Here’s how sleuths got the YA book “Handbook for Mortals” pulled from NYT’s best-seller list

The young-adult novel Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem pulled off the impressive feat of debuting at No. 1 on the New York Times Young Adult Hardcover best-seller chart. It then pulled off the equally impressive feat of getting yanked almost immediately for what a Times rep told Vulture were “inconsistencies in the most recent reporting cycle.”

The Times seems to have been tipped off to those “inconsistencies” by YA author Phil Stamper, writer, and publishing industry insider Jeremy West, and the blog Pajiba, who were highly skeptical of how a book Stamper described as “a book no one has heard of” had landed the coveted spot.

The book was from a newbie author, a newbie publisher (GeekNation, a pop culture website branching out into publishing), and seemingly had generated no buzz among the YA community. As West told Publishers Weekly: “As soon as I saw the list yesterday, it didn’t make sense to me. The lack of social media buzz [for the book], the fact that no one in the young adult community was talking about it or had even heard of it … it all sounded fishy.”

Stamper, West, and Pajiba started questioning the book’s sales numbers on Twitter. A book typically needs to sell about 5,000 copies to crack the NYT list, but the Guardian notes that Nielsen Bookscan recorded a whopping 18,597 sales of the book in just one weekend. That’s a difficult feat to pull off, but one made infinitely more difficult when the book is out of stock on Amazon and unavailable at most bookstores. Pajiba put together a fascinating investigation into Handbook for Mortals‘ sketchy numbers, asking if the book had bought its way onto the NYT list—and it’s pretty compelling stuff.

Soon, the self-appointed Scooby squad started to get tips that someone (the publisher? a particularly enterprising agent?) were able to inflate sales numbers by ordering large, but not too large, numbers of books from stores that report their sales to the Times. While the Times flags large corporate orders and excludes them from their calculations, the orders for Handbook were just shy of that margin, so the Times didn’t notice.

Soon other booksellers were anonymously weighing in that they, too, had received calls from people placing bulk orders for Handbook. Publishers Weekly reported that a customer ordered 87 copies of the book after learning the shop reported sales to the NYT.

The YA community’s spotlight led the Times to do its own investigation, and it eventually opted to correct its best-seller list, returning Angie Thomas’s riveting The Hate U Give to No. 1 on the Young Adult list.

The author has denied the accusations: “Because some people in the YA community weren’t aware of it doesn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of people out there that were excited about it,” she told the Hollywood Reporter. She also claims she had been doing a lot of publicity for the book by promoting it smaller conventions, and buying books to distribute at those conventions. The YA community isn’t buying it, though. The Mortal Instruments author Cassandra Clare—one of YA’s recent success stories—tweeted at the online detectives, “They would’ve gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you pesky kids.”ML