Chip MacGregor

June 6, 2012

Amazturbation and Other Perils of Publishing





Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the author of the award-nominated novel My Hands Came Away Red. A memoir, Love at the Speed of Email, will be released in June 2012. She lives in Laos with her husband and infant son. To learn more, visit

When my first book, My Hands Came Away Red, was published, I fell prey to an addiction that afflicts many authors at some point during their publishing career. It’s a behaviour I now call amazturbation – obsessively checking your own Amazon ranking to see how your book is stacking up sales-wise against the hundreds of thousands of other books that Amazon sells.

I visited Amazon to check the rise and fall of this number first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

I checked it when I was feeling glum and when I was feeling all right.

I checked it at work and I checked it home. I even checked it on my phone.

I checked that number at breakfast and I checked it at lunch.

I checked that number a whole, whole bunch.

My Amazon addiction started the way most addictions do – with a rush. Right after the book was released I was in Ghana, traveling for work. When I got access to the internet for the first time in a couple of days I dropped by my Amazon page to see if anyone had left a new review, and was amazed to see that my sales ranking was way higher than it had ever been before.

After an exhausting and stressful week of leading workshops on trauma, seeing that happy number was a huge rush. And I wanted more of that feeling.

Understandable? Yes. Dangerous? Also, yes.

We authors have never had so many ways at our disposal to track and quantify our own popularity. We can find out Amazon sales rankings as well as state-by-state statistics on our book sales during the previous month (thank you, April 2012 shoppers in California and Tennessee). We can google our book’s name, or our own, and read what people are saying about our work. And, of course, we can look to the number of facebook friends we have, or twitter followers, or comments or shares on our blog, as markers of our “success.”

Access to sales information and reviews is wonderful. It can help us learn new things about how and why our work appeals to people. This, in turn, can help us to make more informed decisions about what we write and how we market it.


It is also terrible. Time spent repeatedly checking our Amazon sales ranking (or facebook page, blog stats, reviews, etc.) is time wasted that we could have spent creating.

Easy and almost instant access to these forums makes it tempting to divert to browsing the web whenever we get stuck while we’re writing. Feeding that temptation to take a quick break whenever we hit a creative pause will eventually erode our ability to focus on our work for extended periods of time. That ability is a foundational skill for writers.

Finally, too much information about what others think of our work just isn’t good for us.

Too much praise can lead to inflated egos and/or a paralysing fear of never being able to live up to previous successes.

Too much censure can lead to self-doubt and de-motivate us to keep on writing and striving to improve at our craft.

Too great an awareness of the global faceless audience can foster an awareness of yourself and others that is exactly the opposite of the suspension of self-consciousness that can prove so necessary to getting down our first drafts. When you are too aware of what others might think, you can over-censor yourself, muffle your natural voice and write to the middle in an effort to please everyone. The result will probably be forgettable and uninspiring writing.

In 2008, when I caught myself checking Amazon for at least the twentieth time that day, I decided to go cold turkey on checking Amazon and reading reviews for a month. After that I allowed myself to check my sales stats once a week. Now I go months without thinking about these figures (although I suspect that will change when my new book, Love at the Speed of Email, releases in June).

Everyone is different, though, and what worked for me may not be what’s best for you. The really important thing is to have a plan for how you engage with the global faceless audience online. Here are three steps that might help:

  1. Identify one or more good writing habits that you want to cultivate. It might be, for example, spending half an hour creating before you even check your email or working for at least two hours of internet-free time every day.
  2. Then decide how often and when you’ll browse things like your sales rankings, blog stats and reviews. Daily? Weekly? Monthly?
  3. Ask someone to keep you accountable.

Whatever else you decide, do yourself a favour and make sure that amazturbation becomes an occasional fun past time instead of an addiction, because checking how well you’re selling is a poor substitute for doing what you do best…writing.

You can pick up a copy of Love at the Speed of Email on Amazon or Barnes and Noble (a portion of my profits will be going to support charities here in Laos) or drop by my blog and say hello. I’d love to hear from you.

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  • sally apokedak says:

    Great title. Great post. 

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I’ve fallen into the same mode, checking the number of website views and blog readers, even my Netflix reviewer rank. I hope I learned my lesson and won’t fall prey to amazturbation when I publish my first book.

  • Beth K. Vogt says:

    Love this post. So far, I’ve avoided Author Central, which I’m convinced is a portal to hell. Don’t get me wrong. I want to be informed. I care about how my debut novel is doing –and I want it to do well. But I want to be sane, not c-r-a-z-y. I try not to chase after reviews. Other writing friends have promised to keep me informed.

  • Gina Holmes says:

    LOL and Amen! Great title btw. It made me immediately stop creating and come over to read your post. And that was before I knew YOU wrote it! It’s so true and I’m guilty as well. I think most of us are. The white-washing of our work to please all, is very real and very dangerous. I know for me, reviewers criticisms ring in my head along with my already overflowing self-editor and critic. 

    BTW all, Lisa’s Love at the Speed of Email is a WONDERFUL memoir. I highly recommend it!

  • Ruth A. Douthitt says:

    I was asked today how many books I have sold on Amazon and I am proud to say I told the young man that I didn’t know. Ha!  No addiction to Author Central yet!  Thanks for the post. 

  • Duane Scott says:

    This is a funny thing, this addiction we writer’s get. 

    I speak from personal experience when my blog started to grow. I finally turned my comments off because I felt like the number of comments represented how well I was at writing. 

    I started feeling like I needed 50 a day. 

    Then, I took them away.  Such incredible freedom I found! I’m now looking at publishing my first book and I’m sure I will need to keep myself away from Amazon rankings every hour. 

    Thanks for the headsup! 

    • Lisa McKay says:

       Duane, wow. Turning off blog comments. That’s taking it to a whole new level. Thanks for sharing and good luck with your first book!

  • Laurapauling says:

    Yes it can be addicting but at the same time when employing different market strategies it’s important to keep an eye on sales to see what is working and what isn’t working. Or an author could be blindly following a marketing path that isn’t helping sales or they might’ve stumbled upon a success without knowing.

    • Lisa McKay says:

      I agree… but … (isn’t there always a but) I also can’t help but wonder whether most authors really know enough about marketing to track and correlate their sales with their own marketing pushes in a way that’s going to help them. Don’t get me wrong, I think most authors should know more about marketing than they do, but I still think the majority are at risk of being more sidetracked down by sales figures than informed. 

  • Susan Meissner says:

    Awesome post. I am heading straight to rehab…

  • This is a BRILLIANT post, especially since my debut hit shelves last month. You hit it on the head. Author Central, I’m convinced, is worse than crack.

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