On occasion, we hear from authors who are accusing their distributor of theft because their Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com “ranking” moved…but their actual sales numbers did not. Several years ago, one author claimed she was owed millions because her Amazon ranking was…in the millions. As you’ve probably guessed, this is a common problem. New authors often try to use bookstore rankings to estimate their sales and that doesn’t always work…especially if those authors don’t understand how the rankings are calculated.
What Do the Bookstore Rankings Mean?
For those of you who don’t know, having a lower ranking is better. Similar to having a #1 ranking on a bestseller list, having a lower ranking on a bookstore site might mean your book has sold more copies than the higher-ranked titles…depending on several varying factors, like time on the market, and number of copies sold over a certain period of time. You can’t use bookstore rankings, which were designed to tempt buyers into buying the more popular books, to gauge your book’s sales. It just doesn’t work, especially if you don’t understand their system. For example, if your book moves from #101,000 to #100,000 on Amazon, that doesn’t mean your book just sold 1,000 copies. Not even close! (Yes, some authors think that’s what the rankings mean.)
Each bookstore has their own database criteria to move books up or down in the ranks. Some reconfigure their rankings hourly, others daily, some weekly, monthly, etc. Some bookstores claim “Customers who bought this book also purchased xyz book”…when only one copy of that book has ever been sold.
One bookstore employee told one of our authors (we’ll call him “Al”) that, if his ranking was consistent, that meant he was selling a consistent number of books. What the bookstore employee didn’t tell him is that it could also mean he is consistently selling zero copies. If your book moves up or down in the rankings, it could simply mean that several new books were added to that particular store that day, or that several books were deactivated on the store that day. If your book is in the millions on Amazon.com, and suddenly jumps to 500,000…that might mean you’ve sold one book. You can read an in-depth article on what the Amazon rankings really mean here: http://www.fonerbooks.com/surfing.htm
Author Al told us he knew of at least five sales of his book…except seven copies (not five) had actually sold by that time. Even when this was explained to him, he complained that sales must still be missing, insisting that his analysis of the bookstore rankings was proof that he was being ripped off. I know that doesn’t make any sense, especially since he first underestimated his sales, but all these numbers, graphs, and new publishing verbiage can be confusing for some new authors.
Well-Meaning Friends’ and Relatives’ Faux Purchases
If a friend or relative insists they’ve purchased a copy of your book, yet that sale never appears in your author account, ask to see a copy of the receipt from the loved one, or a copy of the book itself, before accusing your publisher or distributor of theft. We’ve heard from many authors who, after accusing their publisher or distributor of theft, learned their relatives had lied about buying a copy of their book. I thought this was sad the first time I heard of it. Then, I heard the same story from another author, and another, and another. Well-meaning friends and relatives sometimes fib about buying a copy so as not to hurt an author’s feelings. I now give away free copies of my books to my relatives, and never ask them to buy a copy. I don’t want to put them in a position of needing to lie to me if they just really aren’t interesting in spending money on one of my books.
“New and Used” Copies on Amazon?
And, what about all those “new and used” copies of your book that almost instantly appearing on Amazon.com when it goes up for sale? Are those resellers really stocking your book? Did all those people really buy your book, read it, and put it up for re-sale that fast? Unfortunately, no, they didn’t. Those listings are usually placed by small, online bookstores that have an account with Ingram and a reseller account on Amazon. Any firm with an Ingram account can post listings of Ingram books for sale without buying any copies up front. If one of their customers orders a copy, only then will they order a copy from Ingram.
A Little Known Secret
Most POD books have a number and barcode printed on the very last page. If you find a “used” copy online, and provide this information to your publisher, they can ask Ingram to trace the book to find out exactly when that copy was printed. They may even be able to determine the first “buyer” of that book (your publisher, Amazon, etc.). We have used this method many times when authors have purchased a copy of their book long after it’s gone out of print, and accused Amazon or some other retailer/distributor of printing/selling their out-of-print book without permission. In every case, it was a copy that was printed months or years before, and that had just been sitting on a retailer’s shelf gathering dust until the author found it for sale.
In one interesting incident, the old copy we traced at the author’s request had been purchased by us for the author (she had ordered 50 copies to give away to friends and relatives). Someone she gave a copy to ended up selling it to a used bookstore in their town and the author later found it. I guess she assumed nobody would purposely part with her book and she falsely assumed somebody else in her town was printing and selling the book. Her face was pretty red when we traced the book directly back to her own purchase.
Ingram Reports vs. Ingram Payments
If you’re a POD author, and if your POD publisher uses Ingram’s printing division, Ingram will pay your publisher for any sales around four to five months after Ingram sells those copies. However, Ingram reports sales monthly to your POD publisher, usually by the end of the first week of the following month.
Many POD publishers are going to be furious that I shared this information with you! They don’t want to be bothered by authors who are curious about their book sales, or who are trying to test different marketing activities. Some POD publishers may even lie to you, telling you they don’t have the info. Believe me. They do!
When a bookstore orders your book, that sale should show up on your publisher’s monthly report from Ingram (NOT yet in your author account) around the first week of the following month. The exception to this would, of course, be if the bookstore failed to pay Ingram for some reason, or if fraud is suspected with the order. Your POD publisher probably won’t credit your author account for the Ingram sales until they are paid by Ingram (remember, that is four to five long months later). And, most publishers, especially the large POD publishers, may refuse to provide you with Ingram’s sales numbers until they actually appear in your account.
At BookLocker.com, we are happy to look these up for authors on request.
Ingram Reports vs. iPage
Ingram offers an online ordering area for bookstores called iPage. iPage shows the number of copies of a particular book in stock, as well as limited sales numbers. Sometimes, authors have access to iPage through a friend in the industry, or are shown this information by a bookstore clerk. However, not all online bookstore sales appear on iPage. For example, Amazon.com sales are not included in the iPage system. Ingram’s monthly reports are more accurate than iPage. iPage is not all inclusive and you should never use iPage to estimate your total Ingram sales.
Even without the fibbing relatives, quirky bookstore databases, and smaller online bookstores selling books not-yet-in-stock, you can still test your POD publisher’s sales reporting and your distributor’s reports.
How to Test Your Publisher’s Sales Reports
What is a sure-fire way to prove that your publisher or distributor is not reporting sales to you? It’s quite simple. Order a copy of your book from an online bookstore, order a copy from your local bookstore, and order a copy from your publisher’s website. (Or, obtain copies of receipts from friends and relatives who have ordered your book through these avenues.) If you’re using a good POD publisher, the sale from their website should appear instantly in your author account. The sales for the other online bookstore and your local store should appear in the Ingram report provided to your publisher at the end of that month. They should be logged to your author account four to five months later, when Ingram pays your publisher. There could be a lag, of course, of a month or two if Ingram is reporting the sale only after the bookstore pays for it. But, immediately after a direct purchase from your publisher’s website, and within five months of any bookstore sales, you should have a pretty good idea if your publisher is accurately reporting your sales.
Incidentally, if your POD publisher doesn’t immediately credit your author account for sales occurring through their own website, you should shop around for another POD publisher. (Publishers who “hold” royalties on credit card orders for weeks or months for possible credit card fraud should always be avoided!)
At BookLocker.com, we instantly credit the author’s account for direct sales (anyone buying directly from BookLocker, including the public, bookstores, or other retailers) and the sales number issued to the customer matches the numbers in the author’s account. So, if Aunt Bertha buys a copy today, the sales number on her email receipt will match the sales number next to that transaction in the author’s account. This makes it easy for authors to match up royalties with buyers.
If you do find something amiss, you should ask before accusing. You may not understand the report you are viewing or you may have incorrect information (for example, perhaps Aunt Bertha gave you the last 4 digits of her credit card number instead of the sales order number.)
If something is wrong with your sales numbers, it’s likely your publisher, not Ingram, is the one who is intentionally or unintentionally making the error. We’ve been doing business with Ingram for more than 15 years now. Having published thousands of POD authors, we’ve audited their reports on a regular basis simply because authors have had questions about their books’ sales. Ingram has processed thousands of single-copy bookstore orders for us and we’ve never found even one discrepancy in their reporting.
Most authors assume that having their book move up in the bookstore rankings means they’ve sold lots of books. This usually isn’t the case. Some assume just putting a book on the Internet will mean instant sales. Nothing could be further from the truth. They also assume that when Aunt Betty said she bought their book, she was telling the truth. Unfortunately, some Aunt Betties would rather tell a fib than hurt your feelings by admitting they didn’t buy a copy. New POD authors also often assume that finding a list of “new and used” copies of their book for sale online means those bookstores are stocking their book. Again, that’s just not the case.
Don’t Make False Accusations
While every author is entitled to request accurate reporting on their book’s sales, serious problems can arise when an author uses false assumptions like the ones above to start accusing others of theft. When this occurs, authors may lose their publishing contract and, depending on how abusive the author becomes, may even be blacklisted in the industry. Let’s face it, salvaging a relationship when one party has falsely accused another of illegal activities is almost impossible.
Test your publisher’s sales’ reporting system first. Ask questions in a non-confrontational manner. While there are unscrupulous POD publishers out there, many are honest. Chances are you simply don’t understand the way the publisher’s, distributor’s, or bookstore’s system works. Whatever you do, don’t make accusations if you don’t have the facts (copies of actual receipts) to back them up.
Virtual bookstores change their databases all the time, not only to improve their business processes, but also to tempt customers. You can’t assume that your book has sold any copies just because bookstores have found clever ways to make it appear to potential buyers that your book is indeed selling.
About The Author
Angela Hoy is the publisher of WritersWeekly.com, and the co-owner of BookLocker.com (one of the original POD publishers that still gets books to market in less than a month), PubPreppers.com (print and ebook design for authors who truly want to self-publish), and Abuzz Press (the publishing co-op that charges no setup fees).
WritersWeekly.com - the free marketing ezine for writers, which features new paying markets and freelance job listings every Wednesday.
BookLocker.com - According to attorney Mark Levine, author of The Fine Print, BookLocker is: "As close to perfection as you're going to find in the world of ebook and POD publishing. The ebook royalties are the highest I've ever seen, and the print royalties are better than average. BookLocker understands what new authors experience, and have put together a package that is the best in the business. You can't go wrong here. Plus, they're selective and won't publish any manuscript just because it's accompanied by a check. Also, the web site is well trafficked. If you can find a POD or epublisher with as much integrity and dedication to selling authors' books, but with lower POD publishing fees, please let me know."
Abuzz Press offers FAST and FREE book publication, but only accepts a small percentage of submissions, and only works with U.S. authors.
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