ARTS & CULTURE

'Handbook For Mortals' Author Accuses YA Community Of Keeping Out New Voices

Evidence emerged that a YA book gamed its way onto the NYT best-seller list. Now the author is making her case -- but is anyone buying it?

26/08/2017 3:50 AM AEST
GeekNation / Arun Nevader / WireImage via Getty
Lani Sarem (right) caused a stir when her debut book Handbook for Mortals hit the YA hardcover New York Times best-seller list -- but not for the reasons she hoped.

The debut author who was accused of gaming the system to grab a spot on the New York Times best-seller list says she may not have played by the Young Adult community’s handbook, but she still deserves the top spot that was abruptly taken away from her. 

On Thursday, YA authors and community members began publicly questioning the appearance of a surprising new book at the top of the Time’s YA hardcover best-seller list. When a preview of the Saturday list was sent to publishers on Wednesday, Lani Sarem’s paranormal novel Handbook for Mortals was slated to knock Angie Thomas’s blockbuster hit The Hate U Give from the top spot.

Sarem emerged as a total unknown to the rest of the YA community with a book published by GeekNation, a media company co-owned by actress Clare Kramer, which had never released a book before. By the end of the day, the Times had pulled Handbook for Mortals, with a spokesman citing “inconsistencies in the most recent reporting cycle” in a statement to Vulture.

Now, the author is fighting back against allegations leveled by fellow YA author Phil Stamper and others that her team made strategic, small bulk purchases of the book to goose its sales numbers and garner an appearance on the esteemed Times list. (For a full, blow-by-blow rundown of the bizarre investigation, check out Pajiba’s excellent primer by Kayleigh Donaldson.)  

Not only is her team innocent of buying her book’s way onto the best-seller list, Sarem claimed to HuffPost in a phone conversation on Thursday night, the Twitter controversy and the removal of her book from the best-seller list is rooted in what she says is an unfair bias in the book world toward the familiar. That bias, she argued, prevents the YA world from nurturing fresh voices with new stories.

Sarem ― a sometime actress in mostly “uncredited” roles, erstwhile music manager to bands like 100 Monkeys and Blues Traveler, cousin to J.C. Chasez and now debut author ― insisted during the interview that the sales success of Handbook for Mortals was well-earned through months of plugging the book at Wizard World Comic Con events. She’s been joined in much of the promotion by actor and musician Thomas Ian Nicholas, best known for his role in the “American Pie” franchise, who is attached to produce Handbook for Mortals as a film and to star in it, along with Sarem herself.

The Comic Con community, the Hollywood community, has been following this project for a while,” Sarem told HuffPost, explaining that she’d never intended to market the book as a YA project at all. “I think ... some people, I should say, in the book world live a little bit more in their world, and that’s totally fine.”

But as the interview continued, she criticized the tightknit YA book community for privileging its own gatekeeping structures too highly. “OK, I get it,” she said, “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. Do you only get to be successful in the YA world if you only do it the way that they think it’s supposed to be done?”

I’m actually hoping that the good that comes out of this is maybe a step toward understanding that maybe this world shouldn’t be this tiny little community,” she added.

Sarem argued that supporting authors like her, who don’t involve themselves in the broader YA community, would be an important path toward introducing original new stories into an entertainment landscape currently dominated by aging franchises like the Marvel and DC superhero universes and reboots like “Ghostbusters.”

People keep saying that they’re tired of hearing the same story over and over again. Well, start supporting new stories. Start supporting new artists,” she exclaimed.

Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which will continue to top the Times YA hardcover list thanks to the removal of Handbook for Mortals, was written by a black, first-time author and exploded onto the (disproportionately white) YA scene after months of grassroots buzz, positive feedback from early reviewers and growing anticipation among readers. The book, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, tells the story of a 16-year-old girl who witnesses her unarmed best friend being shot by police. Stars including Amandla Stenberg and Issa Rae have been attached to star in a film adaptation currently in development with Fox 2000, Temple Hill and State Street.

One might wonder why an author or publisher would spend the money to buy up books to achieve an artificial appearance on The New York Times best-seller list, but it’s actually not a new strategy. The tactic isn’t against the law, but the Times list is intended to track individual sales; when the book appears to have achieved best-seller sales through bulk purchases, the paper, which uses an algorithm to weigh various sales data to come up with the list, may choose to include the book with a dagger qualifying its status. (No such dagger appeared next to Handbook for Mortals initially.)

Here’s why this pump-priming method is so tempting: Best-seller lists, especially that of the Times, have immense promotional power ― readers tend to assume that if a lot of other people are reading something, it’s worth reading ― and a 2005 Stanford analysis found that debut authors benefited the most from appearing on it. Appearing on the list wouldn’t just boost the book’s sales, though; it would help Sarem, Nicholas and the rest of the team promote a film franchise based on the book.  

The film franchise is coming. Sarem is open about the fact that the book was initially written as a movie script, and she turned it into a book at the persuasion of others. But she denies that the film would be any motivation to artificially boost sales numbers. “What’s funny is people keep saying ‘Oh, they’re trying to get a film deal,’” she told HuffPost. “We have the film financed.” Still, she admitted unprompted that getting the book out there would help solidify the planned franchise, which she said might stretch to five or seven installments.

“Obviously, putting out the book, that’s a fun way to kind of connect people to stories ― obviously, ′Harry Potter,′ ′Twilight,′ all these things have had successful roads that way,” she said. “It helps build franchises when you have different mediums.”

Sarem seems to draw a great deal of inspiration from these famous, or infamous, franchises. She has a connection to Twilight” through actor Jackson Rathbone, who is also a member of the band 100 Monkeys, which she managed, and she spoke at length about the validity of the passionate fandoms enjoyed by vampire novels. “We’re not all the same. We watch different movies, we listen to different music and we read different kinds of books,” she said, implying that the YA writers who investigated her didn’t believe a book like hers could have a readership.

She particularly relates to the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James, who was also side-eyed by literary insiders. “The questions came up at one point with E.L. James’s book. Whether you like it or not, she sold 100 million copies,” she pointed out. “And everyone in the book world was like, ‘Holy crap ... we would have never picked up her book. This would have never happened.’ But clearly she had an audience.”

The comparison seems tenuous; the size of James’s fanbase surprised many publishers, critics and laypeople, but there were no serious allegations that she’d bought her way to success. In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey was published entirely thanks to its organic popularity as a work of free, online Twilight” fan fiction

Sarem is right, however, that the literary scene shares one objection to both Fifty Shades and Handbook for Mortals: that they’re poorly written works of fantasy fulfillment, with a beautiful-but-doesn’t-know-it protagonist thinly based on the author. (In James’s case, Anastasia Steele is perhaps more transparently based on Twilight’s protagonist Bella, who closely resembles the series author Stephenie Meyer.)

In one passage, Handbook for Mortals protagonist Zade muses that she’s often called beautiful but she doesn’t see it: 

I’m slender, but I do not believe most would say skinny. Not ‘hot-girl skinny,’ at least. I have long legs that are toned but I think my thighs are too large and I do not have a thigh gap. My arms are kind of flabby and while I do have an hourglass figure I have always felt my butt is a little too big and my face is a bit too round.

Sarem, who sports long blonde hair with bangs and colorful streaks, also has Zade detail ”the chunky pieces on the lower half of my long hair, which I had dyed to be a multitude of fun colors ... my perfectly cut bangs stayed mostly unaffected by the wind.” (In case you’ve forgotten, the author is currently slated to star in the film version.) 

The book’s plot revolves around Zade, short for “Scheherazade” but pronounced to rhyme with “aide,” who possesses real magical powers. She leaves home and goes to work in a Vegas magic show, where she’s surrounded by a variety of conventionally handsome men who are magnetically drawn to her. Ultimately, she finds herself in a love triangle with two of them.

Needless to say, this quality of work lifted Fifty Shades far above the competition, sales-wise, even as critics groused. But the success of Handbook for Mortals looks suspicious by every metric, not just by the caliber of its prose.

Sarem says quantities of the book were simply purchased from stores for sales at Wizard World events, not an unusual practice for an author. But reports from booksellers painted a more calculated picture. Anonymous booksellers tipped off Stamper and Donaldson that they’d received large orders ― some for just one book under the official number that would trigger a bulk-buy designation ― from a phone buyer who asked if they were Times-reporting stores, and who wanted to complete the order even if the book wasn’t in stock and the delivery date was uncertain. 

As for the seeming lack of promotion, Sarem refutes that out of hand, pointing to press and appearances she and Nicholas made throughout the year. But the digital footprint still looks fairly thin for a sudden number one best-seller.

She pointed to live videos in which the team promoted Handbook on the Wizard World social media, claiming, “Those get hundreds of thousands of views per one that we do, and we do several at each show.” There are several recent Wizard World Facebook Live videos in which Sarem and/or Nicholas talked about Handbook, but these mostly garnered around 10,000 or 15,000 views. The comments primarily urged Nicholas to share stories about his “American Pie” and “Rookie of the Year” days.

And while the Handbook team may not have reached out to large numbers of YA bloggers, that doesn’t entirely explain why before Thursday, GoodReads only featured six reviews ― all five stars, one from the author herself and one from the romance novelist, Skye Turner, who wrote the book’s foreword. Stamper told HuffPost in a Twitter message that he and fellow YA writer Jeremy West found “that no B&N stores carried this, it had a very low ranking on Amazon.” The Amazon listing for Handbook for Mortals, also listed as out of stock on Thursday, had just a few reviews before the scandal hit.

Still, Sarem told HuffPost that her team won’t be taking the removal lying down, floating the theory that The New York Times simply removed Handbook for Mortals to quell the rising Twitter outrage. 

There’s definitely people on my side that are very frustrated that that happened ... I know we’re going to look into [it],” she said.

But for now, at least, YA Twitter is celebrating ― and the odds for Handbook for Mortals flipping the script don’t look promising.

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