The New York Times bestseller list is, at this point, an institution. Reaching number one is a coveted spot that not only allows you to sell more copies of your book, but also lets you put “NYT Bestselling Author” in front of your name on your next one. The prerequisite for the list, is, of course, selling lots of copies of your book. So how did a book that barely exists and nobody ever heard of manage to become a bestseller?
That’s what happened this week on the Young Adult fiction chart, where the reigning champion of the last six months just got booted out by an upstart. Seemingly out-of-nowhere hits do happen; a super-famous person will mention a little-known title and sales soar. But several in the publishing industry felt that this instance was something different, claiming there were not the usual signs that any readers were rushing out in droves to buy this title.
So how did a book that very few people have heard of, by a new author, from a new publisher, and with no real publicity push behind it suddenly rocket to the top spot on a NYT bestseller list?
Media news site Pajiba did a deep-dive investigation into one new book’s sudden — and improbable — appearance on the list.
For the last 25 weeks, the top of the New York Times bestseller list for YA books has been The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. The novel is a genuine blockbuster at this point, Pajiba reports, with a strong fan base and lots of publisher buzz behind it. There’s even a film adaptation in progress, starring Amandla Stenberg.
But of course, nothing lasts forever; even the most popular book, novel, or film eventually falls in the rankings. And this week, The Hate U Give was finally displaced from its number one slot. The new top dog is Handbook for Mortals, by Lani Sarem.
Apart from its content or fan base, The Hate U Give is, in a publishing sense, a perfectly normal book. It’s published by HarperCollins, a major house, and you can buy paper or electronic copies, in several formats, from bookstores, Amazon, or the publisher directly. Basically, exactly what you expect when you think, “book.”
The same, however, cannot be said of its successor on the list.
Out of nowhere
A large publisher like HarperCollins has a whole process behind book releases. Industry publications get notices, PR sends out praise, and reviewers get copies. Bloggers blog, influencers influence, and readers gossip. There’s a system, and folks in the industry expect it to work.
Smaller publishers don’t necessarily work the same way. But even then, there’s usually some attempt at promotion, or some kind of marketing. At the very least, if you’re aiming for the hardcover bestseller list, there’s an actual book that you can buy and read if you so choose.
But Handbook for Mortals came out of nowhere, Pajiba explains. Not just in the sense that it flew under the radar while people were looking at other things, but in the sense that literally nobody ever heard of it until just before it hit the bestseller list. At all.
Handbook for Mortals was being billed as the first novel from the publishing arm of the website GeekNation. But searching for information about either the publisher or the author leads to… almost nothing. There are press releases about the book — but only press releases, Pajiba notes, and those date from only one week before publication.
Does it even exist?
You would think that, to be a bestseller, you would have to, you know, sell copies of a book. And in order to do that, you need a book to sell.
But you can’t actually buy Handbook for Mortals, it seems. Author Phil Stamper couldn’t find a single copy at any Barnes & Noble in the greater New York City area. Nor can you buy a physical copy on Amazon — the hardcover is out of stock.
You can buy a Kindle version, at least, so the text itself is real. But that appears to be the only way you can acquire it.
Not adding up
The publisher itself seems to have absolutely no interest in promoting or in fact even acknowledging that the book exists — a distinctly strange stance for a company that presumably wants to make money.
GeekNation makes absolutely no mention of any publishing arm or any new book on its website. The last mention of Handbook for Mortals on the site’s Twitter feed dates to Aug. 15, and the one and only mention of the book on the site’s Facebook page is a share of the press release Hollywood Reporter published on July 28.
This is, to put it mildly, unusual. The Twitter feeds for major publishers like Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins are always working to promote new titles, and self-published authors and small publishing houses usually work even harder to talk up their books anywhere and everywhere.
Pajiba notes that the Amazon and Goodreads reviews for the book are also deeply questionable, inconsistent with usual reviewing patterns and highly likely to be fake.
Meanwhile, folks had started to notice that a film for this mysterious new book was already listed as “in development” on IMDB… with its author, Lani Sarem, listed as the star.
The community acts
After Pajiba published the story about inconsistencies around Handbook for Mortals, sources started leaping out of the woodwork to confirm that all was not well.
Three different booksellers confirmed that someone had called and placed or tried to place a bulk order for the book, without actually caring that the book was not in stock and would take some time to arrive.
A librarian also came forward to share information with Pajiba, noting that the book had gone through none of the normal channels and didn’t appear anywhere that she and other librarians usually source information or order new books from.
The book did show up on the list from one distributor that indie publishers and bookstores often use for wide distribution. More than 18,500 copies had been ordered from that distributor — a feat that, Pajiba notes, is “basically impossible” to do “in the first week with no pre-sales or early numbers before that.”
Pajiba then received details from two separate sources, each of whom claimed that the author herself admitted she had a plan to push the book onto the NYT bestseller list by manipulating the sales numbers. “Both sources also noted that the author and publisher’s primary concerns were to get a film deal,” Pajiba notes, “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.”
By the end of the day, the New York Times appeared to have agreed with the findings from Pajiba’s reports and a legion of internet sleuths. The Hate U Give author Angie Thomas noted Thursday evening that the bestseller list had been updated once again — and Handbook for Mortals was no longer on it.
A spokesperson for the NYT told The Hollywood Reporter, “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. We’ve issued an updated ‘Young Adult Hardcover’ list for September 3, 2017 which does not include that title.”
Author Sarem, however, expressed her frustration, particularly with the Twitter users who dug up and posted numbers. “My personal opinion: I’m a first time author, I did some great numbers,” Sarem told the Hollywood Reporter. “They put me on the list. The list is curated. They didn’t have to put me on the list despite how many books I sold. When these people made a big issue they [the NYT] were like this is to [sic] much effort.”
Sarem defended her book and her publisher, telling The Hollywood Reporter that to the best of her knowledge, nobody involved with the book engaged in an organized campaign.