The Shocking New York Times Bestseller Debacle That Won’t Die
By Leigh Holland.
August 16th, 2017 started out as a normal day. By the end of it, Lani Sarem’s debut novel Handbook For Mortals: Book 1 of The Series had been released, had risen to the Number 1 coveted spot on the New York Times Bestsellers List, and later completely disappeared from it.
Who is Lani Sarem? According to the site for the book series, Sarem has wanted to be famous since she started acting at 3 years old, and has worked as the manager for Blues Traveler and The Plain White T’s, worked at various festivals, and has had small parts in various films. She wrote her first movie script at age 11 according to her bio. Sarem always wanted to be famous, and now she has her wish, though it may not have manifested in the way she may have hoped. On the release date of her new book, the YA community went ballistic. Why?
Normally, there would’ve been ‘buzz’ about the book’s upcoming release. ARCs (Advanced Review Copies) would’ve been sent to as many book reviewers as possible. Possibly some money would’ve even been thrown at pre-release promotion. Since these things didn’t happen, writer Phil Stamper and a manager of a Broadway film site, Jeremy West, noticed the unknown author and book on the list and wondered why nobody in the YA book community had ever heard of her or the book. Stamper started a discussion that led to the revelation the 18,000 copies were likely ordered by Sarem herself. NYT removed the book from the list, although standard practice is usually to place a tiny dagger symbol next to books whose sales come from bulk orders, rather than remove them from the list.
To be fair to Sarem, I searched for internet buzz prior to the release date. I discovered there was some minor online promotional activity. There was a tweet from her popular cousin, This promo piece at Syfy.com, and this favorable promo piece in Hollywood Reporter. So there was a little buzz, just not within the YA community.
Sarem doesn’t seem interested in creating a brilliant literary masterpiece and admits she isn’t great with grammar. Lani Sarem wrote a movie script for “Handbook For Mortals” first. She partnered with Thomas Ian Nicholas of American Pie fame and GeekNation.com to produce the film. She realized that movies are more successful that are based on bestselling novels so Lani Sarem developed her screenplay into a Young Adult novel. It was a marketing decision.
She certainly isn’t the first author to buy bulk orders of her own book. Authors who’ve bought bulk copies of their own books include Jacqueline Susann, Al Neuharth, and Wayne Dyer. In fact, the reason the NYT now places a dagger next to books that made the list through bulk orders is thanks to Fred Wiersema and Michael Treacy. In 1995, they spent $200,000 on buying their own book, spending 15 weeks in the top spot. Even so, not all books that hit the top through bulk orders are always identified with daggers. Tony Hsieh’s “Delivering Happiness” hit the list through bulk orders but never had a dagger next to the title. Check out ResultSource Article for 15 more authors who’ve done the same thing. It appears anyone with enough money can buy their way onto the list.
Is the truth as simple as Lani Sarem’s detractors make it out to be? According to Sarem, it’s not precisely true. With the backing of GeekNation for the film and book project, Sarem and Nicholas toured the convention circuit for WizardCon and Comic Con. They appeared together and promised Nicholas’ fans an autographed hardbound copy of the book upon release for $35 now. Most of them paid in cash. Sarem said that thousands of copies were sold this way. Although usual practice is to order pre-order copies from the publisher, Sarem and Nicholas called various booksellers and asked if they were reporting to the NYT. Those who said they were, they placed orders for the books with. They ordered both the pre-orders they needed to fill and copies to sell at their planned Con circuit tour throughout the next year.
Some people claim this is a fabrication and that it’s preposterous that the types of people who attend these conventions would be interested in this product in such large numbers. I’m not saying it’s true or not as there’s no irrefutable proof either way. However, I’ve been to these types of conventions, and it’s plausible that fans of the American Pie franchise (you’d be surprised how numerous they are) would pay $35 for an autographed copy of a book version of an upcoming film the actor plans to help produce and play a role in. $35 is super cheap for anyone’s autograph at a convention. At Atlanta’s recent Con, the lowest price for anyone’s autograph started at $70- no book included. But in cash, you ask? Yes, I can attest Con goers carry wads of cash for the purpose of splurging on something they didn’t expect to see but want to get.
Assuming Sarem’s version of events is accurate, and these are almost entirely pre-ordered copies they placed bulk orders for, has knowing this doused the flames of wrath among readers and others in the community? No, it hasn’t. People either don’t believe her version, which is their right as there is no proof to back up her assertion, or those who do still see such activity as “gaming the system”. Sarem and Nicholas are of the opinion that no matter how they made the pre-order sales, it’s only fair the book reached #1 the week they filled their orders. If what they’ve said is true, it’s not a scam, so why would even those who believe them still accuse them of gaming the list?
People believe the NYT Bestseller List is indicative of quality. Demand produces sales. It stands to reason if enough people want something it must possess a certain level of quality. However, this is not always true. We’ve all read bestsellers that weren’t very good and lower sellers that were excellent. The New York Times shrouds its methods for producing the list in secrecy, but some things are known. Fast sales of a book places it on a list rather than long term slower sales. The list is reflective of the ever-changing dynamic market from week to week. If person A writes a book that sells a million copies over the next 50 years, it is a widely sold product and will never make it on the list. If person B writes a book and sells 6,000 copies its first week but never sells another copy it will make it onto the list for that week. In other words, we tend to forget the list is sales statistics, indicative of quantity in short bursts of time. (Please note that as a result of a 1983 lawsuit brought by author William Peter Blatty, the courts ruled the list is not objective sales statistics but editorial content.).
There are other issues as well. Since both wholesale and retail outlets report in, some sales are double counted, giving false numbers.Wholesalers and retailers have been known to manipulate the data they send in so as to inflate the popularity of a book and then sell a lot of their own copies of said book. Once a book makes it anywhere on the list, it’s given tons of free promotion to try to boost sales, ensuring it continues moving up in the charts. And finally, because there are serious long range financial benefits from appearing on the list, the competition to appear there is fierce. Is it any wonder authors and publishers have tried to find ways to make it into the list for such benefits? In fact, according to some booksellers (example) it’s common practice for authors and publishers to buy bulk orders for future signing events then buy it back as remainders, which won’t change sales on the list.
Is Sarem simply an outsider who used unconventional methods to achieve sales, or did she have help from a disreputable company? According to this story at Vulture.com, two of the callers placing the orders used email addresses with the domain name of “Author Book Events”, which doesn’t even exist. One of them gave a phone number to the bookseller and the phone number with a 706 area code for Krista Tetreault. Krista Tetreault is an employee of ResultSource. Sarem admitted in the referenced article that they had indeed “hired a company to help them orchestrate a targeted bulk-buying campaign” but that all sales came from real convention goers. Indeed, if they didn’t, where did the money come from to pay ResultSource’s exorbitant fee as well as buy 18,000 books?
As of 10/1/17, Sarem’s novel has 98 customer reviews on Amazon with an average rating of 2 stars. Goodreads has 284 ratings averaging 1.2 stars out of 5. How much of this is due to bias because of the controversy and how much is honesty? I’ve decided to purchase and review Handbook For Mortals. I’m going to suspend my usual rules of not posting a negative review in the event it’s honestly as bad as everyone says it is. Nobody requested that I review it. I want to give it a review I know without a doubt is honest.
I’ve completed my honest review and you may read it at Handbook For Mortals.