Blues Traveler's Ex-Manager & Novelist on Being Yanked From Bestseller List: Book Biz Should Study Music

Lisa Hendricks
Lani Sarem

Lani Sarem's book 'Handbook for Mortals' was accused of falsifying sales when it reached No.1 in the New York Times Young Adult Best Seller list.

Lani Sarem is the former manager of the band Blue Traveler and author of Handbook for Mortals.

The book business should take a page from the music industry when it comes to ranking the popularity of new releases. I might have been treated differently by the New York Times if rules for how it weighs book sales were more in keeping with the times and accommodating of changes in consumer behavior and the marketplace.  

Instead, I created one of the bigger kerfuffles in book publishing in late August:

New York Times pulls YA novel from bestseller list after reports of fake sales,” reads a headline in the Guardian. On NPR: “The Brief, Tumultuous Reign of an Erstwhile Best-Seller.” And on Salon.com: “Author booted from the New York Times Bestseller List lashes out.”

On that last headline I must demur; I didn’t lash out. I tried to defend myself from spurious, false charges that I, a former music manager, part-time actress and first-time novelist, manipulated or “gamed” the New York Times bestseller list to catapult into a number-one spot based on bogus, non-existent sales.

The fact is, the sales of my book are quite real. They were just not sold through methods established by the book industry but rather a practice more akin to how artists sell CDs at their concerts. In the music industry, those sales are registered by SoundScan if they are verified by a venue and therefore count toward an artist’s ranking in the charts. But the book industry has no such mechanism.

And it’s not like I am giving away my books in the same vein as artists like U2 and JAY-Z have done with some albums to broaden their audiences. Just as Billboard does not count such giveaways in their charts, neither would the New York Times. And that wasn’t their beef with me. So what did happen?

When my book reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list, a handful of people took to social media attacking both me and my book. As one news report stated, “some in the YA community questioned how a book that many publishers and YA authors had never heard of . . .  opened at No. 1 on the Times's YA hardcover list. Some suggested that people connected to the book had gamed the best-seller list through an organized campaign to bulk buy at stores surveyed by the Times to compile the list.”

After one day of these specious allegations on Twitter and social media, the bestseller-list editors at The New York Times removed my new novel, “Handbook for Mortals,” from the number-one slot in the “Young Adult” category.  

As most everyone knows, the way goods are sold today is different from how they were sold three years ago, five years ago and 10 years ago -- and that’s true for razor blades, clothing, books, music, even groceries. My efforts to sell my book, likewise, were outside the traditional sales vehicles of the mainstream publishing system.  

Rather than use traditional means, I chose to promote the book in a city-by-city tour of Wizard World and Comic Con events, which bring together avid fans of comic books, fantasy and tales of horror and the supernatural. In late August, for example, we were promoting the book at Wizard World Comic Con in Chicago in an effort to win new fans from the throngs of a reported 150,000 attendees. This in-person approach works: We have logged pre-orders in Columbus, Detroit, Nashville, Philadelphia, Sacramento, San Antonio and San Diego. By year-end, we will have appeared at a dozen events, and we plan to attend upwards of 40 of these confabs in 2018.  

In order to sell books at these events, I had to have books to sell. If I had purchased the books directly from my distributor, Itasca Books, they would not count as sales for purposes of the New York Times list. If they were purchased from booksellers -- brick and mortar or online -- they would count. While I didn’t limit my purchases to only those booksellers involved in the Times list, I did purchase books in bulk from booksellers to resell them later at events.

It’s not unlike artists selling CDs at their concerts. What I have chosen to do is to build a community of interrelated fans at these 3D, real-time events. This is part of what I believe is an innovative strategy -- one that is aimed at building an entire new franchise in the Hunger Games and Game of Thrones mold, yet without having to give up creative control and a huge cut of the revenue to some synergistic studio giant a la Disney or Fox. That is why we published the book with the film rights already in place, set to produce the first of up to five “Handbook for Mortals” films that will star, in the lead role, yours truly, alongside my producer and co-star, Thomas Ian Nicholas. If all goes well.

The New York Times bestseller list is one of the most coveted platforms in all of publishing and most any author would be honored to be included on that list, let alone to be ranked number one. But I honestly believe the steps I took are well within the rules. As a said previously, the sales of my book are real sales to real people. The fact is, bulk sales aren’t unheard of and the Times has been known to footnote a book entry when bulk sales may have bolstered the total: The paper places a little glyph of a tiny dagger next to the entry, flagging it with a sharp-edged asterisk.  

I’m hopeful The Times will do the same for “Handbook for Mortals.”