On April 26th, I bought Leanna Renee Hieber’s Strangely Beautiful on my Kindle Fire. On May 2nd, I still had the option to return it. I’m not a fast reader, and honestly, I haven’t even cracked it open yet (I read it years ago, before it went out of print, and desperately needed it in my library again), but when my eyes were younger and my attention span longer, I could have easily devoured it in a few days, with room to spare to request that Amazon return my money.
Amazon will refund readers for an e-book purchase within seven days, regardless of how much content has been read. At first glance, this might seem like good customer service. I’ve certainly thought so in the past when I’ve accidentally purchased a digital duplicate copy of a paperback I already owned. Still, this is something I’ve done rarely–twice, if I remember correctly–and each time I worried that my return might affect the book’s sales ranking.
Other people, it seems, do not feel that kind of guilt. Last week, a story circulated on social media that outraged readers, writers, and book bloggers alike. An author (who appears to have removed their original post) received an email from a reader who, writer M.A. Knopp reports, wasn’t happy with the price point of the books they’d enjoyed:
Dear Ms. Author.
I really like your books. I think they are well-written and I enjoyed reading them. (So far, so good, right? Hang on.) However, I have returned them all because you priced them at $0.99 to $2.99, and that is too much to pay for them. I can’t afford to pay that much for a book, even though I liked it. In the future, can you make sure you make all your books free so I don’t have to return them?
Free e-books, which were once considered a promotional tool or a gift from authors to their loyal readers, are now an expectation. Despite the endless options for free digital reading from sites like Wattpad and An Archive Of Our Own, some readers feel that all content should be free, regardless of whether or not the author is a professional who relies on writing for their income.
“Why would you think our job is any different than your job–you know, the one you are supposed to go to so you can pay for your entertainment?” author Becky McGraw asks. “Authors work twelve to sixteen hours a day at our job to produce books for your entertainment.”
On the surface, Amazon return scams seem no different from piracy. But whereas readers who pirate ebooks seek out a particular torrent with a title already in mind, Amazon’s return policy allows unscrupulous readers to browse at their leisure and easily download the content to their devices.
Author Bianca Sommerland understands the difference between piracy and what’s happening at Amazon: “With pirates, it sucks. It’s horrible, but those people aren’t buying books. That isn’t money I would have made. They wouldn’t have given me a cent.” Since Amazon doesn’t seem interested in dealing with the issue, Sommerland says, “I almost want to raise my prices so those people worry a little more about the charges, but I won’t punish the rest of my readers for the few assholes.”
The results of an informal survey asking authors to report their April sales and returns showed numbers ranging anywhere from 1.2% in overall returns, to a whopping 40.1%. Losing 40% of a monthly income would be devastating to any household; to authors, it could mean future releases are spaced out further or cancelled altogether.
The timing of the returns is also particularly cruel. Author Stella Price reported that her return rate can be devastating during the week of a book’s release, usually the most financially profitable time for an indie author: “I might end up selling 70, but I have 20-30 returned in a day.” It’s become such a problem that it has influenced Price’s recent decision to stop publishing in the e-book market. It’s a choice that has made some of her readers unhappy, but with such a high digital return rate, she sees no other option.
That’s not to say that all returns are fraudulent. Books purchased by accident in the Kindle app can be easily returned within seconds by clicking a link on the purchase screen. Honest mistakes happen; anyone can fumble their device and hit the One-Click button. But not all mistakes are so honest.
“I had a group of at least 5 returns on each book in the Cobra series last month,” Sommerland says. “They came close together. Maybe I’m imagining things, but the way they were spaced, it seemed like the books were read, then returned as each person in this group finished the book.”
When customers return a book due to formatting errors or an egregious number of grammar offenses, Amazon sends the author a notice asking for corrections. But in the case of Sommerland’s books, “There’s no report of errors or anything that would explain this. And if you don’t like a book, you don’t get the next one, right?”
Some readers recognize the potential harm return scams can inflict on authors who make their living writing. Blogger Alisha Webber started a Change.org petition in the hopes that Amazon will take notice and change their policies. “They’re blatantly stealing from authors and Amazon is sitting on the sidelines pretending it isn’t happening,” Webber writes. “We need to prevent the return of books read past 15% along with refusing returns after a few days. We can’t allow this theft to continue.” At the time this article was written, the petition had over 7,000 signatures.
Compared to Amazon’s policies on returning downloadable software (you can’t) or streaming movies (within twenty-four hours, and only if you haven’t accessed the content), Webber’s proposal seems modest. Amazon allows generous sampling of e-books prior to purchase, allowing customers a chance to gauge not only their interest in the content, but the quality of the work. This courtesy isn’t extended to software, games, or movies, yet those items are considered a final sale after purchase or partial consumption. Amazon has the ability to track the reading progress of an individual e-book; it’s how they evaluate royalties paid to authors in their Kindle Unlimited program. If the ability to prevent fraudulent returns exists, why would Amazon allow them to continue?
As more writers are forced to change their business model or hike their prices due to abuses of the Amazon return policy, readers will feel the pinch, too. “Actors don’t act for free, painters don’t paint for free, and authors don’t write for free,” McGraw points out. “You want us to keep writing books? Stop the freaking theft!”