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Amazon Policies Frustrating Fantasy Authors…Again

Sad FaceInteresting article by Paste Magazine today on a kind of customer behaviour, which they refer to as “jerk-like”, whereby certain customers are choosing to return ebooks after they’ve read them (the entire thing, the whole way through) as a means to enjoy a free read at the author’s and publisher’s expense. The reason I found this interesting is that we’ve recently had a discussion on this site about illegal piracy and concluded, by majority at least, that if you’re pirating to read free books–even if you’d probably not have read them if weren’t free–you’re doing the author a disservice, hurting the industry and breaking the law. (Note: Worth taking into consideration that there were some good arguments on whether this is still the case if you own the physical book, the book is out of print, you intend to buy the book when it is available or have read the book before.)

Returning ebooks is a different issue though. This is about authors losing money due to a policy that the world’s largest bookseller has setup that is giving its customers an exploitable loophole that can lose its merchants money. It is only Amazon that is allowing ebook returns (Barnes & Noble and Apple don’t allow them at all). Amazon’s own policy is that they only allow physical books to be returned if they are unread. Oh, and it doesn’t allow returns on other digital items (movies or music) either…imagine trying to return a movie you’d finished watching. So, why do they allow it for ebooks?

Well, obviously they do not allow it to occur on purpose. Rather customers are given a long time (7 days) on which to return the item. It would be nice to know Amazon’s rationale behind this length of time, but Amazon has refused to comment on it, even after a petition with over 5,600 signatures was handed to them asking to review their ebook returns policy. I guess many of you will be asking: “But surely there is protection against this kind of behaviour?” or “Surely it isn’t as easy as just clicking a button and getting your money back?” Well, I’m sorry to say it is. The process is as follows:

Amazon now accepts Kindle ebook returns within seven days of purchase.

Unlike Barnes & Noble and Sony, who won’t accept returns, Amazon makes it easy. You can request a return and refund by visiting the Manage Your Kindle section of Amazon’s website, clicking the Actions tab for the ebook title, and then selecting “Return for refund.”

I do remember a few years back being in a business studies class and my teacher telling me about the risks of a monopoly and why it was so important that they are reigned in should they begin to get out of control. At the time I thought that if a company was clever enough to leapfrog all its competitors and gain a place so high up that they earn control, why should there be laws to hold them back making profits? Well, I can honestly say that Amazon has answered my question in a way that my business studies tutor was never able to. Amazon is now so large and so relied upon by authors and publishers that if they do something that hurts the authors or publishers they can basically shrug and say “like it or lump it”. Although my younger-self may have admired this earned ability, my older-self realises how dangerous this is as a consumer and a stakeholder in the publishing industry.

It’s not just Amazon though I guess, it’s the people doing it too. I guess a similar conclusion will be reached about them as was reached about the pirates in the piracy discussion I linked to at the start of this article: They’re most likely relatively normal people, certainly not “evil”. And, in fact, if we take a step back from publishing we find that, in the UK at least, consumer savviness is not only prevalent at an all-time high, but also a rather respected talent. Some of the world’s most visited websites are those which teach customers how to get stuff for free or very cheaply by exploiting loopholes (Money Saving Expert for example). That said, what I found most shocking about the whole article was that Shawn Speakman had been made to refund money for numerous copies of his Unfettered anthology, the money from which was set to go towards his cancer treatment.

I think the biggest question for me is why are refunds needed at all? Amazon already allows you to read a pretty hefty sample of a book on their site or even by downloading it to your device. I’m not sure of the average, but I believe it is a good 30-60 pages in most cases? Surely, if you’ve enjoyed a book enough by that point to commit to buying it then you’ve surpassed your right to demand a refund. Trust me, I know that books exist that start out AMAZINGLY and then end leaving you utterly disappointed–but don’t movies do this to? How about video games? Holidays? I think that there is a pretty good argument that as long as someone fairly advertises and fully delivers you the experience they have promised and that you are paying for, their responsibility has been fulfilled once they hand over the item.

So, continuing on from last week’s discussion: what do you think about returning ebooks? Should it be allowed at all? If so, how long should you have to return them? Are people returning books in the wrong or just savvy customers? What about if they genuinely didn’t enjoy the book? (Note: That’s not what returns are for, but can you sympathise with them?)

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23 Comments

  1. Overlord says:

    Comment from one author, Marilynn Byerly:

    “Many authors of my acquaintance are complaining that some readers are gaming this system in the same way as some game the paper system. They buy every book in the author’s backlist, one at a time, then return each for a refund so it’s obvious they are reading them.

    Some readers have bragged publicly that they have never paid for a Kindle ebook and share with others how to do this. Amazon, apparently, sees nothing wrong or suspicious when a reader never actually pays for any of his books because readers aren’t even questioned about this tactic.”

  2. Overlord says:

    I’ve read online that if you return over 30 items within a set period you will get the following e-mail:

    Hello from Amazon.com.

    We’re writing regarding your request of Refunds.

    Unfortunately, the number of issues you have sustained with your Kindle Store orders has led us to believe that there might be a larger issue. Since it appears that many of your orders have been accidentally purchased, we ask that you contact Customer Service for troubleshooting in an effort to avoid these issues in the future.

    Effective immediately, we are unable to compensate you for any additional issues with your Kindle Store orders.

    Thank you for your understanding.

    Best regards,

    Account Specialist
    Amazon.com

    That said, 30 titles is a heck of a lot! And, if you’ve got a couple of credit cards and a couple of people you know with accounts it’s not hard to see how you can make that over 100 books fairly quickly.

  3. Pat says:

    Obviously reading a full book – whether you enjoyed it or not, only to return it with no questions asked, is a shitty thing to do. On the other hand, I’ve bought books via Amazon that I either never ended up opening or that I read slightly past the Kindle preview and loved that I didn’t have to jump through hoops to get my money back. Sometimes the Kindle preview is almost entirely the pre-prologue stuff like maps, publisher info, author’s notes, and what-have-you – and in those cases it’s nice to be able to get the supposed ~10% of the book to test the water. Amazon already injects more DRM into their books than Arnold did steroids in his heyday, so I feel like they could add some sort of measurement of how long a book has been open on the Kindle and whether it’s been fully read or not, but that’s also likely to be shouted down as an invasion of privacy.

    It’s like the pirating issue – I don’t think ebooks should have DRM, and books without DRM can and will be pirated for any given reason. Adding DRM to ebooks because of pirates will piss off honest customers, and I don’t think we have a solid solution for either issue yet.

  4. Algon says:

    This is more tricky than the piracy one. I would say that this may be counted as theft when someone does it simply because they do not want to pay. This is as theft is when you permanently or temporarily deprive someone of an asset, object etc. (not a sale, as that sale was not theirs. Ergo not theft, because it must be deprivation of something that someone actually owns. To own a sale is dystopian, really). Further, you are actually spitting in the face of authors by giving them money than snatching it right back. It is not a case of maybe, or might have been, you are literally taking their own possession, which you have no right to if they upheld their side of the bargain. I.e. a functioning book. So that is my opinion on this, and I believe amazon should change the policy to a day, as I actually did buy something by accident once by slipping my hand. Thankfully, I greatly enjoyed it, so no harm done there. But I can understand in the event of a mistake that a book should be able to be returned.

    • David McCready says:

      Is it theft? It looks exactly like Amazon.com has set up something of a library. Is it theft to have a library of nearly limitless books, never to pay and always to return in the exact condition it came in?

      If Amazon.com doesn’t change policies, perhaps publishers and authors should start looking at Amazon.com as a library with a bookstore on the side.

  5. WordTipping says:

    I do not have much issue with this behavior by Amazon. Amazon is simply bringing their ebook refund policy in line with general refund policies of physical items. No one would accept a ‘no return’ policy on physical books. Yet, people could read the complete book and simply return it for a full refund, exactly like the above described Amazon ebook issue. No one thinks twice about that, even though the reader has access to the entire contents of the book prior to purchase, given them ample opportunity to form an opinion on the book.

    The only justification for this is the ease by which an ebook is pirated compared to physical books. Yet, this argument hinges on punishing legitimate buyers via ineffective anti-piracy measures. A better way to handle it would simply be to limit the number of returns that can be authorized in a given period of time.

    In this instance, Amazon is simply trying to provide better service to their customers and lowering the barrier of entry for new users of the Kindle service.

  6. I agree that it sucks, and it’s unfair, but I also think it’s not that big a deal.

    “Virtual book returns are more annoying than bankrupting, authors say”.

    Let’s take the numbers given by the author quoted above:

    “It amounted to just six-tenths of a percent of sales for the month of October”

    That means that 99.994% of sales are legitimate, non-refunded.

    And of the sales that were refunded, how do know for sure that none of these were genuine “I bought the wrong one” or “This was so bad I couldn’t read it” (if you even accept that as a legitimate return reason).

    But if we assume that 100% of the refunds are fraudulent, that’s still only 0.006% of sales (plus I don’t think we can make that assumption).

    I think the 7 day period is too long, it should be more like 24-48 hours, but the scale of the problem is so small that it’s at the “cost of doing business” level.

    With intellectual property piracy, there are other considerations too. Would the user – if you don’t mind me employing a software term – would the user have paid for the product anyway, i.e. is it a genuine lost sale? Does the IP owner experience a cost-per-sale, i.e. resources being used, or is it a zero-cost? If so, could the piracy be beneficial to the IP owner (as per Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office becoming de facto standards as a result of mass piracy in the late 90s and early 2000s)? These examples don’t translate perfectly to the book world, but you get my point. Charlie Stross and others have demonstrated how effective releasing books for free can be.

    That’s why I don’t think this issue is quite as bad for authors as it seems to be on the surface.

    - Alastair.

  7. Xen says:

    It seems unethical and immature. If the purchasers were on the other side they’d be upset.

  8. Patrick Samphire says:

    I do think it’s pretty sleazy behaviour, and seven days seems a long time to decide if you want to return an item. I wouldn’t want to prevent returns completely, though. It is possible to accidentally buy a book on Amazon (I’ve done it, but as it turned out, I liked it and decided to keep it). And I think it’s legitimate for a reader to read a chapter or two and decide they don’t actually want the book. Maybe a day to return would be fair?

  9. Eric Honaker says:

    I think abusing it is unethical. On the other hand, it’s not much different from people who sit in B&N and read a whole book while drinking their Starbucks only to put it back. As Alistair McDermott said, 99.4% of sales are legitimate, so it’s not breaking the bank. It’s not a crisis.

    I think a returns policy is probably a good idea, if only because you can accidentally click something, or be wrong about whether or not you own a particular title. (Romance books that get reissued with new covers frequently, for example.) I do think that 7 days is too long. 3 seems more reasonable. Long enough to notice an issue and return the thing, not so long that the average reader can abuse it easily.

    • Overlord says:

      About it being only 0.6%:

      I think the fact that Amazon allow it to happen so easily is what needs addressing. It’s easy to say ‘only a few people do it’, but digital technology is relatively new and awareness of e-returns is pretty small (I know I risk raising awareness to the wrong people as well as the right by writing this article), so I imagine that this small percentage will grow, sadly. The fact Amazon have such a blatant and exploitable loophole deserves at least being tightened.

      I know with film torrents you get ‘groups’. There is nothing to stop a group of 10 getting together, setting up 3 accounts each with different cards/family members details and therefore being able to download say 90 books per person and 900 in total. These 900 books could then be distributed on a torrent site by the group to 1000s of people.

      Of course, this is an extreme view and I fully accept and expect that the vast majority will be people who really want to read a book, but can’t really afford it so decide to buy it, read it really quickly and return it (which is why I think comparing it to buying a dress for a night out and returning it after is such a good comparison).

      The injustice is that Amazon allow it because it doesn’t affect them. When books are returned they lose time and packaging (a small cost, but a cost all the same). When an e-return occurs Amazon lose nothing at all, it is pretty much all automated, which is, I feel, why they don’t care.

  10. Bryce says:

    I think the policy should be changed, if only to take the return time down to a day at the most, and I’m glad you’re speaking out on the subject. I look at my own Amazon purchasing habits and if anyone is like me, they don’t even think about reading a book until months, if not years, after they’ve made the purchase…because they’ve made at least a couple other purchases, not to mention library borrows, etc. in the last couple weeks. And that’s not even counting the books owned that have yet to be read.

    Someone would have to be really on the ball (definitely not me), have cut everything out of their to-read pile, and be a complete and total jerk to the tenth degree to do this and I think it shows in the numbers that have been mentioned. In addition, I’m sure Amazon is looking at this as a cost of business. Generous return policies make people shop at a place more. I know that works with me. Not that that doesn’t hurt the author, but it may in fact help.

  11. Mike says:

    It really depends on the market. Some publishers might be willing to accept more content consumer-friendly policies in exchange for reaching a larger, and thus potentially more profitable, set of consumers. As markets change, there’s an ongoing dance of different policies and patterns, but clearly there are some extreme examples, like the race-to-the-bottom pricing in items like music tracks getting paid for plays on internet radio amounting to so very little for artists.

  12. Ben says:

    I have never bothered with doing a return on Amazon. That said, I can think of a few situations where I wish I had – I bought a Jane Austen collection, in the hopes that it would be higher quality than the free Project Gutenberg editions available from Amazon. It wasn’t. I felt ripped off (even though it was only about $2). Basically, this return policy is a good deal for these sorts of books, i.e. books in the public domain where it’s just some scammer trying to make a quick buck by releasing sub-par editions of free books. Of course, Amazon could just police those better in the first place.

    I could also see it having a benefit, in that people might be willing to risk a few dollars on some basically-self-published kindle-only ebook from a first time author, secure in the knowledge that if it turns out to be crap, they can get their money back. Eliminating that risk in this way might actually be helpful for these new authors, encouraging readers to be more adventurous. That said, you probably don’t need a week to tell if the self-published book you just downloaded is going to be crap. They should probably change it to within a day of opening the book for the first time (on any device), in case you buy something and don’t read it right away. That would eliminate most of the read-and-return cheaters without taking away the option entirely.

  13. Ashley says:

    I’m kind of on Amazon’s side. People return books to physical bookstores and sit at Barnes and Nobles and read the books then put them back on the shelf. It would be interesting to see a study comparing the two.

  14. Brent says:

    Allowing returns is a good policy, because it encourages customers to take more chances with a book they are not sure they will like. By supporting people’s ability to try out books (especially graphic novels where the “sample” is the ISBN number and title page) they encourage more purchases and thus make more money for the author. Thus, the jackfaces who return books they’ve read probably aren’t hurting the authors as much as a strict policy of not letting people return books would. And if they are going to be dishonest, this way they aren’t doing what you mentioned in the piracy article: encouraging torrent seed people. So Amazon’s doing the right thing. Amazon, Tor and Baen publishers, and others have realized that anti-piracy measures do nothing and are actually anti-customer measures.

  15. Zordrath says:

    Can’t say I fully agree with you here. Should we revoke every customer’s right that has the potential to be abused? That’s what the video game industry has been doing for a while – no returns, no used sales, no full ownership of the game you bought, need to authenticate your copy frequently, the list goes on. All this has done is hurt the honest customer because those want to get a game illegitimately will always find a way to do so. And it has hurt business, too: The uproar over the Xbox One’s anti-piracy policies was strong enough to force Microsoft to change them.

    Returning books is not something that was invented by ebooks (sure, some stores say you can only return unread books, but how to check that?), and many physical copies end up being read by more than one person because people trade them with friends or get them from the library. Some of these things are made easier by ebooks, others harder (can’t trade Kindle ebooks with friends unless I give them my Kindle), but should we forbid customers all these rights? I don’t think so.

    Yes, getting free books is not what refunds were designed for. But that doesn’t change the fact that refunds are a basic customer’s right. Taking it away starts us down a very slippery slope.

  16. AC Smyth says:

    I’ve returned an ebook once only. That was when I had read the sample and decided I didn’t like it. Intending to hit “Delete sample” I hit “Buy this book” by mistake (the selector on my Kindle is tricky sometimes and their is no confirmation step in the process). I was pleasantly surprised to find I could return it, but I did it on my PC within minutes of buying it via the Kindle. So I guess they are making allowances for people buying books accidentally over wifi while away from their PC? But I agree, a week is too long. 24 hours might be an acceptable compromise. I know people can still get through a book in 24 hours if they set their mind to it, but most people won’t.

    And I now know to be uber-careful when deleting samples, or only to do it when I’m not connected to wifi!

  17. Bibliotropic says:

    I figure if they allow it for e-books, they ought to allow it for other media, and for print books. And if they don’t, well, what makes e-books so special that they’re exempt from the rules? Seems to me this just makes it easier for pirates to take the reins. Buy an e-book, strip the protection from it, return it, then let the copied file loose for anyone to grab. No harm, no foul. And with the above-stated 30 files over a given period of time… It’s not difficult to see how a person could do this with 5 books a week and still sneak under the radar.

    The difference with libraries is that libraries still have to pay for their copy of the book, or whoever donates it to the library pays for a copy, so a sale gets made and the author gets paid. Even if they don’t get paid every time someone checks that book out, they still get something, so the old “pirating books is just like going to the library” argument doesn’t work the same way here. And I know a lot of libraries have things set up so that after a book has been borrowed a certain number of times, they ‘purchase’ another copy, whether that means buying a whole new one or just paying a fee to the publisher and continuing to use the old book. Not every library, but I know a lot do. So there’s still payment being made. So again, different from just buying a book, reading it, then returning it.

  18. Naomi says:

    I have used the Amazon ebook return for various reasons, bought the wrong book mostly. I also returned three books from a trilogy that I ordered and after starting the first book , realized the trilogy was not for me. ( it made blush to give you an idea and I am not a prude). However, I would never return a book I had already read, even if I didn’t like the book. Not sure how Amazon could police this without making honest customers suffer.

  19. Cat says:

    Well… Amazon also allows ‘borrowing’ Kindle books. I wonder what that percentage is? I’m aware that ‘borrowing’ and ‘returning’ are two different beasts, but either way those readers did NOT pay to read my books.

    There are obvious exceptions to my not minding when people read for free: when I’m offering them for free, natch. (There’s a method to THAT madness: hopefully large numbers download your Part 1. Of course when you publish Part 2…)

    Borrowers and folks who return: all THEY will do is get Part 2 for free yet again. Puts me in mind of film companies – the whole copyright thing about illegally downloading films. Those people lose a =lot= of money: we lose a tiny percentage, but who knows how many legally “borrow”? I don’t know enough — is there anywhere people can borrow films, for example?

    This could easily lead into a rant of ebook quality (the quality of many films vs. the quality of e-books self-published in that format alone.) You see me beating feet in the opposite direction? OH yes!

  20. Reader says:

    Long live paper books !!! Ebooks = virus !!!

  21. Civicis oti says:

    Simply absurd, this should never have been allowed to happen – ever. Returning an ebook, the very thought just makes me mad!!

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