- YA Twitter versus Handbook for Mortals:A Case Study in Bestseller List Manipulation, Controversy, and the Effects on Library Acquisition
Located in between "Summer Beach Read" promotions and the "Back to School" book buying push, August usually represents the summer doldrums of Young Adult (YA) publishing. Many YA book professionals have "out of office" replies on their emails or are busy planning big Fall releases for September (Rosen). August 2017 proved an exception to this rule. That summer, Angie Thomas's blockbuster hit The Hate U Give (THUG) had been at the top of the New York Times (NYT) YA Bestseller List since March and was expected to remain for a few weeks more, until YA publishing powerhouse John Green released his highly anticipated Turtles All the Way Down (D. Evans). This quiet summer was disrupted, however, by a controversy that exposed the normally hidden editorial mechanisms of the bestseller list and brought forward cultural assumptions about YA literature normally left unspoken.
At 7:55 a.m. on August 24, Phil Stamper, author of two young adult novels and publishing developer at Penguin Random House, noted that an unknown title, Handbook for Mortals (Handbook), had appeared on the advance copy of the NYT YA Bestseller list for the week of September 3.1 Stamper further asserted it was "strange" that a new publishing house, GeekNation, could successfully hit #1 without the usual prerelease buzz, fanfare, or review ratings that accompany a bestselling book launch (@stampepk "I find it"). Stamper noted the book was also out of stock at his local Barnes and Noble and it was unavailable via Amazon. Additionally, online coverage of Handbook's release consisted only of posts by two niche online blogs. Taken together, these red flags indicated to Stamper [End Page 108] that Handbook had not come by its "#1 Bestseller" status honestly: "You shouldn't be able to buy your way onto the @nytimes list. But here we are" he tweeted (@stampepk "You shouldn't").
The saga that unfolded on Twitter over the next twenty-four hours at times resembled the plot of a procedural teen detective show, and is most completely chronicled in an oft-updated Pajiba article by Kayleigh Donaldson. The driving force behind this investigation was individuals from publishing, bookselling, publicity, children's/YA librarianship, and academia, a group loosely and collectively known as "YA Twitter." Almost immediately, YA Twitter began to dig deeper into the publication and sales history of Handbook and its author Lani Sarem. Debut author Sarem, a thirty-seven-year-old white woman, "occasional actress," and former band manager for Blues Traveler and the Plain White Ts, was virtually unknown in the YA publishing industry prior to her book making the bestseller list (Lewis). Calls on Twitter for individuals who had actually purchased a copy (or had been sent an Advanced Reader Copy for the purpose of review and promotion) were met with silence. Donaldson's note at the end of her original article read: "If you have actually heard of or even read this book, please get in touch because we are baffled." Most YA hardcover releases sell approximately 5,000 copies to top the list; NDP BookScan reported that Handbook had sold 18,597 copies (W. Hughes). But the lack of available copies, readers, or online champions of any kind indicated to many "investigators" that the bestseller list mechanisms had been manipulated (Deahl).
By 11:00 a.m., the next confounding element of the investigation emerged. Stamper tweeted that he had received a Direct Message (DM) via Twitter from an anonymous bookseller who claimed the store where s/he worked had received a bulk order for Handbook after confirming the bookstore reported to the Times (@stampepk "Well this"; Donaldson).2 Additional sources soon came forward with similar accounts of bulk orders or preorders for book signing events that were not yet scheduled: "Stamper said he and a team of others who have been investigating the book's rise spoke to a Las Vegasbased bookseller who reported that 29 copies of the title had been ordered at all three of the city Barnes & Noble stores" (Deahl).3...