I’ll admit to some surprise over how much press the college university scandal is getting. It’s proving to be a remarkable distraction from whatever it is our darling president is up to today. And have you noticed that he’s been unusually silent about the subject? Sure, his usual crew of proxies, including DTJr, have been all over it, but as far as I can tell, he’s kept his own Twitter fingers out of the fuss.

Maybe he thinks the dignity of his former position as proprietor of a pay-for-play education institution would be compromised by taking sides on the issue.

Never mind.

Anyway, I really am surprised about the amount of attention being paid to the story. Is anyone actually surprised that the rich have a perk denied to the rest of population?

Is it because of the high public profile of some of the accused? Everyone loves a good scandal involving well-known actresses*, right? Or is it only because of the rather staggering quantities of money involved. Twenty-five million is a significant sum of money. On the other hand, annual tuition at Stanford is currently around $50,000. Add in living expenses, materials, and all of the other expenses of going to school, and you realize that $25,000,000 wouldn’t even cover the costs of a four year degree for all of the students involved.

* I have to wonder if there would be as much gloating and finger pointing if the big Hollywood names were men. But I digress.

And, speaking of the students… The Chron quotes US attorney Andrew Lelling as saying “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.” That’s arguable, but if the goal of the investigation is to seek redress for those rejected students, why are all of those fraudulently admitted still attending their schools?

Granted, most schools probably don’t have a ranked list of candidates, and even if they did, it’s far too late to offer a slot to the top few who just missed the cut because their slots had been filled via fraud. But it would free up spaces that could be added to the available pool for next year.

Come to think of it, the goal of the parents involved was to get their kids into those colleges. Even if they’re eventually convicted of crimes, the punishment is going to be in the form of fines and jail time. The children are still going to be in school, benefiting from their parents’ misdeeds. And if someone was willing and able to pay half a million bucks to get their child into an Ivy League school, are they really going to quibble about a few thousand dollars more to satisfy the justice system?

Really, though, the most vexing thing about the scandal is that the schools themselves are unlikely to see any repercussions. A few employees have been fired and more probably will. It’s vaguely possible that the universities will be fined, but even if they are, they’ll likely be a tiny fraction of their operating budgets–but a great excuse to raise tuition. Maybe the NCAA will sanction a few sports programs–but who’s going to notice a loss of scholarships or forced forfeits in sailing and other minor sports?

What’s not going to be affected is the schools’ collective reputation. None of this year’s high school seniors are going to withdraw their applications. Nobody’s going to miss out on a post-graduation job because their diploma comes from one of those schools.

That, IMNSHO, is the real scandal.

Scam Much?

How about a quick tale of greed and gaming the system to start your week off?

This one’s all over the Young Adult publishing community, so my apologies to those of you who are tapped in there for repeating old news.

For the rest of you, the best overview of the story I’ve found is at Pajiba.

You should read the whole piece, but if you’re in a hurry, the core of the matter is that someone seems to have concocted a scheme to get a book onto the New York Times bestseller list. Not because they wanted to jumpstart sales of the book, but in order to get financing for a movie based on it.

Right. A movie based on a book nobody’s read. But wait, it gets better: the publisher is a website nobody* visits anymore. The author of the book is set to star in the movie. The cover may have been plagiarized.

* Though, to be honest, they get way more traffic than I do.

How’s that for entertainment?

The most startling thing I learned reading about this is that you can get onto the NYT list with 5,000 copies sold in a week. I know it’s a common complaint that reading for pleasure is a dying art, but it still boggles me that the threshold is so low.

But that’s what made this scam possible. Somebody–or rather, several somebodies–placed phone orders for multiple copies of the book through bookstores across the country. The orders were sized to be just small enough to be counted as individual sales, rather than corporate bulk orders.

The book isn’t actually available, so all of those orders will eventually be canceled, but they hung around long enough to be reported as sales. More than 18,000 sales, in fact. As a result, the book jumped straight to Number One.

A book you can’t buy, with few legitimate reviews knocking a title that’s been sitting in the top spot for a couple of month? Not gonna happen. So people got suspicious. Much Twitter discussion and detective work followed. The upshot is that the NYT released a new bestseller list for the week which does not include the work in question.

Note, by the way, that I haven’t mentioned the book’s title or the author’s name. I don’t see any reason why I should give them any additional publicity. If you want to know, read the article I linked at the top of the post.

But that’s really what I find most depressing about this affair: the author and the team behind the movie have gotten far more publicity than they expected–it seems clear that the whole point was to use the “bestseller” status to get the movie deal done; publicizing it ahead of the signing probably wasn’t part of the plan.

As we all know, however, there’s no such thing as bad publicity in Hollywood. I’ll be very surprised if the movie doesn’t get made. And when it comes out, I’ll be even more surprised if it doesn’t use a “Based on the NYT bestselling book!” line in the ads. Because it did appear on the list, even if the paper has since disavowed it. And people will go see it because they’ll vaguely remember the title, without remembering why they heard of it.

I have to wonder: if the crew behind this scam hadn’t gotten greedy enough to go after #1 instantly, but instead spread those 18,000 orders over a few weeks, debuted in the middle of the list, and then jumped upward, would anyone have noticed? Well, assuming they had taken the precaution of making it possible for people to, you know, actually buy the book.

I suspect if they had gone that route, they would actually have sold enough copies to crack the list legitimately. Probably not the top of the list, but still…

Of course, then the reviews would have come in. If it’s true that good reviews sell books, it’s also true that bad reviews do the opposite (though not as strongly–don’t forget the “so bad it’s good” phenomenon as well as the conspiracy theories: “if so many people are trying to kill it, there must be something there They don’t want us to see.”) And, by all reports, the reviews wouldn’t have been kind.

Speaking of reviews, by the way, consider this one of my occasional reminders that if you’ve read The RagTime Traveler, I’d appreciate you posting a review on Goodreads, Amazon (or wherever you bought it), or anywhere, really. I doubt we can push TRTT onto the New York Times bestseller list, but I’d love to be proved wrong. Hey, it’s only 5,000 copies in a week, right?

Short Takes on the News

America is thinking with its collective stomach again.

As I write this, the top search on Google–in fact, the only search with enough activity to make it to the Hot Searches page–is for information on a Hot Pocket recall.

I like a fresh-from-the-oven* chunk of processed food-like substance as much as the next guy**, but really people, is this the most important thing going on in the world today?

* Forget the microwave. A nuked Hot Pocket is a flabby, vaguely disgusting thing. A baked Hot Pocket may still be vaguely disgusting, but at least it has a crispy crust.

** I should probably get a new fact-checker. I don’t even know who this “next guy” is, but sales figures strongly suggest that he likes Hot Pockets considerably more than I do.

Yesterday’s top search was for information on the winning Powerball lottery ticket. Somebody in California is getting $425 million. That’s before taxes, naturally; if they go for the lump payment, the after tax amount is likely to be closer to $4.25*. Let me go on record here and officially announce that I am not the winner. Darn it.

* Do the math, Beth. $100 million is closer to $4.25 than to $425,000,000. See, I do know a little about taxes…

What I find most interesting about the lottery being the top search is its margin of victory over the next most common searches.. It beat out Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp by 2:1; ditto for Olympic figure skater Gracie Gold and for Olympic hockey.

I find this sort of heartening. Really. I’ve complained in the past about Americans’ search fascination with sports, scandal, and sex, so it’s rather pleasant to see them taking such a strong interest in someone else’s good fortune. (I have to believe that the majority of those million-plus searches were not people trying to find out whether they had won. Have to. I’m probably wrong with that belief, but if I need to maintain some illusions about humanity in order to live with them.)

Looking further down the list, we see America’s usual obsessions creeping in. We’ve already mentioned the Olympics, which some people consider to be sports (the rest of us think of them as more of an exercise in politically-themed performance art). Then there’s Ray Rice allegedly beating his fiancee, which qualifies as both sports and scandal. No, not sports like that. Ray Rice plays football–or at least he has up until now. It remains to be seen whether his employer (the Baltimore Ravens) will follow the example set by the New England Patriots in the Aaron Hernandez case last year and terminate Rice’s contract if he’s indicted.

Hmm. Olympic figure skater Ashley Wagner finished ninth in the search standings. Presumably her sixth-place standing in the competion makes her less than half as interesting as fellow American Gracie Gold’s fourth place. There’s clearly an exponential factor at work here: Polina Edmunds’ seventh place wasn’t even enough for her to crack Google’s top twenty.

Late update: There’s now a second search in today’s Hot Searches list: Olympic figure skater Mao Asada has made the list, trading on both sports and scandal: former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshior Mori, now chairman of the organizing committee for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics publicly criticized Asada’s ability in the wake of her 16th place finish.

Americans are still more interested in Hot Pockets, however. A triumph of the stomach?