The New York Times Bestseller Dilemma

I’m all for creative self-promotion in book sales, especially for first-time and small-print publications. Book signings, local meet-and-greets, even paying a blogger to read and review your book honestly (I cannot stress that qualifier enough; if the reviews aren’t honest, they’re just publicity fluff, which I deplore). However, one YA book far overstepped the line separating the gray area from the black. What did they do, exactly? They cheated their way onto the New York Times Bestseller list.

I’m sure you’ve all heard this story by now, but I’ll provide a recap for those who haven’t. For twenty-five weeks, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give had dominated the YA category of the New York Times Bestseller list, and rightfully so. A drama filled with tension that hits close to home for the current U.S. political climate, the YA community has been all a-buzz over The Hate U Give. There’s even a movie in the works. No one stays on top forever, but it would be a pretty impressive feat to knock this titan down.

The book that took its spot, Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem, however, does not fit the bill.

Handbook for Mortals is published by the publishing branch of the website GeekNation. In fact, Kayleigh Donaldson of Pajiba pointed out that it’s the debut novel for GeekNation. Now, it’s not unheard of or unacceptable for a book from a small publishing company to make the New York Times Bestseller list. It’s a reason for readers and writers to rejoice; after all, some amazing books come from small-scale publication and yet are overshadowed by the mainstream conglomerates. Nevertheless, the sudden popularity of Handbook for Mortals is surprising, especially considering the buzz outside of GeekNation’s press releases (and, now, this scandal) is non-existent. Even the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads carry red-flags, such as duplicates and low-quality reviews.

Image retrieved from Entertainment Weekly
I won’t bore you with all of the details. To read the entire story, I recommend going to Donaldson’s article, “Did This Book Buy Its Way Onto The New York Times Bestseller List?”

Here’s the meaty part of the story: thanks to detective work conducted by YA writer and publisher Phil Stamper, we’ve learned that an incredibly in-depth and complicated “bulk buying” scam that seems to be partly be a publicity stunt for a movie being made out of the book (with the author of the book as the main character, BTW) may be responsible for this novel’s mighty leap.

I’m not going to lie, all of this gave me a headache, so I highly recommend reading Donaldson’s article; it’s thorough and well-researched. I had originally learned of this scam on Twitter but her coverage of it includes much more information, all of which is simultaneously infuriating and amusing.

So, why am I so perturbed by this scandal?

Clearly, these people tried to cheat a deserving writer out of a very high honor. No, it’s not technically illegal to buy your way onto the New York Times Bestseller list, but it is a cruddy and indecent thing to do.

I’d also like to point out that, in hindsight, the scam was quite obvious. I mean, you’ve already gone through this much time and effort, why not think it through a little bit more? Maybe, for example, not have your book skyrocket to #1 about a month after you’ve announced that you’ll start publishing books? Readers would rip that plot hole to shreds if a writer tried to use it in their book.

My other big issue with this book is the destruction of authorial integrity brought on by this stunt. Writing isn’t about the awards and recognition. Yes, it’s amazing to make the New York Times Bestseller list and it would make a writer’s day to be asked for an autograph. And yes, we often have to create works with “commercial appeal” in order to pay the bills, but those things aren’t the biggest reward of writing.

Writing and having others read our writing are the biggest, and most pleasing, rewards. We write to relieve the tension in our head, shut up the voices for a while, spread our thoughts and values to others, raise awareness of an issue, and even just to bring joy to other readers. When people pull stunts like this one, it degrades the genre and, often time, the entire writing/publishing industry.

I know what you’re thinking: I get paid to review books on my blog, so how is that different? The difference is that I write honest reviews. I’ve given three stars to books I’ve reviewed before and I’m not too shy to point out what I don’t like about the book. I put thought into my reviews and I always want to do good by my readers. My integrity comes before the money. Besides, honest reviews make for more curious readers than fluff.

Marketing and promotion, especially for first-timers and small publications, is a huge gray area. Some people approve of paid blog reviews, others don’t. Interviews and meet-and-greets generate attention for you and your work, but they take time away from our writing and can seem too commercial. Nevertheless, all writers have standards. Hiring bloggers who will review our books honestly is one; not neglecting our work or changing it to meet public expectations is another. And, of course, not buying our way onto the New York Times Bestseller list is near the top.

What do you think? When does creative self-promotion stop and cheating readers begin? Is it acceptable to buy your own books in bulk to pull yourself to the top? Leave your thoughts in the comments.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

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