It’s rare to get your hands on a really good mystery story; rarer still when all the sleuthing and die-hard detective work is happening in real life. Which is what makes a recent Pajiba story so satisfying, as a number of reporters and online detectives attempted to work out how an unknown Young Adult novel suddenly catapulted itself to the top of the New York Times’ vaunted bestseller list, a story involving anonymous sources, elaborate paper trails, and the requisite appearance by ’90s folk rock band Blues Traveler.
It all started when a popular novel, Angie Thomas’ politically charged The Hate U Give, was suddenly knocked from the top of the charts by a book called Handbook For Mortals, written by relatively unknown author/actress Lani Sarem, and published by newcomer outfit GeekNation. And Handbook didn’t just beat The Hate U Give; it destroyed it, racking up 18,000 sales in a single week, an absolutely ludicrous number for the YA hardcover industry. (For comparison’s sake, ever-popular author James Patterson scored about 5,000 sales in the first week of his latest book release.)
Smelling something fishy, folks like writer Phil Stamper began investigating, looking at the numbers, hunting for faked reviews, poking around at bookstores, and trying to figure out if Handbook For Mortals was pulling in legitimate sales, or bulk-buying its own books to game the list. They found a lot of suspicious behavior, including anonymous indie bookstore workers claiming they’d gotten calls from publishers asking if they were “New York Times reporting” before being asked to put in bulk orders, and strong hints that the book was being pushed so that producers could claim they had a #1 Bestseller List property on their hands when they tried to sell a film version (apparently starring Sarem herself) to the studios.
You can read the full investigation, with multiple updates, right here, but rest assured that justice at least appears to have been done: after seeing the investigative work, the NYT revised its list this week, removing the allegedly fictitious sales numbers from the books.