Board fancies.

      Paul hopes that the new lists will help draw potential readers to new books. “I think in this new reconfiguration, you’ll see a lot more newly published hardcover fiction,” she said. “Just like book reviews, the bestseller lists are another place for discovery.”


      Discovery being an euphemism for “promotion” in this case.

      This change came in the wake of an indie published kids book making its way to the top of the lists solely through word of mouth reader recommendations over a year. That couldn’t be allowed so they took steps to prevent a repeat.

  8. Because I have a nasty mindset, I have to wonder if there would’ve been as much of a “outrage” if the book being displaced were a different title?

    Especially since bragging about “NYT BESTSELLER” status doesn’t actually require hitting the too spot, just making it to the top 10 or whatever.

    Going back to the OP , I noticed a lot gets made about the book that “should’ve” been ranked at the top.

    • The OP I mean is the quoted source:


      “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.”

  9. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I think it’s wrong to game a system, which is why I consider the NYT list to be completely untrustworthy, but there’s something to be said for getting yourself on it or USAT. Then you can always call yourself “NYT Bestselling Author” and it gives you an immediate credibility with people outside the system. Suddenly you’re an authority, somebody to be listened to.

    And if I had a few hundred thousand dollars lying around, would I do it? I don’t think so, but I can certainly see the temptation.

    Sounds like she got investors to buy those books to get on the list. It was a clever move; she just should have done the publicity end a lot better. NetGalley, bloggers being contacted, etc., and she might have gotten away with it. Maybe she should have hired one of those NYT companies who get you on the list instead of going it alone with Thomas Ian Nicholas (who I enjoyed when I was a teen. This makes me sad for him).

    I’m wondering now what happens. Will this book tank? Or will it have garnered so much publicity that it will sell anyway? If it goes south, what’s the fallout for the author and her investors? What happens to the movie? Will this be hundreds of thousands of dollars just down the tube?

    • It’s like how “bestselling Amazon author” has become meaningless. And writers who do the block set (many authors in one volume for 99 cents) got on some list’s top 50 and can use “Bestselling Author.” Maybe people bought the set for lead author who is actually a bestseller, but everyone on the coattails gets bestseller status. It’s working what they have…

      I just can’t get worked over it. The policies of bookstores or the NYTimes will have to adapt, just as Amazon tries to find gamers and alter the system to disadvantage them. Game the gamers.

  10. To me, the importance of bestseller lists (besides bragging rights) is to alert readers to possible new releases–or in some cases re-releases–that might interest them. And of course to sell books.

    I’ve noticed in my local newspaper that, in the fall, the paperback bestseller list is full of older books that students are required to buy for classes (e.g. Lord of the Flies). I guess that’s fair enough, since these are real sales. It’s too bad for newer books and their authors, though.

    If only life could truly be fair. I guess those of us with enough to eat and roofs over our heads should be grateful it isn’t.

  11. Every system can be gamed. Every system that is perceived to be profitable to game (for money, social status, whatever) will be gamed.

  12. From what I’ve seen, it looks like the author was purely using book publishing as a boost to get her screenplay sold. It started as a screenplay, it already has an imdb page, and those can (as I understand) be put up by anyone. So it looks like she was having trouble selling her screenplay, decided that since so many movies these days are book adaptations, if she could crap out a book and get that “NYT Bestseller” tag on it, she’d have better luck selling her screenplay (which, according to the imdb page, she intends to star in the movie, thus boosting/launching her acting career).

    In other words, she’s showing total disrespect to the entire book industry by attempting to use it as a stepping stone to screenwriting/acting success. And that’s why it’s so hard to buy a paper copy and why the ebook is priced at $9.99. This whole scheme was never intended to sell books. They had an entirely different goal in mind.

    That’s my take on it, based on the various things I’ve read. Sounds like the NYT has put out a new list, so it doesn’t matter much at this point anyway. Really, it just serves as a good example of why none of us should care about getting on these lists at all.

  13. Technically I’m a NYT bestselling author–several weeks after my second book came out, the publisher congratulated me (in a rather tepid email) that I’d placed #5 on the ebook bestsellers list.

    I was on the outs with the publisher by then and didn’t trust anything the editor said, plus I knew the book was getting pretty terrible reviews (due to serious misbranding of the book, not because it was badly written, I swear!) So I said “nice to know” and pretty much forgot about it.

    When my royalty statements came a few months later, I saw that 700 ebooks had been bought….and 700 had been returned.

    The moral of this story: If it was this easy to get a nobody like me on the NYT, there must be TONS of manipulation going on with even more authors. Can we even trust the list?

    • Smart Debut Author

      Your story is odd.

      Not the list-manipulation/trustworthiness aspects; we all know how artificially curated and duplicitous the NYT “best seller” list is.

      But your numbers don’t add up.

      A publisher would have to generate (or fake) at least 8,000 – 10,000 sales in a week to hit the very bottom of the NYT ebook list, let alone #5.

      The NYT list is fake AF, but nobody gets on there with 700 sales.

      • Well, royalty statements from some publishers are as trustworthy as the “bestsellers” list. Lawsuits have proven that.

        • Smart Debut Author


          Don’t forget that in many cases, those royalty statements (and any accompanying checks) don’t actually go to the author; they go to the author’s “literary agent” instead.

          So a hypothetical trad-pub author might be getting their own sales data (and royalty-share) thirdhand.

          Of course… no one’s ever heard of a legal case where a “literary agent” didn’t report or pay their author for 100% of actual sales or anything, have they?


      • This book in question in the OP got to Number #1 on the fiction list with 5000 first week sales.

  14. Dexter von Dexterdorf

    Has anyone considered the possibility that the movie was actually a documentary about how to game the NYT system? I can just see it on Netflix now, “Making a Bestseller”

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