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Fits of species-abundance distributions to empirical data are increasingly used to evaluate models of diversity maintenance and community structure and to infer properties of communities, such as species richness. Two distributions predicted by several models are the Poisson lognormal (PLN) and the negative binomial (NB) distribution; however, at least three different ways to parameterize the PLN have been proposed, which differ in whether unobserved species contribute to the likelihood and in whether the likelihood is conditional upon the total number of individuals in the sample. Each of these has an analogue for the NB. Here, we propose a new formulation of the PLN and NB that includes the number of unobserved species as one of the estimated parameters. We investigate the performance of parameter estimates obtained from this reformulation, as well as the existing alternatives, for drawing inferences about the shape of species abundance distributions and estimation of species richness.We simulate the random sampling of a fixed number of individuals from lognormal and gamma community relative abundance distributions, using a previously developed ‘individual-based’ bootstrap algorithm. We use a range of sample sizes, community species richness levels and shape parameters for the species abundance distributions that span much of the realistic range for empirical data, generating 1 000 simulated data sets for each parameter combination. We then fit each of the alternative likelihoods to each of the simulated data sets, and we assess the bias, sampling variance and estimation error for each method.Parameter estimates behave reasonably well for most parameter values, exhibiting modest levels of median error. However, for the NB, median error becomes extremely large as the NB approaches either of two limiting cases. For both the NB and PLN, >90% of the variation in the error in model parameters across parameter sets is explained by three quantities that corresponded to the proportion of species not observed in the sample, the expected number of species observed in the sample and the discrepancy between the true NB or PLN distribution and a Poisson distribution with the same mean. There are relatively few systematic differences between the four alternative likelihoods. In particular, failing to condition the likelihood on the total sample sizes does not appear to systematically increase the bias in parameter estimates. Indeed, overall, the classical likelihood performs slightly better than the alternatives. However, our reparameterized likelihood, for which species richness is a fitted parameter, has important advantages over existing approaches for estimating species richness from fitted species-abundance models.