Why Your Self-Publishing Service Probably Didn’t Cheat You

I often hear from writers who are convinced that they’re being cheated by their self-publishing services because they’ve been vigorously promoting their books, and yet their royalty checks are tiny. Often, these angry authors offer evidence: changing Amazon rankings, listings of their books with multiple online sellers, used copies for sale, friends’ reports of purchases.

There’s always the possibility that some kind of skullduggery or error is involved–especially if you’ve used one of the many small self-publishing services set up by not-necessarily-qualified individuals. The larger self-publishing services have pretty efficient setups for record-keeping and payment–but even so, mistakes can occur, and customer service may be inadequate, making problems hard to resolve.

However, in many cases, the trouble is not malfeasance or bad record-keeping, but authors’ unrealistic expectations and assumptions. They may not be fully aware of the marketing and distribution challenges that go with self-publishing, or the dire sales statistics for the average self-published book. Or they may have spent too much time at Joe Konrath’s blog, or read one too many articles about Amanda Hocking, and decided that they should be able to achieve a similar level of self-publishing success. In reality, self-publishing is a tough way to go–and getting tougher every day as more and more writers rush into the field–and the successes that are currently being made much of in the media–while impressive–are not a representative sample.

Writers may also be misinterpreting the information about their books that they find online. Here are a few of the arguments I’m seeing, and why they may not hold up.

– My book was #2 in the Spiritual Vampire Novels for Teens category on Amazon! These Amazon categories don’t mean much. Not only do the more esoteric ones contain a limited number of books, the rankings are comparative, and therefore don’t say much about actual sales. If you’re #2 in a category where the other books are selling poorly, your book is also selling poorly–just, maybe, a bit less poorly.

– My Amazon ranking jumped 200,000 points in one day! That could mean one sale. Or it could mean no sale–Amazon rankings are comparative, and a slow day for top-selling books can boost the rankings of lower-selling or even non-selling books. Amazon rankings are irresistibly obsession-making, but they are not a reliable way of judging sales. (For a fairly helpful elucidation of the perpetually mysterious issue of Amazon sales rankings, see this explanation of print rankings and this explanation of Kindle rankings from Morris Rosenthal of Foner Books.) 

– Independent sellers on Amazon and Barnes & Noble are selling my book used, so it must have been bought new! No. Many of these sellers simply list any book with an ISBN, figuring that if someone places an order they can then try to get hold of a copy. Seeing your book listed for sale “used” by independent sellers does not mean they ever had it in stock, or ever will.

– My book is listed by online retailers the world over! That means hundreds of copies must have been bought ! Sorry, but no again. The same principle applies here as with independent sellers. These listings are listings only–they don’t involve physical copies.

– Hundreds of people are visiting my book’s page on my website and clicking through to Amazon! Clicks don’t correlate to sales. People often click through because they’re interested in getting more info on the book, or seeing reviews–but that doesn’t mean they actually buy. (And a large number of people who click through on any link click out within a few seconds.)

– All my friends and/or relatives told me they bought my book! This is a tricky one. Friends and relatives may not always tell the truth about book buying (they may actually have expected you to give them a free copy). Do you want to doubt your friends? Do you want to demand evidence of purchase from them? However, this is the one area where you may be able to collect and marshal proof of royalty discrepancies. So you may have to bite the bullet.

– My book is everywhere! Just Google it! My self-publishing service is selling hundreds of copies and keeping the profits! The bottom line is that most of the listings of your book are phantom listings. Online presence in no way correlates to sales. One can never rule out the possibility of bookkeeping errors–but even if your self-publishing service has made a mistake, the small sales that are typical of self-published books make it likely that any discrepancies will be minor.

[I inadvertently got Morris Rosenthal’s name wrong, for which I apologize, and have edited this post to correct it.]


  1. Why hasn't it occured to anyone regards to "Amazon's confusing ratings", that, "royalty discripancies", is not out of the question? If the same company , prints, sells & ships your book, how can you possibly know how many books actually were shipped & to where? Receiving payment for all sold & shipped is totally based on trust. Wake up.

  2. Victoria,

    I thought that meant I had that many book out in book stores in the United States. In all different books.
    I guess I was wrong, I'm new at this and just learning what the ranks mean on amazon.

  3. Pami,

    This is a mistake that many people make, but I'm afraid that those 2 million and 3 million figures don't mean what you think.

    They don't mean the number of books in stock or the number of sales you've gotten. They're actually rankings that show how your sales compare with the rest of the sales on the store's website. So a 2 million ranking would mean that your book is 2 millionth in terms of total sales on the site: in other words, 2 million books sold more copies than yours.

  4. I wrote counting Smiley faces by Pami L. Wahl and Counting Zippy Smiley faces by Pami L. Wahl and a Spanish and German version of Counting Smiley faces and they are doing great in the sales f poo r a first time author. Go on Amazon.com and you will see them Trafford Publishing is my Publisher. And they are on ebook the Kindle and The Nook also. So when I look at my rating they are very high and I have over 3 million of one of my books it say in book stores in The United states and the other 2 million books in book store that not just being in the book store website. And my first book came out July 2014.

  5. I work in tech support, and I frequently get calls that go like this:

    "The email server must be down! I sent a VERY IMPORTANT mass email to everyone in my department, and no one has responded to it yet. Fix this at once!"

    Or like this:

    "The email server must be down! I sent a VERY IMPORTANT email to my dissertation committee, and NO ONE has responded to it yet. Fix this at once!"

    Alas, the emails are not, in the end, quite as important as their writers believe them to be.

    The same psychological mechanism, I suspect, is at work for many writers.


  6. Excellent post, Vic. And this doesn't just hit subsidy-published authors.

    I've had to quell more than one anxious author when they compare their royalty statement against the Almighty Amazon's figures. If anyone can decipher Amazon's rating system, they will have earned a crown and scepter.

  7. So true about novels. I've done a lot better with niche fiction like African-American Fantasy and screenplays than with contemporary fiction. Fiction is the hardest thing to sell when you're a self-published author. It may take several books to build that following; that's a lot of money to shell out over the course of a couple of years.

    Non-fiction always does better with self-publishing, especially niche topics most publishers won't touch. I find with Non-fiction, the more obscure the subject, the better chance it has of selling long-term.

    Authors who self-publish have to go in with realistic expectations. Sales won't be blockbuster

  8. BTW: If you're trying to self-pub a novel, it's a hard sell unless you already have a name and/or following. Poetry is worse – seems only poets read poetry. For non-fiction a platform is important but you may also have venues – i.e.; you write about hang-gliding, you market thru appropriate magazines, display at meets & conventions, sell in hang-gliding shops, etc.

    I am in the process of POD'ing books of western history and memoirs. Will never sell big – my guess is each of 3 titles will sell around 50-75/year but they'll sell forever. My goal is not so much to make money has to keep these three books available – because I know there are people who will appreciate them. These are the type of books that are ideal for POD.

  9. Very informative and very truthful. I've self published four books (two with a POD company and two with Lighting Source) The money isn't going to be enough to live off of, so don't quit that day job just yet.

    And yes, the sales are SLOW. On some titles I'm lucky if I sell one or two books a year. And this is with constant self promotion at street fairs, on twitter, facebook, book signings (My college bought my books and gave them away free to students) and with e-book options on several titles on the nook and the kindle.

    And no, the publisher is definitely not ripping the author off. Books are some of the hardest items to sell in retail; buying a book means investing time to read it. So the story has to be GREAT to get people interested in taking a look. And self-published books are a HARD SELL.

    What most authors don't understand is that Self-publishing is an uphill battle, and the author has to SELL their book to a wary public that is very averse to self-published books. Many readers have been burnt by self-published books in the past and don't want to take the risk of buying a book full of typos, grammatical errors and in the case of nonfiction, speculative and innacurate information. And I won't get into the amateur cover design that turns off readers on the first glance.

    I've learned the The Amazon stats mean nothing early on. I've had books go from three million up to eighty thousand. Heck, I've had a book be on the Amazon Bestseller list for screenplays! None of this means anything; An author needs to check their Amazon Author Central page to see where sales really are.

    Sure an author's books are out there. But so are millions of others along with TV, the internet and everything elese vying for our entertainment time. Self-published books are one of the last options people think about when looking to be entertained.

    But I still self-publish in the face of all these odds. I know it's a lot of work on the creative and the business side, but I believe in my writing and make an effort to give readers a quality product.

    Understanding that most self-published books take YEARS to get an audience I do my best to minimize my costs so the titles don't break my bank.

  10. AHA! So it's like those before and after diet pictures where the fine print reads,"Not typical results."

    Great information and very eye-opening. Thanks!

  11. Definitely true about the rankings. People don't realize how easy it is to move up, especially as you get into ever more specific categories.

    I have noticed though–I'm assuming b/c more people are self-publishing–that there seems to be a lot more books available on Amazon. I used to be able to make a few sales and shoot right to the top of several categories, and break into the bigger, more overarching categories. Now it takes a lot more to do that. (if that makes sense.)

  12. Quote: – "Many of these sellers simply list any book with an ISBN, figuring that if someone places an order they can then try to get hold of a copy."

    Sigh. That might explain why sometimes I order a used book, only to be told they don't have it, and get a refund. I am learning to stick with a few tried and true sellers. (But it's annoying.)

  13. Just selling 2 copies on the same day will life a book from a rank of say, 600,000 to 20,000, which looks impressive. 20 sales in one day can get you to the 5000s. Sell 200 copies in a day and you can get to the top hundred. It gets harder to gain rank the higher you go.

    However, you kinda imply that it the author cheated by "only" selling 200 copies in that day. She didn't cheat. No matter how many reviews she had out there, someone had to buy the books. (I wonder if she made back her $10,000 on her publishing deal?)

    Unless she bought them all herself to gain rank. That's another story. And yes, people do that.

    Tara Maya
    The Unfinished Song: Initiate
    Conmergence: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction

  14. Thanks for the correction, steeleweed–I don't know where my brain was. I've edited the post accordingly.

  15. A nit-pick: Foner is run by Morris Rosenthal – not Morris Foner.

    And yes, he's the most savvy self-pub I've found; early in the business and keeps a sharp eye on not only the publishing, self-pub & ebook situation but on all things which affect sales.

    http://www.fonerbooks.com/selfpublishing is one blog every self-pub should follow, particularly if you epub.

  16. A recent issue of Poets & Writer magazine had an article about an author who spent $10,000 to self publish her own book, and coordinated with many people over the Internet to come out with blogs and reviews of her book on the release date. Her Amazon sales ranking shot to the top 50 in sales, although she only sold 200 copies that day. She used screenshots of the sales ranking to land a traditional publishing deal.

    Being a successful writer these days is really about how hard you are willing to work. The majority of people who self pub their work are often not experienced writers who are familiar with the market. Money doesn't grow on trees or fall out of the sky.

  17. Very informative. It is true, people are a bit confused about ratings and such on Amazon. Someone I know well though was duped a little not reading the fine print and had to buy her own books. So, she paid them to publish her book then had to buy some. That is how they made their money and she made none. It cost her dearly.

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