This Book That Scammed Its Way Onto the Times Bestseller List Is Real, Real Bad

It’s easily the wildest story in publishing right now

Cover of "Handbook for Mortals," showing a blindfolded woman with a rose in her mouth

Buckle up, because this story is weird as all get-out. Yesterday, young adult writer and publisher Phil Stamper noticed a discrepancy on the New York Times bestseller list for YA fiction. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, a wildly acclaimed novel (and soon to be movie) about a young black woman who becomes an activist after she sees police murder her friend, had been displaced by an unknown: something called Handbook for Mortals, by Lani Sarem, from the brand-new publishing arm of website GeekNation. And by “unknown,” we don’t mean a dark-horse phenom; we mean a book that literally cannot be bought from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and yet somehow suddenly sold enough copies to not only make the bestseller list but debut at number one.

Here’s how Amazon describes the book: “Zade Holder has always been a free-spirited young woman, from a long dynasty of tarot-card readers, fortunetellers, and practitioners of magick. Growing up in a small town and never quite fitting in, Zade is determined to forge her own path. She leaves her home in Tennessee to break free from her overprotective mother Dela, the local resident spellcaster and fortuneteller.” The hardcover costs $19.13 and you can’t buy it.

Although “Lani Sarem” anagrams to both Mars Alien and Anal Miser, it is not a nom de plume: Sarem is an occasional actress, music publicist, and band manager—including, at one time, for Blues Traveler—who has apparently already tapped herself to play the lead in Handbook for Mortals movie. And she, or someone at GeekNation, is apparently also a skilled book list scammer. It’s not that tricky to buy your way onto the bestseller list if you just put in some huge bulk orders; it’s legal and not even that uncommon. (Becoming an Amazon bestseller is even easier.) But the Times adds an asterisk to any book whose sales rank is affected by bulk purchases. Sarem (or someone) seems to have gamed the numbers by arranging large buys—only from verified NYT-reporting bookstores—of just under the amount that would trigger such a caveat. That’s 30 copies at a Barnes & Noble, 80 at an indie store, so we’re talking about a LOT of orders. You really owe it to yourself to read the Pajiba article that collects all the tweets that crack the case.

In any event, Sarem is a better scammer than she is a writer. Author Sarah M. Carter got her hands on a copy of Handbook for Mortals, and in her words: “hoooo buddy.” Thanks to Carter’s sacrifice, we’re able to bring you some highlights, all of which are absolutely dreadful in an incredibly specific way that those of you with cherished Livejournal memories—or, really, anyone who wrote self-important fiction about thinly-veiled Mary Sues in high school—will find deeply, cringingly familiar.

I would describe this book in a similar way that I might describe Harrison Ford: it can definitely get fucked.

And also much like Harrison Ford, it is now not on the Times bestseller list. The paper sent out an email that declined to even name the offender, let alone explain why the list was changed:

Congrats to Angie Thomas, the rightful #1:

And congrats to Phil Stamper and other investigators for their tenaciousness, to Pajiba for doggedly staying on top of the most riveting publishing story we’ve read in ages, to Blues Traveler for getting rid of what sounds like a real liability, and of course to Lani Sarem for getting more people to read her Lani Sarem fanfic than ever before.

About the Author

More Like This

Being Published in Asia Changed Everything About My Asian American Writer Experience

My book tour made me think about how publishers—and readers—react differently to writers who look like them

May 14 - Winnie M Li

What Does It Mean That Woody Allen Couldn’t Sell His Memoir?

Maybe the publishing industry is ready to consider something more than profit

May 9 - Carrie V. Mullins

New Literary Festivals Lead the Way by Celebrating Diversity

Two upcoming events ask: Who's still not being heard?

Apr 19 - Jennifer Baker