I won’t go into the details—there are plenty of articles all over the ‘net that will give you the blow by blow if you want it—but the basic story is this: a new YA novel titled Handbook for Mortals suddenly turned up in the #1 spot of the NYT Bestsellers List. That’s not so outrageous, one supposes. Nothing can stay at #1 forever, and The Hate U Give had been there a while. But this was a book and author no one had heard of. It hadn’t climbed the list, it just sort of appeared. Like magic.
Some curious parties went sleuthing and discerned that someone—the author, her publisher, maybe the would-be producer of the film version of this book—had gamed the system by calling NYT-reporting bookstores and placing bulk orders for HFM. Never mind that physical copies of the book are not available (or weren’t at the time). Apparently whoever was ordering all these books “for an event” wasn’t concerned about, you know, not having them. ??? Seems weird. Especially since every order came in at just under the number of books that would have flagged the order as a corporate sale.
The nail in the coffin seems to have come from associates at the bookstores who mentioned being asked whether they were NYT-reporting stores before the mysterious caller(s) placed the order. Way to be subtle, yo.
The author, Lani Sarem, denies any knowledge of such antics. She says they had encouraged stores to order in bulk in advance of upcoming events and conventions. She also says the marketing for the book has been targeted at said conventions, which is why the book wasn’t well-known in wider YA circles. In other words, just because no one has heard of her in one circle doesn’t mean she can’t sell a bunch of books. Because there’s more than one circle.
Though, usually, if something is getting traction at conventions and such, I feel like the publishing world keeps track of that too. The publishing community is seldom sideswiped by something or someone in its blind spot.
That said, I got curious. I wondered if maybe HFM was just a really good book, an underground hit rising to the top. So I went and read the free sample on Amazon.
Um . . .
It’s really not very good. (That being my personal opinion, of course.) Boy does she love the word “basically.” And the author seems keen to hawk her ties to the entertainment industry and all her famous friends. Much of the criticism lodged at Sarem and her book is based on the idea the “marketing” (aka, the buying of a top spot on the NYT list) was designed to launch investor interest in the movie version rather than sell the book at all. Per IMDb, the main character will be played by Sarem herself. Which is probably why the book reads like a bad Mary Sue story.
But here’s the truth: publishing isn’t a meritocracy. Good books aren’t always what sell. Great writers are often buried by popular trash. Someone who takes the time to lovingly craft a story is going to get run over by the writer churning out half-baked manuscripts because these days it’s quantity over quality if you want to make any kind of money.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t take the time to write a good book, get it edited, etc. I’m just pointing out that readers aren’t always as picky as the writing community. All writers should be readers, but not all readers are writers, and the readers who aren’t writers aren’t looking at all the details writers do. Anyone can admire a beautiful house, but a builder is going to look for the nuts and bolts. Or whatever houses have.
I will say, the cover of HFM leaves one to wonder whether artist Gill Del-Mace gave permission to have his work adapted? Per the copyright page, they did at least get permission for some song lyrics.
Do I think HFM tried to game the system? Evidence points that way, but who knows? Maybe there are people really buying and reading the book. It hardly matters now since the NYT revised their list and restored The Hate U Give to the #1 spot. Handbook for Mortals is MIA.