As It Happens

How YA authors and online sleuths got a book pulled from a New York Times bestseller list

When author Phil Stamper saw a book he'd never even heard of debut as No. 1 on a New York Times bestseller list, he figured something fishy was going on.
A novel called Handbook for Mortals (right) by new author Lani Sarem (left) had a very brief reign at the top of a New York Times bestseller list. (Facebook, Geeknation)
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When young adult author Phil Stamper saw a book he'd never even heard of debut as No. 1 on a New York Times bestseller list, he figured something fishy was going on. 

Handbook for Mortals is the debut book from author Lani Sarem and the first release from the publishing arm of L.A.-based website geeknation.com.

"I just wanted to look into it a little bit more to see what it was about, this book that I completely missed. And when I started looking it up, I couldn't find any press releases or any information about the book itself," Stamper told As It Happens.

So Stamper — along with journalists, authors and online sleuths like designer/photographer Jeremy West — started investigating. They say they found evidence that suggests the book benefited from pre-order bulk sales meant to game the system. 

The New York Times confirmed Friday that it had pulled Handbook for Mortals from its young adult hardcover list for Sept. 3 because of "inconsistencies" in the reporting of sales.

Sarem stands behind her book, telling the Associated Press she is unaware of any efforts to manipulate sales and that thousands of copies had sold through pre-orders at gatherings such as Wizard World Comic Con in Chicago. Neither she nor her publisher responded to As It Happens' request for comment

Stamper spoke with guest host Susan Bonner about why he became suspicious of the book and what he learned when he started digging. Here is part of their conversation.

I understand it's sales that drive titles onto the New York Times bestseller list. So what was it that you discovered when you looked at those numbers?

I know that the normal amount for this list is about 5,000-plus to top it. So I was saying, you know, how could a book that no one has ever heard of, that had no publicity behind it, sell 5,000 copies in a week?

And then we find out that it's not 5,000, it's actually 18,000, which is hard for anyone to do, even the books with the biggest buzz.

How do you know it wasn't just something that people were excited about [from] word of mouth?

Well, that's the thing. You search it on Twitter, you can't find anything. The Amazon rankings were really low, and they had none in stock, so that means there's no way for people to actually buy it.

As I went to barnsandnoble.com and started searching it in the New York tri-state area, there were zero copies. 

So what was going on?

Jeremy did the same thing. He was actually calling book stores to see if they had any in stock, independent book stores, that is. And he couldn't find anywhere where people could actually get this book. 

So one of the ways that this happens that we've seen a lot in the publishing business is bulk orders — so, you know, you have an event coming up, your publisher buys 5,000. The New York Times usually notates that with a dagger in the listing.

At this point, we were kind of at a plateau. 

That's when the first bookseller reached out to say that they had actually had a deal with them.

They had someone call in and place an almost bulk order — so just under what would be considered a bulk order — after asking whether they reported to the New York Times or not.

So they were trying to avoid the dreaded dagger?

Exactly.

And that's when we got a call from someone who works at a Barnes & Noble in the Vegas area, and they said that there was some unusual buying on their end.

If you buy 30 copies at a Barnes & Noble, according to this person, then it's considered a corporate sale. But at all three Barnes & Nobles in the area, they placed an order for 29.

The author of the book in question, Lani Sarem, spoke to Publisher's Weekly, and she said: "It's silly to say, 'I didn't know about this book, so how can it be doing well?' We should all be supportive of each other."

We love new voices in the YA community, but by all accounts, everything points to them scamming the system.

Them being who?

I don't know who was the exact person behind it ... but hopefully that comes out.

With files from Associated Press. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our coversation with Phil Stamper. 

When author Phil Stamper saw a book he'd never even heard of debut as No. 1 on a New York Times bestseller list, he figured something fishy was going on. 6:23

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