April 13, 2005
How to Test Your Publisher's Sales Reports By Angela Hoy | printable version
Last week, we heard from yet another author (I'll call him Author Al) who is accusing his distributor of theft because his Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com rankings moved. A few years ago, another 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.
What Do the Bookstore Rankings Mean?
For those of you who don't know, having a lower ranking is better. Like 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 gage your book's sales. It just doesn't work. 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 been sold.
One bookstore employee told Author 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 removed from 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 said he knows of at least five sales of his book. Here's the problem. There have been seven sales reported to him by his publisher and distributor. So, he's actually been notified of more sales than he can prove occurred. But, still, he insists that his analysis of the bookstore rankings is proof that he's being ripped off.
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 or 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 our feelings. I now give away free copies of my books to my relatives and never ask them to buy copies. 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 almost instantly appearing on Amazon.com? Are those stores stocking your book? Did all those people really buy your book and put it up for sale? Unfortunately, no, they didn't. Those ads are usually placed by small, online bookstores that have an account with Ingram. Any bookstore 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.
Ingram Reports vs. Ingram Payments
If you're a POD author, and if your POD publisher uses Lightning (owned by Ingram), 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. When a bookstore orders your book, that sale should show up on your publisher's monthly report from Ingram 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. And, most publishers, especially the large POD publishers, won't be able to provide you with Ingram's sales numbers until they actually appear in your account. (You can imagine how difficult it might be for a POD publisher with thousands of authors to manually look up sales that haven't been paid and posted to their author accounts yet.)
Ingram Reports vs. iPage
Ingram's 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 bookstores selling books not-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 that sale. 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 things are working correctly.
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!)
If you do find something amiss, you should ask before accusing. Your publisher may simply have a database error in their system. As anyone with even limited computer knowledge knows, all is takes is one wrong keystroke for things to go awry in a database. Mistakes do happen, and most mistakes are honest mistakes.
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 several years now. Having published hundreds of POD authors, we've had to check their system constantly, simply because authors have questions about their books' sales. Ingram has processed tens of thousands of single-copy bookstore orders for us and we've never found a 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. 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 your book. 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, most 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 to back them up.
The POD publishing industry and virtual bookstores are still trying to find their place among the traditional printing presses and brick and mortar stores. They change their database all the time, not only to improve their business processes, but also to tempt customers. You can't assume that your book is selling just because bookstores have found clever ways to make it appear to potential buyers that your book is selling.
Angela Hoy is the co-owner of WritersWeekly.com and Booklocker.com. WritersWeekly.com is the free marketing emag for writers that features new paying markets and freelance job listings every Wednesday. Booklocker.com, is rated the top POD Publisher by attorney Mark Levine. Mark's book, The Fine Print, analyzes the contracts and services of 73 top POD and ebook publishers. Read more here: http://www.writersweekly.com/books/1804.html. Booklocker.com can publish your paperback or hardcover book in 4-6 weeks for only $217.
This article may be reprinted/redistributed freely as long as the entire article and bio are included.