Amazon Updates Return Policy Amid Pressure
Everyone loves a good David and Goliath story, which is why it was welcome news this week when Amazon confirmed their plans to alter their eBook return policy to make it less likely to be abused. Sure, it took them close to six months to finally relent and the change isn’t implemented yet, but at least it’s coming. Here is what we know about the upcoming changes, and what we think about them.
As some of you will remember, we first reported on this story back in April amid growing reports of larger than normal return rates seen by some Amazon authors. Despite the fact that Amazon’s eBook return policy hadn’t changed in years, the increase in returns was traced back to a growing number of social media posts (mainly on Tiktok) highlighting the lack of restrictions and ease of which readers could return eBooks on Amazon, and then even going so far as to encourage people to take advantage of the system.
The current policy (the new changes are due to be implemented later this year) allows readers to return eBooks regardless of how much they’ve read (even if that means they finished the book) for a full seven days after purchase, with a mere click of a button. Other online eBook retailers have far more restrictive return policies, which was why Amazon became the sole focus of exploitation.
As news grew about this issue, the calls for reform grew louder. A Change.org petition gathered close to 80,000 signatures, authors took to social media and sent emails, and eventually the Society of Authors (SoA) and Author’s Guild both got involved.
After multiple discussions with senior Amazon executives, the retail giant finally relented and last week announced that the return policy for eBooks would be reformed and implemented by the end of 2022.
The key change that was promised is that the option to return eBooks at the click of a button will be deactivated once a book has been read beyond 10%.
How Bad Was the Problem, really?
Before I get into my thoughts on the announced change and how effective I think they’ll be, I think it’s important to consider just how big the problem was in the first place. Unfortunately, all we can do is guess because there is very little reliable data to rely on.
The main source is anecdotal reports from authors, which were fairly numerous back when this was all coming to a head in April. I read comments on articles and forums from plenty of authors claiming to see large increases in returns, but I also saw lots of reports from authors claiming NOT to be seeing any noticeable increases.
So the problem didn’t affect everyone, which is as expected, especially if it was caused by an increase in exposure to an existing issue, rather than a new issue suddenly appearing or somehow getting worse.
What I mean is, if the problem itself got worse (the return policy changed, making it all of a sudden easier to do), I would expect to see an increase in returns across the board, with most authors being affected.
But if the return increase was instead due simply to an increase in awareness of a pre-existing issue, then I would expect the problem to be seen more heavily on certain books or authors. Many of the people that watched those social media videos probably shared various interests, which was what drew them to the posts in the first place. In fact, some of the people that were encouraging the exploits were people that regularly talked about books and authors they liked, so it’s natural to assume that their followers shared many of those interests, which would then lead to those authors and books to be more heavily abused than others.
On the other hand, if you ask Amazon, their stance is that they saw “no discernible spikes” in returns, and that overall Kindle returns are low.
Of course, Amazon would say that, right? They likely wouldn’t want to admit that they saw an issue, if for no other reason than that admission would provide easy fuel for potential lawsuits. But there really is no way to know for sure whether it’s true, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.
I’ll be going into my thinking here in more detail in next week’s podcast, where Roland and I will discuss this topic (and other industry news items), but here’s a quick summary.
When Amazon looks at the net result of ALL books sold across all authors vs the number of returns in a given period, the increase in returns would have to be VERY significant for it to make a difference. And they’re covering themselves pretty well with the vaguely worded “no discernable spikes”. I’ll back my thinking on this with some numbers on the podcast, but basically I think it is probably unlikely that there were enough returns to really move the needle significantly enough for an issue to be identified with any degree of certainty.
So while I have no doubt that many authors where negatively affected by the return issue, I don’t think that necessarily means that Amazon’s “no discernable spike” stance is completely implausible.
But that doesn’t mean no action should be taken, which is why I think it’s great that changes are being made to the process.
But How Effective Will These Changes Be?
First, let me say that I do think that Amazon’s announced return reforms are very positive, and I expect that it will reduce the number of unwarranted returns that some authors were seeing. However, it won’t get rid of all returns, nor should it. While some authors believe that no eBooks should ever be allowed to be returned, I personally don’t think that is either realistic or reasonable. Almost all retail allows for returns, and eBooks should be no exception.
But that doesn’t mean the return policies should be easily abused. You don’t need to read the entire book to decide whether you like it or not, and if you decide to push through and read it all, I absolutely think that you shouldn’t be allowed to return it at that point. If you hated it that much, you could have stopped well ahead of the end and returned it for a refund.
But is 10% enough to make that decision?
I’m sure my opinion on this won’t be popular with everyone, but I actually would be fine with a higher percentage. After all, you get the first 10% via the Look Inside anyway, which means that if you took advantage of that and still couldn’t decide if the book was for you, your choices are either don’t buy it at all, or take a chance on buying it knowing you may not get a refund if you don’t like it after all. Even without the Look Inside, readers will still be faced with that same decision. As they approach the 10% mark, if they aren’t loving the book, do they risk continuing on or click the refund button while they still can?
The question is, will that choice lead to more or less buyers?
For example, if a book has 20 chapters of roughly equal length, that means a decision has to be made within two chapters. Personally, I can think of at least a couple of books that I wasn’t sold on within the first couple chapters but ended up eventually really enjoying.
Obviously there’s no percentage that will work for all books, but if it were up to me, I’d probably go for something slightly longer. Maybe 20%. If someone isn’t enjoying my book after 20% then I’m fine with them getting their money back. They haven’t even read a quarter of the book yet. Plus it gives me that much longer to try and get my hooks into them…
And then there is the potential downside that I saw people bring up on some discussion forums. If someone is blocked from returning a book that they didn’t like, will they be more likely to express their frustrations by leaving a negative review?
Remember, Returns Will Be Harder, Not Impossible
Hopefully that won’t be the case because it will still be possible for someone that decides to push forward past 10% to get their money back – it simply won’t be as easy as it was before. Instead of just clicking a return button, the reader will have to contact customer service and make their case as a sort of annoying delay tactic designed to discourage people from abusing the process.
In theory, I can see this working. Obviously there will still be some that attempt to abuse the process and likely still be able to get away with it, I fully expect the numbers to drop dramatically. Even if most return requests are eventually granted, the mere fact that they are adding these extra steps will greatly deter most people from bothering. Especially for eBooks that are on the cheaper side of the spectrum. It’s one thing to mindlessly click a return button and ignore the idea that what you’re doing is morally questionable, but quite another to have to make the effort to contact Amazon and plead your case to an actual person, and then wait to hear whether or not it is granted.
In theory, I actually don’t mind the idea that the policy isn’t set in stone here. Mainly for the reason I mentioned in the section above – there are cases where 10% just won’t be enough and I think that if someone decides a little further on that the book isn’t for them, I believe they should be granted a refund. Where I do take issue is if refunds are granted for any request, even to those that completely finished reading the book. I can think of very few legitimate reasons why a refund should be given in those cases, and anyone asking for it should really have to make a strong case.
To be honest, though, I kind of expect that all (or at least, most) of refund requests will be granted. There are two reasons for this. First, because these requests will likely fall upon the already overworked and poorly trained first level customer service reps, and second because Amazon has always put customer satisfaction ahead of author satisfaction.
Combined, I can’t imagine too many scenarios where refund requests will be denied. I’d like to think that I’m wrong. I’d like to think that, at the very least, the onus of someone that has read all or most of a book is much higher and the likelihood of being granted a return much lower than someone that read 20 or 25%. But do I realistically expect those first level support reps to dig into each case to make those determinations? Or will they simply take the call, hear the complaint, and then grant the return quickly so that they can move on to the next call?
Without a better understanding of how the whole process works, it’s too soon to tell, but even if that does happen, I still actually do think that just adding the extra steps of having to make that call and tell someone that you want to return a book that you full read will keep the vast majority of people from even making the attempt in the first place, even if they know they’ll likely get away with it.
Combined, I can’t imagine too many scenarios where refund requests will be denied. I hope I’m wrong and that, at the very least, the likelihood of being granted a return is much lower for someone that read an entire book than someone that read only 20-25%.
But do I realistically expect those first level support reps to dig into each case to make those determinations? Or will they simply take the call, hear the complaint, and then grant the return quickly so that they can move on to the next call?
Only time will tell.