We Can't All Be Winners

We Can’t All Be Winners, But Some of Us Can Buy the Trophy

Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem is a YA novel about Las Vegas and the supernatural that was recently poised to debut at #1 on The New York Times bestseller list. But Twitter quickly caught onto the fact that this monumental debut wasn’t all it seemed–and the YA book community has exploded.

Let’s talk about what all has been learned and what we might think about this.

(Just a quick note: if I state a fact without an accompanying link, it’s because it’s in one of the links I’ve already given. There’s a lot to unpack in this story!)

The first outlet to break the news was Pajiba, reporting on the Twitter detectivism of Jeremy West and Phil Stamper. Publishers receive the NYT list ten days before it’s published in the paper, so publishers were surprised to see a new book knock the smash hit The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas off the bestseller list. Surprise turned into suspicion when the YA community realized that it was a book no one had heard of. In traditional publishing, the buzz for high-profile books is extensive, and there’s a huge network of YA authors, YA book blogs, and YA YouTube channels who will happily promote promising new YA books. With teens as well as savvy adults making perfectly posed Instagram photos of their newest faves, the YA community promotes books with style and social media know-how, and so the community manages to be both large and well-connected. As a library employee serving teens, I often know which new books are going to be big hits with my readers before they even come out, because they’ve already had months of positive press, so the chance that a good book could pass by their notice is almost 0%.

But Handbook for Mortals hadn’t gone through any of the traditional press routes; Lani Sarem and an actor, Thomas Ian Nicholas, have been promoting it at conventions and on radio shows. Sarem and Nicholas are both open about the fact that Nicholas is set to become the star in a possible film adaptation of the book; Sarem is listed as his co-star on the film’s IMDB page. The book was also published by the new publishing arm of the site GeekNation, which is a weird kind of pop culture news site, with erratically published news, and a number of affiliated and mostly extinct podcasts.

All of this was revealed after it became known that Handbook for Mortals bought its way to becoming a bestseller. With the lack of press, the sales figures of over 18,000 copies moved in one week seemed literally impossible, and reports have come in from anonymous booksellers that large, bulk orders of the book have been placed within the last week, skewing numbers. This is, unfortunately, a time-honored tactic in the world of books. It’s such a common tactic for politician’s books that if those books make it to the NYT list, they appear with a mark next to their title on the list. Cowboys and Aliens got turned into a movie with a similar tactic, where copies of the book were sold for only $4.99 and at huge bulk discounts for retailers. These days, pretty much every bestselling YA book is at least investigated for its moviemaking potential, so making it on the list can make a lot of people a lot of money. However, this bulk-buying tactic is very new to the world of YA publishing, and it’s pretty unique for the actors in a movie to promote the book before it even hits store shelves.

The evidence that this book bought its way to the top is pretty conclusive, at this point. Despite Sarem’s protests in The Hollywood Reporter that her book is genuinely popular and the larger YA community were simply caught off-guard by its success, The New York Times has removed Handbook for Mortals from the list. Between that and the move to cast leads for a film that hasn’t yet been made, it seems pretty obvious that this was an attempt to game the system. Sarem might not be directly responsible, but she’s not the only party invested in the success of the book and an ensuing film adaptation.

The reality of any popularity contest is that it is flawed, especially when the contest relates to sales. Being the best at capitalism doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the best overall. And, it’s pretty clear from excerpts that Handbook for Mortals simply isn’t the best book out there, especially in the current, vibrant YA environment.

The YA book community is so outraged by this move precisely because it shows that the system can be gamed, and will be gamed. The New York Times is such an important barometer of value that if an author gets any book on the list, “New York Times bestseller” will precede their name for the rest of their natural lives. While, again, gaming the system has become popular, it’s never impacted the YA list like this. The YA list has generally been a faithful reflection of what’s popular. It’s especially hurtful that The Hate U Give, a book about police brutality against young black women, nearly had its winning streak cut short by an author whose biggest claim to fame is as “Hotel Guest” in Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. Lani Sarem may be a nice person just trying to publish her story, but she’s not succeeding here on her own merits; someone stands to get a lot of money out of her success, and they’re willing to put a lot of money into her to force her success into being. On TV, in the movie theaters, and now in the YA book space, we see the hard truth that anyone who has enough money can almost always get whatever they want. The rest of us, meanwhile, have to struggle with our dreams–especially published authors, the grand majority of whom don’t make minimum wage off their work.

Handbook for Mortals ‘s reputation has gone down in flames over the last 24 hours, so their plan has pretty much backfired. Whether others will be able to pull one over on the YA community is up for debate; and there’s an even larger debate about how publishing houses can prime certain books to become bestsellers even without outright cheating. The immediate concern is whether we as the readers will have the freedom to judge a book on its own merits, or whether the application of money will be enough to create the next Twilight. I don’t think so, but then again, I never would’ve questioned The New York Times without such direct evidence that it got it wrong.

So let us take this weekend to appreciate the real heroes–passionate book fans, and clever Twitter detectives.

Talk to the writer on Twitter @yipp33kiyay.

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