Friday, September 1, 2017

The Woman Who Gamed the NYT List


Last August, the entertainment website, GeekNation, got up one morning and decided to become a book publisher. What compelled them isn’t clear. Originally, they described themselves as “the ultimate mecca of entertainment through articles, blogs, podcasts, vodcasts, videos and web series to serve as a lifestyle and entertainment hub for the ever-growing geek contingency and pop-culture enthusiasts.”

It seems it is essentially an online magazine that mostly just shares content like an independent Facebook page. The website, right now, seems to be down, which could be due to a surge in traffic after the controversy of Lani Sarem and Handbook for Mortals, or an embarrassed pull by the creators. Or it may just be my computer. In any case, I can’t say for myself exactly the intent of the site or how many novels it had set out to publish.

Slated for the week of September 3, Handbook for Mortals knocked Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give off the top of the charts. Not too shocking in itself as the New York Times Best Sellers List is a fickle beast. It has long been accused of cherry picking its sales, especially in regards to the surge of ebooks. People before have bought their way onto the list, and while the New York Times attempts to fix problems with gaming the system, even people who legitimately make it to the top ten are soon after lost to obscurity.

However, it is a fantastic place for marketing, having, “New York Times Best Selling Author” on your cover garners just a little more trust for your potential readers, not to mention simply getting your name in a place where people might actually see it.

So how does one get on the best seller’s list? Well, that’s not so simple. They intentionally keep the formula secret, and it’s not entirely based on sales. The number cited commonly today is 5,000 copies, but the truth is it’s affected by how well your competitors are doing. It also only counts sales from certain places, at certain frequencies, and will consider bulk buys “corporate purchases,” so often will only consider an order under 30 books.

How did Sarem and GeekNation do it then? Pretty overtly.

At one point, people on Twitter began to talk about how an unknown book from an unknown publisher with an unknown author sold enough copies of a manuscript you all bookstores had listed as out of stock. The question went viral and bookstore clerks commented about how a simple phone call asked, “Is this a New York Times reported bookstore?” Under 30 copies, please!

The calls said the books were for “events” but when the clerks pointed out that they had no idea when the book would be delivered—as it was out of stock—the caller wasn’t concerned. And, as it turns out, Barnes and Noble has a policy that a book order can be returned as long as it isn’t delivered, and the books can’t be delivered because, low and behold, they’re out of stock.

What’s more fascinating is the cover art was directly taken from an Australian artist, Gill Del Mace, and that the author is being cited as the leading lady in the upcoming film. Hearsay is that the actress needed to get buzz about her script and so wrote it as a book series. The introduction by Skye Turner proves the script came first.

But Pajiba tells the story better.  I’m not here to rehash the strange way that Sarem’s book got to the New York Times Best Seller. Rather, my interest falls into the concept of subjectivity and the humorously harsh review of the beginning of Sarem’s book by author Jenny Trout

I have a weird love for Trout. She is, ironically, one of the bloggers to make me strongly question my negativity. I constantly read writers’ blogs to understand what works for me and what doesn’t, to better know when to restrict my emotional reactions (thus avoiding an obnoxious and mean post) and when to let them fly. Both my best and worst posts are angry rants about something, and while I am inclined to judgmental thrashing, many times I find it unsavory and unappealing. Sarcasm and critical thinking are good. Being closed-minded and insulting are bad. But sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, especially when seeing red. To be honest, people love me best when I’m not censoring myself and social interaction flows more readily when I’m not too concerned. But oh, how I can make an ass out of me.

Jenny Trout is one of the key places I struggled with that difference. She is hilarious and interesting, her blog a great place to distract or inform yourself, yet she can also come off as bitter and insecure on occasion. She has both been an advocate against bullying and criticized for bullying, and I can honestly see both being true. She often directs her readers to “injustice” and suddenly the victim of her criticism is faced with a surge of anger from the populace. In some cases, it has done service to an underdog, such as drawing attention to Laura Harner’s plagiarism of Becky McGraw’s (and many other’s) novels. But it’s the quintessential issue of vigilantism, and the reason we have a legal system to protect people from the biased and emotional public court. Some cases are more complex than just outright playing for numbers or plagiarism, and so keyboard warriors can be dangerous.

I joke that aspiring writers have to learn when to tell someone to “shut the hell up” in a writers group because unvetted (bullying?) criticism tends to escalate, and you don’t have to say something true to poison the minds of others. Which doesn’t literally mean say shut up (necessarily), but that contrary to popular belief, there are moments where you need to stand up for yourself if you think that the person is indulging their anger, envy, or insecurity into hyperbolic and unhelpful suggestions. If I wanted to screw over another writer, all I would have to say is, regardless of the actual text, “This is sexist,” and I guarantee at least one person would believe me, tainting their view on your work.

Sarem’s book listing is now diluted with negative reviews, most of which admitting they’d never read it. I was curious about the actual content, given the weird combination of both cutting corners but having the expertise to do it with precision. The five stars all came across as pretty unreliable to me, vague and familiar, against the “haters.” Mostly though, they really didn’t seem to tell me anything about the book.

Those one-stars claiming to have read the entire thing stated the writing was atrocious, crafted like it was the first draft by a 12 year old.

I am not remotely immune to being swayed by the opinions of my peers. Part of my concern between being wishy-washy versus being closed-minded comes from my all or nothing personality. Which is to say, I’m either very gullible or completely cynical. It’s an exhausting way to live.

So let’s be honest about the Halo Effect: an attractive cover that elicits an emotional yearning or curiosity for more is going to be given the benefit of the doubt. Hearing that she had conned the list but still na├»ve to the fact the cover was stolen, a part of me wanted to like the book. Regardless that, plagiarized or no, the art was not made by the author herself, when it represented what the novel could be, Gill Del Mace’s image invoked a sense of wonder. Plus, I like the title.


Upon finding that Ryan Kincaid’s drawing was distinctly based off an Gill Del Mace’s already existing painting, some of my curiosity turned sour. This was no longer an image inspired by the book, it was another cover created by a Google search and some Photoshop. (I mean, I do believe Kincaid drew parts of it, and, let’s be honest, there’s been quite a few of good artists being found out for cutting massive, plagiaristic corners. I myself have cheated from time to time in fallible moments of frustration.)

Jenny Trout’s criticism came in order of appearance, and initially, I found no disagreement.

Handbook for Mortals begins with a foreword by author Skye Turner (yeah, me neither), in which the pronunciation of Lani Sarem’s impossibly confusing first name is cleared up.

“As an author myself,”

Holy shit, are you an author, Skye? I feel like you haven’t mentioned it yet in this forward to your friend’s book that you are supposed to be writing about your friend and her book.

Skye Turner’s introduction didn’t work for me. It did come across as a self-promotional plea in parts. On a quick search of t3h interwebz, I found that Turner was a highly trafficked (many ratings, pages likes), self-published erotica author, however, the introduction seemed more clunky and poorly written than the first few pages of the actual book. That comparison alone is worth noting because it says something about criticism, ratings, and numbers when Sarem is torn to shreds but Turner is, at least on paper, extremely successful.

When it came to Trout’s mocking of the protagonist’s dismay at her inherent uniqueness—“Woe is me, the object of everyone’s envy”—the blogger accurately described the reason why characters who are written to be weird rubs me the wrong way. Talking about something good as if it’s such a plight—including the first person P.O.V. mentioning how beautiful the protagonist doesn’t realize she is—doesn’t fool anyone. It’s the meta-motivation of the author eclipsing the character’s actual inner dialogue.

Let me tell you something about thinking you’re ugly; I recently read an autobiographical essay by a friend of mine who describes in depth her weight and perception of herself. She painted a picture as if she is a grotesque monster, like Jabba the Hut, and it was incredibly painful for me to read. It is not remotely close to how I perceive her, and we had a long discussion about how, while that specific section is wonderful and should stay how it is, it is also misleading to the audience and at some point in the memoir I still strongly believe she needs to indicate that it is only her warped view of her because it changes the story. Her portrait of herself is so convincing that the reader would not think to question it. She is overweight, but beautiful, bubbily, sexy, and just lures men in in a way that I don’t even think she realizes is abnormal (and isn’t just because of her self-proclaimed “easiness.”)

As for someone who has heard through the walls how “beautiful” I am, that too affects me in an non-ignorable way. I still can look in the mirror and sometimes not like what I see, but I think, “Eh, I’m in a bad mood. I’ll be prettier tomorrow.” Again, I’m susceptible to suggestion and highly gullible, but the point is that Sarem describes the protagonist in attempts to paint her in the best light, not reflect on how people actually see themselves. It is just as Trout says, obvious and unappealing.

Jenny Trout’s insights rang true to me at first, and accurately stated what I normally felt about those sorts of decisions. On the other hand, something about Trout’s mockery started to feel a little unfair too. I didn’t feel sympathy for Lani Sarem, but I felt the criticism was exaggerating the ‘horror’ and incompetence of the painful writing.

Take, for example, protagonist Zade’s announcement of where she’s going to start the story…

Instead, I’ll start on the day I left home. It marked a turning point–a fork in the road, if you will.”

Somebody bought Lani Sarem the Trite Metaphor A Day calendar. I’m not saying it was Skye Turner, but it was probably Skye Turner. But the bold choice to tell the reader when the story starts instead of just starting the story there is probably all Sarem’s work.

It is obnoxious when framed in Trout’s view, but when I read the sample chapters later, I don’t think I would have noticed the meta-element of announcing where the story will be started. Despite that I tend to notice that sort of thing, in this case, it seems to make sense with the flow of the story. It’s a slow beginning, but not as slow as Trout implies, and there is an air of wistfulness that the writer was clearly going for, even if it is over the top.

Or when the author explains what memory is…

“People say some memories will stick with you forever. They burn brightly in your mind and each detail is as clear as the day it happened. Each color, each smell, the way things felt, the way you felt–it all pierces your mind each time you think about it. You can practically place yourself there at that moment, as if it were happening all over again. Close your eyes and breathe in deep and all of a sudden you are back in that time and that place.”

Trout’s mocking—“If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of memory, don’t worry. The author will explain it for you. Four. Times.”—was true. However, I have previously criticized people’s tendency to be looking for literal information instead of allowing the emotional effect of the passage to be its intent. Which is to say, I don’t think Sarem wrote this as a way to intellectually remind people of what memory actually is (obviously), but to give us the sensation that comes with reminiscing. To put us in the mood, if you will.

Does it work? I mean, it’s a little too obvious and not enough meat for my taste—a good passage has both ambiance and information—but this was a major point where it felt like neither Trout and I were giving her any credit. If I had met Sarem in a writers group and someone had talked to her the way that Trout did, I don’t think I’d be siding with the critic.

I don’t meant that Sarem was aware of her actions or had a masterful control over her mood, just that every writer does something for a reason, and it would be insane to think that Sarem even subconsciously needed to explain memory to people. It is possible that she believed she needed to frame how her P.O.V. character ‘could possibly remember those details specifically,’ (because there are idiots who make criticisms like that) but I think it’s far more likely she was trying to convey a feeling. This is important because I have often seen the ramifications of prioritizing literal meaning over atmosphere by pedantic and unimpressed critics.  When I cut down a larger manuscript by getting rid of “excess words,” I realized just how much of an effect that had on tone and ambiance. I believe vehemently that anytime you’ve done something so obviously mockable, it’s because it served another purpose. Often successfully so. It might not be important or useful in the context, but not acknowledging it is doing a disservice to learning.

Another interesting example is the word “regardless.” Or rather, “irregardless.”

The handbook says…

“That might be the worst part, knowing they actually believe in [magic] as well but they are all just afraid to admit it. Though if they really knew what we actually were they’d probably end up reopening the old “burning people at the stake” idea. Something our family is quite familiar with. Regardless, it’s been hard for me because of it.”

Wait, regardless of the fact that the townsfolk would burn you at the stake, it’s been hard for you? Getting potentially burned at the stake is the easy part, and regardless of that, things are still hard? Words mean things. You can’t just go, “This sounds like a smart transition,” and slap it on there, fully ignoring the context of the last paragraph.

Despite the hate it gets, ‘irregardless’ is actually a colloquial term typically from the south that does not mean regardless. It means, “I’m done talking about this.”

I’ll wager Sarem, from the south, went to use ‘irregardless’ as what her long linguistic socialization told her was natural, knew the complaints of ‘irregardless,’ and quickly changed it to ‘regardless.’ Yes, this was a mistake, and it’s not on Trout to second guess why. Should someone have caught this in editing? Of course. The point isn’t that Sarem didn’t make a mistake, but that this is a key problem to just dismissing people’s errors as being their own pure stupidity and not more complex (and interesting) than that. And, in many cases, the writer might be right and the overly literal, proverbial witch-hunter is just wrong in her oversimplification of things. I say this because I have had people give me similar criticism: “YOU’RE TELLING A STORY. YOU’RE NOT JUST TALKING ABOUT STUFF!” in reference to an important albeit boring scene and my response was, “You’re right. I’m not.” It’s easy to dismiss being dismissive, and when you’re a young writer, having someone wrongfully attribute why you did something loses them credibility and doesn’t help solve the problem. Knowing why an author did something can help you come to better solution.

Now, Trout is being a critic here, not a constructive partner, and it is not her job to teach Sarem, nor even the audience technically. But I bring this up because the sensation I found as I went along through Trout’s review tied into how constructive criticisms, even those I merely watched, go wrong… and I strongly felt that had the book come across Trout’s awareness in another context, her opinion and tactics might be different.

The fact is, people perceive books differently based on what they want to see.

They can’t deny everything. It’s not as if I’m defending Sarem’s book as unfairly judged. But I’ve seen worse writing, and the condemnation on her has everything to do with her actions outside of literary merit. Hell, the seemingly successfully Skye Turner’s introduction actually had the sentence, “Soon, I decided to take the plunge from editing other author’s [sic] books…” and she still doesn’t have any complaints about her poor typos on Amazon in the same way Sarem does. Are Turner’s reviews and likes gamed? Did she try the same thing and just get more successful at it? Do her books have something so wonderful it compensates for redundant word choice and punctuation errors?

People who know Lani Sarem stand by her, regarding her as a genuine and fun person. I believe she’s friendly, charming when you meet her face to face, and just happened to be one of the people who got caught for common crimes against literature. I feel no remorse for her, but it’s interesting to see how online reviews and criticism are effected (or not?) by external factors.

When I read her book, I find the isolated quotes of Trout’s insights to be less true. Trout claimed that enjoying a storm for its ‘magical’ components was a contradiction to the character’s normal life, but when reading it, she was really saying she liked the rain and loud thunder. Not exactly unreasonable for someone who feels like an outcast. Its clear simple explanations were ambiance inspired, and while I still find the character obnoxious and nothing to phone home about, there is a difference when hearing about a story through the lens of someone else’s interpretation.

It’s really not about Sarem though. I won’t lose any sleep over Trout’s review and got a good laugh. But what if it was someone else? I can’t stand reading negative reviews of books I adored. I doubt that I would be so amused if it were me. This situation with Sarem’s one-stars spoke to me about the writing world as a whole, how fickle we can all be, and how assure someone can be defending something they want to believe.

I don’t think Trout’s reaction to this book would have been the same had it not the negative narrative behind it. I don’t think she would have liked it exactly—in fact, in the most objective opinion I can get, I bet that its cover wouldn’t have kept my interest passed the first chapter had the circumstances been different. But I don’t think her writing is as horrible as people state, having seen much worse in my travels, and would probably rate it no less than three-stars for the prose and editing in the sample chapters. I know there are other people who have messed with the system and many who would argue it’s fine because the system is screwy. Some people believe that focusing on a beautiful cover is trickery in itself, or fixing it for typos ruins your voice. I adamantly believe that many of the marketing ploys aren’t inherently immoral and anyone who fights the business side of thing is trying to shoot themselves in the foot. Getting your name out there and learning to show the best side of yourself is important in life, and is a totally different skillset than writing a good book.

However, I will say this; marketing is only one side of the coin. You can have a good book that will die in obscurity if you don’t get the word out there, but you can’t get the word out there and expect people to think it’s a good book.




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