Handbook for Mortals, the debut novel from Lani Sarem, hit bookstores last week and quickly reached the number one spot on The New York Times Young Adult Hardcover Bestseller list. The novel is about a young woman named Zade Holder with some special powers who joins a magic show in Las Vegas, where she falls into a love triangle and has her abilities tested as pressure to succeed in the show mounts.
While a YA fantasy novel hitting a bestseller list isn’t all that uncommon, Handbook for Mortals earned a considerable amount of scrutiny when some authors and publishers began to look into the novel’s surprisingly high sales figures, eventually prompting the Times to remove the book from its list.
Sarem and her publisher are now accused of rigging the bestseller chart to promote her debut novel, possibly as part of some scheme to see it adapted into a movie. Sarem has denied that this is true.
The saga started at the end of July, when a website called GeekNation announced that it was starting a publishing imprint and that Handbook for Mortals would be its first book. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the site planed to turn Sarem’s novel into a film, with hopes of expanding it into a franchise.
The book was released on August 15th, and according to Nielsen BookScan, which provides point-of-sale figures for the publishing industry, it sold over 18,000 copies in pre-sales — a startling number for a new author to hit. That was enough to launch the book onto The New York Times list.
The Times’ list is complied from surveys of a sampling of independent and chain bookstores and is intended to show off what individual customers are buying, rather than bulk, wholesale orders. Ending up on the list helps with a book’s visibility in an overcrowded marketplace; as a result, some authors and publishers have worked to game the system over the years to try and land on it.
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 appearance of Handbook for Mortals has led authors and critics to question how it got there. Phil Stamper, another YA author, raised his concerns on Twitter and was later contacted by several bookstores that claimed someone had placed large orders of Sarem’s novel, only after asking if they were a store that reported to the Times.
After questions were raised, the Times removed Handbook for Mortals from its list and told NPR that “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.”
On Twitter, Stamper pointed out that GeekNation’s plan to adapt the novel into a movie could be a reason for trying to push the book onto the bestseller list: “They just want to pitch their film franchise as ‘based off of the #1 NYT Bestselling series.’”
And a film may have been the ultimate goal here. Sarem said the novel was based off of a movie script that she had written, and efforts to turn movie or television pitches into books as a way to shore up attention with studios isn’t unheard of. Joseph Mallozzi, the creator of the TV show Dark Matter turned his pitch for the show into a graphic novel to help sell it to the Syfy Channel. And other YA novels, such as Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey amassed massive fanbased online, propelling them onto bestseller lists and into major film franchises.
For her part, Sarem has said that she was unaware of anyone working to game sales for her book. She blamed reporting inconsistencies in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter and said there’s “no official explanation to what happened.” Sarem also told The Huffington Post that the controversy is due in part to the YA book community forming a bias against her because she wasn’t ingrained in the community. “I didn’t play by the normal YA rules. I didn’t [...] send out galleys two years in advance, and I didn’t go talk to the people that thought I should come talk to them. I did it a different way.”
American Pie actor Thomas Ian Nicholas, who is attached to produce the film adaptation, told THR that he and Sarem have purchased books in bulk in advance of several upcoming conventions later this year, saying that “maybe that’s where things got convoluted.” Sarem also pointed to their efforts at major comic conventions.
We’ve reached out to GeekNation and will update this post if we hear back.