Lani Sarem, the author of Handbook for Mortals, a just-published debut young adult novel that landed at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list before being removed amid questions about its sales, is firing back at critics.
After the most recent New York Times best-seller list (dated Sept. 3) circulated on Thursday, some in the YA community questioned how a book that many publishers and YA authors had never heard of and was the first book from the Geeknation website's book arm opened at No. 1 on the Times' YA hardcover list. Some suggested that people connected to the book had gamed the best-seller list through an organized campaign to bulk buy at stores surveyed by the Times to compile the list.
After a day of questions and attacks on social media, the Times removed the book from the list. A spokesman for the Times emailed The Hollywood Reporter, saying: “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. We've issued an updated "Young Adult Hardcover" list for September 3, 2017, which does not include that title.”
In an interview with THR, Sarem, an occasional actress (uncredited roles in Jason Bourne and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2) and former music manager (Plain White T’s, Blues Traveler) says, “I’m super-frustrated. There has been no official explanation to what happened other than they reported inconsistencies. Nobody talked to us.”
She believes the Times caved to social media pressure. “My personal opinion: I’m a first-time author; I did some great numbers," Sarem says. "They put me on the list. The list is curated. They didn’t have to put me on the list despite how many books I sold. When these people made a big issue, they were like, 'This is too much effort.'”
Sarem took particular aim at a couple of Twitter users who were the most vocal in their questioning of the book’s sales. “Because some people in the YA community weren’t aware of it doesn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of people out there that were excited about it,” she says. “It's disheartening that someone I don’t know decided to attack me today basically because he had never heard of my book. I’ve never heard of his book either. It's probably great, but I’ve never heard of it. Does it mean I would question it, if he had some level of success?”
Sarem says she and actor/producer Thomas Ian Nicholas (American Pie), who is attached to produce and star in a potential movie version, have been promoting the book since the beginning of the year. They have appeared at local comic-cons, done local radio, spoken to blogs and kept up a social media presence. Sarem tells THR that they always saw Handbook for Mortals as a film and a multiplatform property and not just a book. “So to go after the traditional marketing strategy of when your goal is just to have a successful book didn’t make sense to us,” she explains.
Sarem stresses that “not to my knowledge” did anyone involved with the book engage in an organized strategy to bulk buy at bookstores surveyed by The New York Times to game the best-seller list. Nicholas, who is currently appearing with Sarem at Wizard World Chicago to promote the book, says they had reached out independent bookstores to buy bulk copies of the book in advance of local comic conventions over the fall, understanding that physical copies of the book wouldn’t be available until after Aug. 31. He adds, “Maybe that’s where things got convoluted” and the idea arose that buyers didn’t care if the book was in stock. He emphasizes that he “didn’t instruct anyone” to target bookstores tracked by The New York Times or bulk buy with the intention of gaming the New York Times best-seller list.
Both Sarem and Nicholas expressed frustration that none of the book’s critics had paid attention to the press they had done since early in the year, their appearances at conventions or in the media or the attention having “an actor who is part of a billion-dollar franchise” (the American Pie films, with a worldwide gross $989 million) brings to a project. “Everyone that got down today in this witch hunt only said the things that made sense for them,” Sarem argues.
The author compared the controversy surrounding Handbook For Mortals to that of the most famous book of the new century. “The last book that caused a lot of controversy was Fifty Shades of Grey,” Sarem points out. “And it was caused by the book community because it was nothing like what they’ve put out. Whether you like the book or hate it, you have to acknowledge it outsold everything.” She continues, “I remember seeing an article where someone in publishing said we had to stand up and look at this because there were people out there that wanted to read this and we would never have put it out. That’s what people forget. There’s a world out there of people that read books; they just don’t exist in this little pocket, in this niche.”
Aug. 24, 9:25 a.m.: An earlier version of the story erroneously reported that Geeknation founders Clare Kramer and Brian Keathley were co-producing a film adaptation of Handbook for Mortals.