‘Handbook For Mortals’ Author Accuses YA Community Of Keeping Out New Voices – HuffPost
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.