Blues Traveler's John Popper on the New York Times best-seller scam: 'Justice was done'
A book by the band's former manager Lani Sarem came under fire Thursday
On Thursday, a group of Twitter sleuths led by YA author Phil Stamper solved a mystery in which an unknown book — Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem — had shot to the coveted No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list, unseating Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. As it turns out (and as Stamper summarizes perfectly in the tweet below), a team behind Handbook for Mortals had reportedly bought copies of the book in bulk from bookstores that report their sales to the Times in order to get it onto the best-seller list.
That’s the gist of thestory (and a more detailed outline can be found here). But while the mystery was unfurling, it branched out into a bunch of delightfully strange places: The author, Sarem, is apparently cousin to J.C. Chasez of *NSYNC fame, for example, and she also used to manage the band Blues Traveler. When John Popper saw his band’s name being mentioned on Twitter, he decided to join in the fun, tweeting: “yes this is weird but not surprising…We fired her for these kind of stunts. Her sense of denial is staggering!”
Popper eventually deleted the tweet from Blues Traveler’s account (more on that below), but he stayed involved in the drama — and it eventually led to another fun conclusion elsewhere in the world of Book Twitter. Writer Anne Ursu tweeted at Blues Traveler to ask if they’d like to help fund an initiative (spearheaded by BookRiot editor Kelly Jensen) to fill a Texas classroom library with diverse books. Popper promptly replied and provided the rest of the funding the classroom needed.
In the midst of recording Blues Traveler’s next album (due out in early 2018) and gearing up for the band’s 30th anniversary tour in October, Popper was kind enough to hop on the phone with EW to discuss how it all went down — and why it’s so important to him to help fund kids’ educations.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, how did you get involved in this whole Twitter extravaganza yesterday? How did it come to your attention?
JOHN POPPER: Well, I’m always out there on Twitter, and I heard that this was going down and it involved us. I always try and check our name to see what’s going on, because usually I just like to argue with people. That’s kind of a silly pastime and occasionally it gets me into trouble, and I wanted to see what was going on.
Then I heard about this book and I started to read about it and I was kind of reading along like everybody else, what had happened. I found it fascinating. And I know Lani, so I commented, and then somebody from the project actually called me, and they’re a friend of mine — somebody other than Lani — and they asked me to please, please just [stay] out of it. I decided I would do that, because you know, they said they had some money involved in this and they wanted me to stay out of it. So I withdrew my comments, but I really wished that I could have kept my comments in, because I thought I was being funny.
It was funny!
Well thank you. But it really is fascinating how you can get on a best-seller list that way! I think the fact that it got pulled from the best-seller list [shows that] everybody was doing good detective work. It was sort of like, justice was done. It was like watching a fire go down in real time and watching it get put out.
It was kind of exciting to be a part of. And then somebody who was doing the detective work mentioned that they were a teacher and that they were trying to fund a classroom, and I thought that was a really cool twist at the end how that became sort of a trend. I got excited about that and got involved with that, and that was really kind of a cool ending to the whole story.
How did you get connected to the donation project?
Well, somebody said, “Hey, why don’t you help fund my classroom? It only costs this much.” This particular person was trying to get 33 classrooms funded by her 33rd birthday, and this was number 22. I mean, to me, that’s the more interesting story. How do you get 33 classrooms funded? It’s amazing to me that public schools need to be funded this way to get books that are actually inclusive.
I know it’s a Texas school and there’s so many stories about Texas having books that are out of date or are supporting some sort of, let’s call it antiquated, learning. But I think that the fact that everybody coming together, drawn by a potential literary fraud, to actually start supporting a literary future — that was something I felt proud of being part of. It took that nice, weird hop.
It was like a second happy ending to this big mystery.
I think it would have been wrong to have taken the best-seller title away from somebody who’d earned it and worked really hard. And whatever friends I have [involved in this] — I can’t deny that. I don’t want to sit there and chime in about a former manager… I mean, that’s easy to do because you have this past relationship. But I think what’s really important is that justice was served.
That’s the other thing about Twitter is you feel like it’s in your hands, so you should be administering justice. And there is no justice that comes from people deciding what they think is right, because everybody has an opinion. But when you actually have the New York Times responding to this and looking into it, that’s real power, and that’s real justice. I’m really glad that happened.
Are you going to follow as Jensen tries to get the other classrooms funded and help out again?
Yeah, if I can, I’d love to! I’d love to see all 33 get funded — and by her 33rdt birthday, that’s ambitious! And another thing that happened was [I reconnected with] an old teacher friend of mine who was teaching kids back in the ‘90s in the South Bronx, teaching them English vocabulary with Dave Matthews lyrics and Blues Traveler lyrics. He got me to come into the school. And you haven’t lived until you’ve seen these kids who nobody seems to care about, and you go in and just show them that you care and they’re so moved, they’re so blown away. They learned all of our songs, and we were all moved to tears.
There are kids who really want to learn that just feel like nobody cares. And all you have to do is just show them that you care. This guy, Phil, he would bring them to a pizza kitchen and they’d make pizza, bring them to Yankee Stadium — just the idea that people cared motivated all of them. I’d love to see what happened to those kids, where they are. They were so motivated to learn, and just so excited and enthusiastic. And I really hope that the kids in Texas where these books are going to be distributed — I hope that they feel like people care. Because I think that, more than the books themselves, really is what drives people to try. And that, to me, is the key ingredient to an education — the belief that it actually leads to something, that it actually matters.