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Is Amazon’s eBook Returns Process Too Easy to Abuse?

By: Hidden Gems on April 15, 2022

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By: Hidden Gems on April 15, 2022

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Amazon loves to cater to the customer experience, which is a business model that has made them one of the biggest companies in the world. However, in the case of their unrestricted policy on eBook returns, they have left authors open to abuse by unscrupulous customers looking to read for free. While this policy is not new, a recent increase in social media posts and videos, urging customers to read and return books even after they’ve read the entire thing, has highlighted how easy this policy is to exploit. Is it finally time for the eBook giant to take a cue from the rest of the industry and tighten up their rules?


 

As of writing this, 43,545 people have signed a petition posted by author Reah Foxx on Change.org called Change Amazon Return Policies for Completed E-books: Protect Authors from Theft! Just a few more thousand and this will become one of the top signed petitions on the website.

The reason for this petition has to do with Amazon’s return policies – not for the physical products you buy on their website, but the return policy for digital eBooks bought through the Kindle store.

It’s always been a little-known fact that Amazon’s policy is pretty much no-questions-asked when it comes to digital books. You can navigate into your digital products on the Amazon homepage and click ‘Refund’ on an eBook within the first seven days to receive a quick, complete refund no matter how much of the book you’ve actually read.

And it’s not like this is an industry wide problem. Most of the other eBook retailers either don’t allow returns unless there are technical issues, or have much more restrictive policies. Rhiannon Futch posted a great breakdown of these policies on the Wide for the Win FB group, but you need to be a member to view it. But here are the links to those individual store policies:

So while Amazon’s less restrictive policy is a boon for customers, it’s not a great experience for the authors themselves. I mean, having a product returned is never a good thing for a retailer – but authors don’t get paid for eBooks that get returned, and a large number of returns will also trigger a Quality Notification that authors will have to address within their KDP Dashboard or else have their book suppressed from normal discoverability on Amazon – or even pulled completely. Until recently, this hasn’t been a huge issue for authors, as many customers either didn’t even know you could return digital products – much less ones you might have read in their entirety – or simply used the feature as intended, to return books bought accidentally or that they realized they didn’t like soon after starting them. Consequently, most authors reported only ever experiencing a handful of returns in the past.

However, that appears to have changed recently – with a lot of authors complaining that there’s been a sudden surge in book returns, including a claim in the petition that “One author had triple digit returns for March! That same author had single digit returns the prior TWO months combined.” There are also reports of readers using this to read entire series for free. They buy book one and read it within a week, return it and then buy book two, read that and return it, etc.

Reah writes in her petition: “There has been a huge upswing in author’s ebooks being returned to Amazon AFTER they have been read. When you have read the book, you CONSUMED the product. Returning a book after reading 10-20% is one thing. But when the book has been read in its entirety it should not be allowed to be returned. End of discussion.”

Some authors are even taking to TikTok to highlight the problem, including author Nikki Haverstock who posted this TikTok video:

The Times reached out to authors Jeanette Winterson and Ian Rankin for their thoughts on Amazon’s return policy, to which Rankin replied: “I am appalled. Writers have a tough enough time as it is trying to make a living. If someone can read your book without paying you anything for the privilege you’re sunk.”

But what’s driving this sudden surge in book returns? Many suspect that it’s due to a trend on TikTok in which avid readers have been using the platform to let other book fans know how they can exploit Amazon’s return policy to essentially read all the latest eBooks for free.

According to The Times, one such TikTok video has amassed 17 million views, and many self-published authors are concerned that it’s social media which has been driving the sudden influx of book returns. It’s a believable theory – after all, we interviewed an author whose book became a #1 bestseller after her video about it on TikTok reached 16.5 million viewers – so if videos about book returns have already reached millions more people, it’s credible that it would have an impact.

But what is the solution to this problem? Should Amazon’s return policy be adjusted? If so, how?

It’s a question that hasn’t needed to be answered until now, since I think most readers wouldn’t think such an easily-exploitable return policy existed – not to mention that there is limitless free reading material as a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, or merely somebody who browses the free eBooks that Kindle Select authors make available on a daily basis. The need to ‘steal’ books through exploiting this refund policy hasn’t really had that much appeal before it became a trend on TikTok.

But given that this trend now seems to be impacting authors, it’s worth thinking about the options that exist to combat exploiting Amazon’s refund policy – especially since many of them seem to exist in some way already.

For example, authors who are part of KDP Select and have their books in the Kindle Unlimited program can already track how many pages of a book their readers get through – so the technology is in place to prevent readers exploiting the refund policy by limiting that refund to those who’ve read, say, 20% or less of the book.

Likewise, a 7-day no-questions-asked refund policy seems rife for abuse, so perhaps that can be mitigated by only allowing a certain number of book returns in a given time period. For example, two per month. This would still allow customers to make returns, but it would get them to think twice about it and hopefully only return them for valid reasons. We actually discuss these ideas and more in yesterday’s industry issues and news podcast, as this was one of the topics we discussed – so have a listen for more details.

But the real question is: Will Amazon actually address this issue?

They’ve notoriously been slow to respond to pressure from authors in the past, given that the “customer experience” is always top priority.

However, the similar situation with how Audible’s returns were handled gives some hope that Amazon will take the prompt from this petition and do something to address how easy it is to exploit their eBook return policy. After all, none of the demands made seem to be outlandish – authors just want to get paid for books that were actually read. As much as Amazon focuses on the “customer experience” they have a proven track record in making sure that the customers they’re talking about are the ones who pay.

But we’d be interested to hear your opinion. Do you think Amazon’s return policy is too lenient? Do you think social media is driving this recent surge in book returns? And how would you handle things better? Let us know in the comments section below!

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8 Comments

  • Excellent and decent post. I found this much informative. I’m impressed by the details that you have on this website. Thank you for this post.

  • As an author, I understand the frustration at returns. I agree with some of the recommendations Craig outlines.

    But, as a merchant (in my day job), I can understand an easy return policy. It might surprise some to learn that when someone disputes a charge, the merchant pays a fee. My company pays $20 per disputed charge. I’m sure Amazon has power to negotiate a lower fee.

    But what this means is that when someone says, “I didn’t make that charge, it’s fraud,” the money is removed from the merchants account PLUS an additional $20 is charged. So, let’s say a person buys an ebook at $9.95 and then calls and says it’s fraud, then that $9.95 is deducted, PLUS an additional $20 is deducted from the merchant’s account.

    Fraud is one example. Let’s say someone calls their credit card company and claims they were not happy with the product. Boom. Refund. $20 charge.

    There’s a whole host of reasons to dispute a charge, but you get the idea.

    The merchant can then provide “proof”. So, with fraud, you can show the electronic receipt and usage. With a claim they didn’t receive it, you can try to show proof (can be more difficult with tangible products than electronic products). With a claim the product was not satisfactory, there is little that can be done. My company almost always loses these, not matter how thoroughly the product is used.

    Some credit card companies offer this as a benefit. “Not happy with your purchase, let us know.”

    What consumers don’t realize is that the merchant is charged a fee. Of course credit card companies are happy to offer this benefit. It’s a revenue source for them. And ultimately who pays? Consumers do, because those fees are factored into cost of doing business and ultimately determine the price of goods.

    I would imagine within Amazon there is an entire department dedicated to handling disputes. But one of the best ways to minimize disputes is to have an easy refund policy. If someone goes to CS first, yes, the retailer loses that money, but they aren’t paying that dispute charge.

    I would imagine that for a company Amazon’s size, even with negotiated dispute fee rates, we’re talking about a considerable expense.

    I am sharing this not to defend Amazon, but just to share my window into merchant/retailer life. There are solid business reasons to offer an easy return policy that have nothing to do with gauging authors.

    The bad eggs, the people who try to read for free with these returns, are probably the same ones who would turn around and file a dispute if a refund isn’t granted. Solutions for this issue would include eliminating those merchant fees, or credit rating services factoring in frequent returns, claims of fraud, etc into a credit rating, so consumers would be less likely to make, what I call, a fraudulent dispute.

    • Hi Isabel – I completely agree that removing returns altogether isn’t a viable solution because there are sometimes reasons for legit returns. And while I don’t doubt that Amazon has their own deal with the payment processors and don’t pay nearly $20 per disputed charge (which seems outrageous, especially when the price of the item could be far less and even when a charge is fraudulent, it may have nothing at all to do with the Vendor), there are plenty of things they could do to mitigate people from abusing the system. I mean, even if they removed returns completely, I don’t think that would mean all of those returns would turn to claims of fraud. The people doing the returning are gaming the system, thinking that they found a “legal loophole” that allows them to read for free because they’re allowed to return for any reason. Claiming Fraud is a completely different thing, and I don’t think that if this loophole was closed all those people taking advantage of it would just switch to claiming Fraud. That could lead them to a lot more trouble with their credit card purchaser, they can’t claim Fraud over and over and get away with it…

      Amazon could keep returns but just limit them in time or total number, and that would be the easiest fix here. That way people would save their returns for legit reasons, not just to get free books. If someone really needs to make THAT many ebook returns in a given timeframe that the limit blocks them, then that’s something Amazon should investigate because something else is at play there. They’re just taking the lazy approach that makes them seem like a great company to buy from… as a customer. But not so great as a seller.

  • Even before this made “news”, the percentage of returns at Amazon I’ve seen first-hand in the last 6-9 months has shocked and saddened me.

    When sales are low, any returns or reading trends are even more noticeable. The XX-country customer who buys and returns their way through your entire catalog…the book that has 25-50% returns one month (again, when sales are peanuts, every return hurts that much more…).

    When I first self-published, back in 2011 (before taking a multiple-year hiatus), returns at Amazon were unheard of. It’s definitely word-of-mouth now. That combined with lack of values, that has led to outright theft of authors’ hard work.

    Makes garnering the motivation to write that much more difficult.

  • If I buy a book in a bookstore, or even online, and I don’t like it, I won’t ask for a refund, which I never did. For me, becoming a responsible reader also means reading reviews and asking for recommendations before buying a book.

    What I understand is that Amazon’s policy is on the side of the buyer and less of the authors. Which doesn’t make sense and is counterproductive. It’s like wanting to sell eggs, but killing the chickens in return! I’m glad this issue was reported on social media.

    I am analyzing the option of publishing my books on a platform other than Amazon.

  • Thank you for your support – we have a message and a plan.
    Amazon’s policy of ‘read and return for a refund’ hurts authors. (Keep up to date by joining us on Facebook: Fighting for Fair Exchange 4 Authors | Facebook)

    Simply put, the policy allows the reader to download an ebook, read it, and return it for a refund, preventing the author from collecting a royalty. As amazingly wrong as it sounds, the same thing can happen to a series! This policy is especially problematic for the independent author who self-publishes.
    An avid reader may be able to read a book in a single day or two. Unless the policy changes, the writer is deprived of income even if Amazon changes the policy to limit ‘read and return’ to seven days.
    Other outlets have a ‘no return’ or ‘no return once opened’ policy for ebooks. As authors, we allow a ‘look inside’ of our books. Once a reader has used that option and become engaged in the story, there is no reason for a book to be returned.

    The Authors Guild is organizing a meeting with Amazon senior staff to discuss this issue. Our plan is to prepare for that meeting by ‘Storming the Castle’ – bombarding Amazon’s email with protests for three days prior to the meeting. We will also storm Mr. Jassy’s (Amazon CEO) Twitter account with the same message. We can also cancel Amazon credit cards in protest and refrain from making any purchases on Amazon during that period.

    This is the polite but firm message we plan to send to Amazon:

    I am writing to protest Amazon’s current ‘read and return for refund’ book policy.
    Let me be clear. When a reader buys a book, the author receives a royalty in payment for their work, as does the publisher. When that book is read and returned, the royalty is deducted from the accounts of both author and publisher. The reader has, in effect, stolen the property of the author.
    This policy must be changed! Authors and publishers have the right to reimbursement for their labors. It can take years to write a book and more years to see it in print.
    We ask for a non-return policy for all ebooks.

  • The return thing was huge news last week but haven’t heard a peep about it at all this week. Seems like no one is talking about it anymore and things just suddenly died off like it always does in the author community. You always have some big thing happening (usually about Amazon), it’s made out to be the worst thing in the world, then days later, it seems like folks have forgotten about it.

    We don’t know how many people this really affected because, outside some authors in a few FB groups, most authors claim they aren’t seeing an uptick in returns or that returns are like they’ve always been. I’m not seeing an uptick at all myself and I don’t think this problem affected as many as people made it seem.

    I’d be shocked if Amazon changed its policy. Amazon cares about the customers first. The only solution authors can do if this has gotten so bad it’s hurting their finances is either try to do something that offsets the returns a bit or as some suggested, leave Amazon. But I believe the latter was more spoken out of anger. I’ve not seen anyone leave yet who has advocated it. Some were calling for a mass exodus on FB but that was never going to happen. Authors need Amazon like it or not.

    The Authors Guild supposedly got involved and spoke to Amazon but of course, Amazon said they’ve seen no issues. Sadly, unless something becomes an issue for Amazon itself, nothing changes. Maybe it’s a good sign no one is talking about this anymore. Maybe that means the authors seeing this uptick have seen things return back to normal.

    But Amazon’s return process is nothing new and has been this way for years and no, I don’t think it will change, at least not now and definitely not because of indies. It would probably take the big publishers making a stink for Amazon to pay real attention.