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Is Amazon's ebook return policy ruining authors' careers?

A Kindle version of the Lonely Planet guide to Germany
A Kindle version of the Lonely Planet guide to Germany   -   Copyright  Richard Drew/AP2010
By Jonny Walfisz

A petition is gaining popularity demanding that Amazon changes its policy on ebook returns.

The current return policy on Kindle ebooks is that a customer can receive a full refund within 14 days of purchase. The policy applies regardless of how much of the book has been read.

Critics worry that people are reading entire books and returning them regardless of enjoyment.

Author Reah Foxx started a petition on Change.org that has already garnered over 20,000 signatories.

“There has been a huge upswing in author’s ebooks being returned to Amazon AFTER they have been read,” she writes in the petition.

“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.”

She goes on to explain that authors are charged a download fee for customer purchases which isn’t reimbursed when readers return the book. This can lead to authors making overall losses when too many people return their purchases.

“In other words, the AUTHOR paid for that person to read their book!” she writes.

Damage to self-published authors

Sue Bordley is a teacher and author who has self-published multiple books through Amazon under her name and a pseudonym, Jess Molyneux. Forgoing the gatekeepers in publishing houses, Bordley has found Amazon incredibly useful in forging her literary career.

“Publishers are giving celebrities book deals to write novels because there’s a ready-made fanbase instead of taking a chance on an unknown author,” she says. “But if you can make use of self-publishing and social media, you can get noticed.”

But Bordley notes that just because Amazon doesn’t have publishing gatekeepers, it doesn’t make the act of writing a book any less of a challenge.

Reed Saxon/AP
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and massive Kindle fanReed Saxon/AP

“Books take months to write and people are getting them for nothing and that isn’t fair,” she says.

“It costs an author quite a lot to get a book together, by the time you’ve organised a cover, if you’ve paid for formatting and proof-reading services. You’re out of pocket before you put that book on shelves and you need to sell a certain amount to just break even. Some independent authors are going to start saying ‘I can’t afford to continue doing this anymore’. That would be a real shame.”

“Amazon needs to bring in a policy that if every page has been turned, you can’t get a refund. In the days of CDs you would not have been able to return a CD once the cellophane has come off,” Bordley says.

Audible is even worse

If the problem is bad for ebooks, it’s even worse for audiobooks sold on Amazon’s Audible platform.

On Audible, the return policy for people unhappy with their audiobooks is as long as a year after purchasing. This policy also applies regardless of how much of the book you have listened to.

TikTok user and author Nikki Haverstock details her experience with the issue. “When you have very few sales, the returns really stand out.”

“When you see a sale of your first book and then a return of your first book, then you see a sale of your second book and then a return of your second book, and third and fourth, it’s pretty clear what’s happening. Someone is reading your series and returning each book.”

“Audible is notorious for encouraging this behaviour,” she says.

“Sometimes you’ll get an automated email saying ‘Didn’t like your book? Return it at no cost’. And people have talked to the customer service and asked ‘I’ve finished it, can I still return it?’”

“It’s become a real problem because a lot of Audible users use it like a lending library,” she says.

The petition demands Amazon changes its policies. But even with the 25,000 signatories necessary for Change.org requires for it to become one of its top signed petitions, will Amazon take heed?

“Amazon makes an enormous amount of money from us authors, it would be nice to see a bit of loyalty from them,” Bordley concludes.