Handbook for Mortals: A YA literary agent breaks down the drama
Michael Bourret explains how the 'New York Times' best-seller list works, and how this mysterious book almost scammed its way to the top
Book Twitter was rocked by an epic scandal this week. When the New York Times published on Wednesday its best-seller lists for the week of Sep. 3, members of the YA literary community were alarmed to see Lani Sarem’s Handbook for Mortals, the debut novel from a first-time author and publisher, displace Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give at the top of the list. When YA author Phil Stamper and designer Jeremy West started questioning the list’s legitimacy on Thursday, it unleashed a Book Twitter saga that ultimately inspired the Times to revise its list.
For those not intimately familiar with the publishing industry or the YA community, the story may have been a bit hard to follow. EW talked with Michael Bourret — a YA literary agent at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret — to break down exactly what happened and how such best-seller lists work.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, what’s your background in YA publishing?
MICHAEL BOURRET: I’ve been a literary agent for 17 years at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. I started doing YA probably 12 or 13 years ago, and have been part of that community ever since. I’ve been on YA Twitter since 2007, for better and worse, so this is a world I am intimately familiar with.
At what point did you get clued in to what was happening with Handbook for Mortals?
When the list came out on Wednesday, I think everybody was like, What’s going on here? A colleague of mine messaged me immediately like, ‘I’ve never heard of this publisher or this book.’ That does happen sometimes — we’re not all aware of every book that’s coming out all the time — but it was a little strange to see something so unheard of at No. 1. I think that’s really what set alarm bells off. Then yesterday morning, I saw Phil tweeting and asking some questions, and that’s when I couldn’t look away.
So how does the New York Times best-seller list work, to the best of our knowledge? I know they try to keep it a little secret…
They have their secret formula about how they put it all together. They track book outlets across the country, including the big ones like Barnes & Noble, but also independent booksellers, which is how they weight their list. They weight it towards the independents. We don’t technically know which stores report, but it’s sort of an open secret in the industry which stores are reporting, which is how these people were able to game the system — by figuring out which stores were reporting and making some phone calls there to make it work for them. The Times gets reports from those stores every week who tell them how many copies of each book they’ve sold. Then they tally it up. Again, no one knows what their formula is — they’ll tell you it’s not necessarily just based on strict sales, but also momentum and all these other intangible factors. It’s not the same as the USA Today list, which pulls from BookScan directly and is literally just the point of scale through BookScan [the data provider that tracks book sales across the country]. So the USA Today list is very sales-based, whereas the Times one isn’t. The New York Times also doesn’t have backlist books, just new releases. A book can age out of the list. For instance, Dr. Seuss outsells most new books every week, but you don’t see that on the list because it’s a backlist book.
From what you’ve seen, how would you explain what went down with Handbook for Mortals?
Through Jeremy West and Phil Stamper’s reporting — and they really did some investigative journalism, reaching out to booksellers and libraries to figure out what was going on — it’s really clear that the publisher or author or some combination thereof reached out directly to stores that they thought were reporting (from what they found out, it sounds like they actually asked the stores if they were reporting), and then placed orders that the stores didn’t even have. It’s not like the stores had like 30 copies of the book in stock, they didn’t have any. But then they would place an order, I assume paying with credit card, that then shows up as sales through BookScan. The crazy thing here, and what really tips me off that there was something especially wrong, was that BookScan was showing sales of over 18,000 copies in a week. The next book down on the list only showed 6,000 copies. That sort of discrepancy doesn’t happen very often. It’ll happen when there’s a best-selling author with a new book maybe, but not for something no one’s ever heard of. That’s the thing that really clued me in that something was off. I think they could have gotten away with this if they had called these stores and ordered a couple copies, and maybe all together sell 3,000 and make it onto the lower end of the list. I think people would’ve been surprised, but I don’t think anyone would’ve gone digging into it. But when you’re No. 1 on the Times list and showing sales of over 18,000 copies, people are gonna start asking questions.
You posted a message on Twitter from the Times saying they were correcting the list. How often does that happen?
It does happen occasionally when something is off. If publishers sense that something is wrong, that a book has been left off in some unjustified way, then they’ll be in touch. I’ve gotten corrections from the New York Times before. This one was pretty shocking in how quickly it came. There were certainly some murmurs on Wednesday when the list came out, but I don’t really think anyone was really paying attention to it until Phil and Jeremy started getting into it. I think it was in the course of eight hours from that conversation starting to the Times redoing the list. That’s pretty quick.
Just so you know about that note, when you subscribe to the list (it’s something you have to pay for, a subscription service), then they send the list every week. This was in an email that they sent to subscribers.
One interesting element of this story is that it happened in the YA genre, which has a very large and passionate online community. The book that was No. 1, The Hate U Give, has been inspiring a lot of passion too. How do you think the state of the YA community factored into this story?
There’s a really engaged YA user base on Twitter. There are so many conversations that go on in the YA space about diversity and representation, and a lot of those discussions are impassioned disagreements. I think what was so interesting about yesterday, and I tweeted about this, is that the entire YA community was on the same side of an issue for the first time maybe ever. No one likes getting scammed, no one likes feeling like they’re being taken advantage of. The challenges of getting onto the Times list, the challenges of being a successful author, you’re up against so much — so to think that somebody would come in and manipulate it to this degree, I think it just galled everybody. I don’t think I’ve seen such a collective and positive effort from the YA Twitter community in a long time.
From your experience, what does it usually take to get a book on the best-seller list the normal way?
It’s a coordinated effort from a publisher to get books onto the Times list. It isn’t something that happens by accident. They have to make sure that the reporting stores have books so they can be sold, then you have to do publicity in those markets, like doing an author tour that goes through those towns, to make sure there are sales in that place. You have to print a certain number of books to have them out in the stores (which these people were apparently able to circumvent by ordering them themselves), which is an investment in money, printing enough books to be out there. So to sell 5,000 copies in a week, you need a lot more copies than that in the stores – we’re talking tens of thousands out in the marketplace to sell 5,000 in a week. And then you need the marketing and publicity efforts to back that up so there’s an awareness of the book. Usually those efforts start taking place a year before a book comes out, and sometimes I feel like it starts even before then, when people make news out of the sale of a book, and having a really long runway up to the launch. I tell people all the time that the tough thing about publishing is, you really need things to be firing on all cylinders for something to work in a big way. You need the sales to be out there, you need the marketing and publicity so there’s awareness, and if any one of those things falls down, you can’t have a successful book. You can’t sell books that are out in the stores, and you can’t sell books when no one knows about it.