Update on the “Handbook for Mortals” Controversy

Recently I wrote a post on “Handbook for Mortals,” which covered the controversy about a first-time author and former band manager whose YA novel made it to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, and how the Twitter YA community uncovered that the author got there by making bulk orders from bookstores. All in order to apparently get a movie deal with the author as the main character. Yeah, that happened.

Well on Monday the author of that very book, Lani Sarem, wrote an article for the Huffington Post defending herself. She pointed out that the publishing industry has changed dramatically over the past couple of years, and that she ordered the books for conventions and book signings, going through the bookstores rather than her distributor so that sales counted towards the NYT Bestseller List. She also said that plenty of people had bought books at these signings/conventions, and that she’d already locked down the rights for the movie so she could have more control over the five movies (seriously? Five?) based off the series she was writing, and to star in the film.

I’ve seen a lot of back and forth in the wake of this article. Some is sympathetic, and others not so much. And Sarem does make some points. The publishing industry has changed dramatically over the years, authors do order in bulk for events like conventions and book signings. And authors do show up in adaptations of their works from time to time. Could all the media coverage of this book and its author, including the coverage from two weeks ago, have actually been detrimental to something positive?* Did one Twitter community accomplish something that another failed to do with the Ghostbusters reboot?

Well, I did some research, and slept on it, and I thought about it. And while there are some interesting points, there’s still some stuff with this situation that doesn’t ring right. Not least that movie thing (five? Seriously? SERIOUSLY?! Let’s get to even one and see how that goes! And you as the lead? Really? I don’t know if that’s a sign of a control freak or a narcissist or both).

First off, the buying in bulk thing. Yeah, authors do buy in bulk for events. However, most of the time they buy through their distributors, as it comes with a discount, and it still counts as sales. It’s also considered more honest than what Sarem did. She literally says in her defense she bought through bookstores simply to get on the NYT Bestseller List, which would get her the movie deal. And while she’s technically right that there are no “rules” against doing something like this, there’s a subversiveness about it that doesn’t feel right. Not to mention that, as I mentioned in the previous article, behavior like this got her fired from a band she managed. Heck, tactics like this was used in an episode of Lucifer, and it felt just as subversive there as it does here. It actually reminds me of the time I played an online game and used a cheat code to get to maximize my stats just so I didn’t have to do the hard work of building them in the first place.

And that’s the major problem here: Sarem was looking for ways to immediately reach the top and get her movie deal, rather than get their through hard work and talent. Even if she wasn’t doing technically anything “wrong,” it was still dishonest and meant to be a shortcut to fame and success. That’s why people are upset, and made such a big deal about this. Sarem used a cheat code, all for a film deal, and it got exposed. That’s why she was taken off the NYT Bestseller List.

Because in the end, there is no defense for trying to skip hard work and make things easy. Especially when it comes to literature.

So while Sarem may have a good defense, there’s plenty here that just doesn’t sit right. And if you think about it long enough, you’ll realize there are ways to get a great novel on top of NYT Bestseller Lists, and this isn’t one of them.

Also, Sarem’s cover art may have been stolen from another artist. I’m not kidding you, the cover of the book apparently bears a striking resemblance to an art print called The Knife Thrower by Australian artist Gill Del Mace. And if you look at them, they’re very similar (can’t post it here because of possible copyright issues, but here’s a link to the creator’s website if you want to check it out). Where does it end?

But what do you guys think? This seems like it  might become an ongoing issue or story, one I may revisit on this site in the future, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Was Sarem being dishonest or innovative? Did Twitter go insane again, or was it a cross between Spotlight-style reporting and grassroots activism? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

*As for the quality of the book, I’ve looked at reviews from both before and after the initial wave of articles about Sarem’s unique methods. Some like it, but a lot more find it a mess that seems to have been written by a junior high schooler. Of those who’ve written reviews after the controversy broke, they admit they know of the controversy, but they try to focus on the book itself, which I’ve done myself with different movies and films. If they’re definitely trying to stay unbiased, then the reviews don’t bode well for Sarem regardless of the efficacy of her tactics.

11 thoughts on “Update on the “Handbook for Mortals” Controversy

  1. cagedunn September 14, 2017 / 6:37 pm

    The most interesting thing about this would be the way the world of promotion is not only painful, but also dishonest. If the work only gets noticed because it’s in the top 100, or top of this, or top of that – based only on keywords, SEO stats, sales stats, etc. where will it end? How can we find an honest and deserving way to come to the attention of the reader?
    I know – write the best story. But without the guff of marketing, even the best stories linger in the bottom of those top million graphs …
    Maybe what she did was highlight just how manipulative those things the readers rely on for the next good read (product) are, and how low value they are to the ones who don’t use those tactics. Maybe …

  2. Joleene Naylor September 14, 2017 / 9:18 pm

    I’m sure she is not the first author/publisher to game the system in various ways, and she won’t be the last. That’s why I pay no attention to any of the best seller lists – it’s like Fifty Shades. When it hit huge, no one I knew had read it, yet the internet claimed “everyone” had. I’m sure lots of people did and had, but my point is everyone I knew then went and got it because the internet told them everyone else was. Gamey or not, Sarem’s marketing system here has worked just as well. People say it’s “bad publicity” but she’s sure selling copies regardless 😉 It is morally wrong? probably, but most business is, too. I guess I am just jaded because, personally, I’m not surprised, and as I said, I’m sure 60% or more of the bestseller list is there through some shady means or another.

    • rami ungar the writer September 14, 2017 / 9:25 pm

      You might have a point there. Still, we should strive to be better than those who are less scrupulous than us. Otherwise, who are we, if not as bad as them?

  3. M T McGuire September 15, 2017 / 8:39 am

    I’m surprised the explained it as buying books for conventions. I sure as hell wouldn’t buy my books at full price to sell at a convention … for full price. And the picture … hmmm … I loathed that cover because it’s just a typical sexualised image of a woman. As a female, I find it quite degrading, to be honest. Now I see the original artwork, I loathe the book cover even more. It does look like she just sexed it up to flog her product. The artist’s print says strong, different interesting woman, the book cover, to me, says sex object. Mwah ahahahargh! I’m probably just bitter and twisted but I have a real bug bear about the way people’s bodies are portrayed in magazines and media (both women and men).

    Anyone who, basically, writes a book as a vehicle to get a film deal so they can shoehorn themselves into Hollywood by taking the lead role in the films is going to come out of it looking a proper arsehat if the truth gets out! A lot of people think they can act until they try but actually, there is a talent involved. Maybe Sarem will surprise us, or alternatively, she will scupper an entire five film series with the direness of her acting. Clearly she doesn’t care about her work that much.

    People one to one are intelligent but put them in a group and they’re often stupid and easy to herd like cattle. I dunno, maybe what happens with something like this that is so obviously and cynically constructed to market, is that the more intelligent people feel a tad insulted at the idea that anyone should think they are so easy to manipulate. You know when you’re reading an ad and it’s so obvious that they’re doing NLP on you that even though you find it persuasive you are not going to buy the product because they’ve sold it at you in a way that suggests they think you’re thick and easily manipulated. I have less sympathy with Sarem than I might have done if she’d just been jumped on by trolls. But as the way I see it if you play games you understand there are consequences and if you get caught, you take the rap.

    On a lighter note, it strikes me that one of the glories of the internet is that, in theory, writers can write what they want and build up a following of folks who like their stuff, to the point where they can earn a decent living writing it for the folks who love it, regardless of whether or not the NYT bestseller list is involved. I guess I go with the 1,000 true fans theory that you keep producing art, good art, and keep trying to grow your fanbase, but carefully, so you end up with a small but perfectly formed bunch of folks who love your stuff and buy everything you do. Then you don’t need to sell your soul, indulge in all this disingenuous shite and pander to all this marketing cobblers. You just write, rinse repeat, and your fans buy.

    But I may be weird trying to do that.



  4. williamkendall1 September 15, 2017 / 3:51 pm

    It’s underhanded, dishonest, and unethical. And she’s a narcissist at that- I had a look at her IMDb profile as an actor; she’s had a handful of blink and you’ll miss it roles. And she wants to be the star of her own adaptation?

    Some years back when they were prepping the first Captain America film, there was a nitwit named Ben Metzger who used a bunch of sock puppet accounts to drive traffic to a video he did of himself which was pretty much his audition tape for the role (despite being a horrible actor), and those sock puppets went on and on about how amazing he was, and how if you didn’t like him, that meant you loved cancer. The guy made such an ass of himself in front of the internet that it ended up becoming a parodied meme. I’m surprised he didn’t off himself after the humiliation.

    This situation reminds me of him.

    • rami ungar the writer September 15, 2017 / 4:07 pm

      Sock puppet accounts. I’ll have to remember that one.

  5. Norma Beishir September 15, 2017 / 4:04 pm

    I heard a rumor years ago that when Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal was published, he bought up a warehouse full of copies to get himself on the NY Times’ bestseller list. Being that it’s Trump, The Ego That Ate Manhattan, I tend to believe it. That, and during a visit to the Plaza with my agent and her assistant one night, I saw the book displayed in glass cases all over the hotel….

    • rami ungar the writer September 15, 2017 / 4:06 pm

      Someone else made a Trump comparison in the last article. Was that you, by any chance?

  6. Renee September 17, 2017 / 11:44 pm

    People who do this grate on me. They make it harder for the rest of us. I don’t know how they can do it and feel good about themselves. I couldn’t. I prefer getting my readers by giving away my book free and offering the second book to those who subscribe to my newsletter. I won’t lie. It’s a slow and often tedious process, but at least when people sign up to my newsletter and buy my books, it’s because they love my stories and not because they’re following the pack and buying because it’s what everyone else is doing. I’ll be thrilled if I ever make it onto a bestsellers list, because I know I’ve done the work and earned it, but it’s not my goal. My goal is to connect and build a relationship with my readers, and to learn what they love to read and do my best to oblige. Doing the work is the only way to truly succeed.

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