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

Writer BewarePosted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

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 Foner 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.

4 Responses

  1. Jim Van Pelt

    Nicely done article. Very succinct. I’ll share it with my Creative Writing class at the college. We talked about the self-publishing route last night. You made my points but better.

  2. Daniel Dvorkin

    All good points, but I do feel compelled to point out that …

    In reality, 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.

    … is a true statement whether “publishing” has the “self-” prefix or not.

  3. Paul Lagasse

    Actually, if I can pick an even tinier nit, I’d argue that it’s not the publishing — self or otherwise — that’s getting harder. It’s the marketing. Publishing and distribution have never been easier; anyone with a computer can upload his or her book right to Amazon, Smashwords, and a dozen other popular sales venues that are visited by gazillions of buyers daily.

    But as you say, more and more people are doing exactly this. The challenge, then, becomes finding a way of making your voice heard amid and above the din.

  4. A. Herbert

    Wow, that’s good to know. I heard a lot of bad stuff about self publishing and I wasn’t going to use it, btu this makes sure I won’t ever! It sucks but I guess that is how things are.