Authors are protesting Amazon’s e-book policy that allows users to read and return

From National Public Radio:

Earlier this month, Lisa Kessler, a paranormal romance author, logged into Kindle Direct Publishing to check her earnings from the previous month. On her publishing dashboard, she saw something she had never seen before in her 11 years as an author: a negative earnings balance.

The reason for the negative balance? Kindle e-book returns.

Authors are protesting Amazon’s e-book return policy, a system they say allows readers to “steal” from self-published authors. Amazon’s current return policy for e-books allows customers to “cancel an accidental book order within seven days.” But, for some readers, seven days is more than enough time to finish a book and return it after reading, effectively treating Amazon like a library.

When an Amazon customer returns an e-book, royalties originally paid to the author at the time of purchase are deducted from their earnings balance. Authors can end up with negative balances when customers return books after the author has already been paid by Kindle Direct Publishing, an Amazon spokesperson said.

. . . .

Authors and readers want to change the policy

Reah Foxx, a book lover from Louisiana, started a petition to change the policy after seeing “life hacks” circulating on social media that teach readers to abuse the Amazon return policy and read for free. To date, the petition has garnered almost 70,000 signatures.

Kessler said prior to the “read and return” trend, she would normally have one or two book returns a month, something she attributed to genuine accidental purchases. Now, she sees entire series of hers being returned.

“It really rattled me,” she said. “You think, ‘Can I still make a living if this continues?’ and that’s very disheartening.”

Kristy Bromberg, a romance author, said she’s had more returns in the past two months than she had in the entire eight months before that combined.

Those suggesting the read-and-return practice think they’re “sticking it to Amazon,” but in reality are only harming the authors, said Eva Creel, a fantasy writer who publishes under the name E. G. Creel.

“I have my book available at the library. If somebody wants to read it for free, they can,” Creel said. “But reading it and making me think that I’ve made an income and then that income being taken away from me, that feels like stealing.”

Link to the rest at National Public Radio

PG wonders if this happens for Kindle Unlimited books where authors are paid by the number of pages read.

23 thoughts on “Authors are protesting Amazon’s e-book policy that allows users to read and return”

  1. Sigh… The “problem” is that Amazon is paying for non-final sales.

    Which is perfectly normal. Amazon is not your publisher; they are the bookstore that sells your publications. You are the publisher – and you have to act like a business.

    Every properly run business has a line item in their revenue accounts called “allowance for returns” (unless they are one that rigidly enforces an “all sales final” policy – which most used bookstores do, but that doesn’t affect any author’s income). You need to do the same if you are a serious business person, trying to make a real profit.

    Note that they do the same on sales of POD – which can also be returned after you’ve been paid. Not nearly the problem, of course, as returning a physical item is far more of a time sink than poking one button on your e-reader.

    Note also that trad-pub does the same thing, if in a different way – they don’t pay you for non-final sales, but they withhold some part of what they have received in that “allowance for returns” account. (Something to check in any of their contracts, by the way. What is their return policy? Can they change it after contract signing without voiding the contract or even notifying you? How much is their allowance? How long after the return period has expired until you are paid on those sales?)

    Now, there is no explicit Amazon policy on excessive returns that will trigger an account closing, but they will do that when a pattern of return abuse gets whatever algorithm they use all excited. Something that the other side – the customers – have been having issues about. If this latest practice gets too widespread, I expect that a tweak will be made to the software – it doesn’t cost them as much to process an e-book return as a paper one, but it still does cost something to them. Things like this also encourage scammers that will undoubtedly try the next “new” thing to get something for nothing.

  2. The authors protesting are as ill informed as the “life hack-ers”.
    Amazon has long had a *punitive* policy towards serial returners:,accounts%20in%20its%20sole%20discretion%2C%E2%80%9D%20the%20Journal%20says.

    Punitive, as in closing the user account completely. Serial returners are not only blocked from future purchases but also from past digital content not already downloaded. So when tbe authenticated devices dies, it takes everything with it.

    Amazon doesn’t publicize it but they don’t have to: it is in their Terms of Service.

    • I have no issue with “bought-in-error” or even “bought & hated” returns, and I’m not concerned about the monetary accounting for that.

      But it’s certainly easy to see sequential returns of each book in a series. My volume of returns is low enough that this is easily identifiable. If I can see it, without the data identifying the buyer, Amazon can certainly see it algorithmically. You’d think they’d catch it before the thief makes it all the way through a series, buying and then returning each entry in sequence.

      The thing about returning physical merchandise is that is that the seller has not just lost a sale, but has actually lost money since the merchandise may no longer be resellable or at least may have been reduced in value. That’s not a problem for ebooks, and for POD books, the loss goes to either Amazon or Ingram, not the seller (I assume — I only get ripped off for ebooks, as far as I can tell). So Amazon isn’t really motivated to solve the ebook version — no one is out real money. Of course, piracy can benefit from this (why pay for the ebook you want to steal and resell), but there seems to be no stopping that anyway.

      Granted that I don’t really need people like this as customers (even though they clearly liked my work well enough to rip it off, assuming they aren’t pirates), and they were never real “sales” so I haven’t really lost anything. But I don’t need the blood pressure damage of people ripping me off, either (face, meet fist).

      Yeah, yeah, I know — no mercantile system is perfect… 🙂

      • It’s always going to be with us, unfortunately, mercantile system or not. Socialist systems are even more rife with corruption, mainly because nobody cares anywhere along the line – it doesn’t affect their life style.

        I can remember when the scam of bookstores ripping the covers off of MMPBs for “return” to the publishers, then selling them out the back door was a big thing. Until publishers actually paid people to report it – and the practice went back to (relatively) minor theft.

        Keeping the “something for nothing” impulse down requires both disincentives and incentives.

      • This in turn is a variant on the pretense that an ebook and a physical book are identical, as with library sales. There is an entire body of literature condemning publishers for refusing to pretend there is no difference.

        Also: Amazon Is Not Your Friend, Exhibit 2,857. There is a curious phenomenon within some, though by no means all, corners of self-publishing of confusing Amazon being the main conduit for sales with Amazon being the self-publisher’s friend. This simply is not how it works.

        • Fast-reading an ebook and returning it at Amazon is completely different than camping out at B&N to read a pbook (or ten) without buying more than a coffee (at best), right?

          Freeloaders are freeloaders and they’ll do it everywhere.
          Same as shoplifters.
          As Eric Flint said ages ago (about hyperventilating over ebook piracy) shoplifting is a part of doing business.
          Any business.
          No system will prevent it completely except choosing not to do business in tbe first place.
          Nothing to be gained either way.

        • Nobody pretends there is no difference between an eBook and a physical book. That’s fiction.

          • I see it routinely. It isn’t stated explicitly, but see any of the myriad complaints about how publishers’ library sales of ebooks are done. These complains only make sense if we assume ebooks are just like physical books.

            • I keep waiting for some of the organizations that claim to be helping traditional authors start asking some serious questions about how library books are licensed and how royalties are calculated.

              Do the publishers even have an ability to know how many times a book is borrowed and whether it was read or not?

              • Libraries do track circulation of physical copies to determine whether to purchase more/replacement copies. The management end of the circulation-control and patron-catalog-access software has rather significant reporting capabilities.

                The key problem, though, is whether it’s legally tenable for publishers to “license” use of a mass-produced/non-unique copy to an end-user. The various statutes (ranging from the Uniform Commercial Code to other state and federal codifications) are either ambiguous or just assume a definition “well known” to everyone (see, e.g., 11 U.S.C. § 365(n)). Every time this has been put directly in play in the courts, the parties have either screwed up procedurally so there was no determination on the merits or miraculously found a way to settle and avoid a precedential opinion. Some scholars think it just can’t be a license, but has to be some variety of sale; some think it can be something entirely different; and, of course, no matter what the scholars think the legislatures will come to a different conclusion, and the courts yet another one.

                • Given that publishers charge well over the “normal” list price to libraries for e-books do they reflect this in the royalty they pay for that sale? Fairness would suggest that the answer is “of course they do”, but the treatment of authors by the likes of Harlequin suggests the actual answer will be “that’s a really stupid question”.

  3. My sympathy lies with Karen and I think some of the commentators are being too kind to Amazon. A return for refund system is needed to cover cases where the buy button is hit by accident but the time period for reversing this error should be much shorter than now. There are only two other reasons I accept as justifying getting your money back, and neither case actually deserves a time limit:

    a) Where it is a duplicate purchase because Amazon’s systems are not identifying that you’ve already bought it. I think that this happens because the ASIN changes – I’ve had a number of cases of history books originally put out by a publisher which subsequently split into three separate companies. I reckon I’m due a refund whenever I realise that this has happened and no just withing some arbitrary time limit (though in my case the books have all been sold at £0.99 so it made little difference to me or the author).

    b) Where the production quality is so low – typos, bad formatting, etc. – that no-one should have to accept the product. In the long run the complaints should result in the book being fixed or withdrawn on quality grounds. Again no time limit is called for, as who knows how long it will take to reach the top of mount tsundoku.

    Apart from these cases e-book purchase should be buyer beware, even when the author breaks the genre rules and your romance lacks a HEA or at least a HFN. Just write a scathing one-star review!

    As it is, I strongly suspect that most returns that are not immediately requested are by readers ripping off authors and that Amazon is facilitating this. It is easy enough to read the sample before buying and, if you can’t be bothered, then don’t complain later. Of course, Amazon should stop it’s own scam and get rid of delivery charges, which may have been appropriate in the days when e-book delivery was over the phone system but should have been dropped years ago, and certainly should not be charged on returned books.

  4. Anyone have any stats on the extent of these returns? Is there reason to even bother with it?

    Do we know if the return policy leads to more or fewer final sales?

  5. “PG wonders if this happens for Kindle Unlimited books where authors are paid by the number of pages read.”

    No, KU books are never paid for by the reader. They are paid out of a pool of money for every page read of the book.

    Readers just return any KU book when done (or tired of it). The author is paid for every page read, whether the book is finished or not. And since a KU reader can only ‘check out’ 20 books at a time, eventually all books will be returned.

      • Pretty sure its still 10.

        Mind you in practice I will have 5-6 I was interested in enough to rent but not yet read or just read a few pages then moved on. 2-3 I definitely want to read and 2-3 I have finished.

        But since I tend to rent books when I see something promoting them.I tend to bounce against the limit unless I make a hard decision. nope not going to read book a/b/c that have been sitting on my e-reader for months.

    • And there’s the separate issue that KU page reads are generally far lower in value (except for very large books) than an actual sale. KU and other subscription services are not the way forward for authors; that business model puts all the power in the hands of corporations.

      • Well, of course it’s not as much return: the reader isn’t getting any property rights in return.
        Subscriptions are rentals, not sales.
        In no business do rentals cost the same as sales.

        Apples and oranges.

      • A good bit of power remains in the hands of consumers. Aggregate download/reads determine pay to the author.

        However, I suppose we might ask if an author makes more money selling on Amazon or renting on Amazon. The zillions of books in KU indicates there may be more than one opinion on that question.

        • It is well documented tbat rental systems that offer the option to buy the same content boost sales instead of cannibalizing them. Game Pass in particular has repeated reports from the developers going back to 2018.
          Here’s one of the many, citing a tripling of sales:

          Part of it is because the developers rotate content in and out through the service instead of just dumping it in and moving on.

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