"Read & Return," or, How to Hurt Authors
This is a post about the trend of returning purchased e-books after having read them. I have seen many a Twitter thread explaining this harmful practice and authors showing examples of their accounts showing negative balances (aka money owed) thanks to returns of their books.
I'm going to be talking about Amazon as I haven't heard this occurring at other online bookstores, such as Barnes and Noble. Amazon sells the lion's share of books anyway, counting for 67% of all eBooks and 64% of all print books sold (and this is 2014 data, so it's probably much higher). Basically if you're an author, your books are likely on Amazon, and this problem affects you.
Let's take a closer look at this.
I first heard about the practice of "read and return" through Twitter and Facebook, and the trend is attributed to circulating on TikTok. Basically Amazon has a generous return window for eBooks (7 days to cancel an accidentally purchased eBook, although in other locations the window is 14 days). People found out that this is enough time to plausibly read a book cover-to-cover and then return the book, paying nothing for reading it.
Note that this is different than Kindle Unlimited, which allows readers to borrow eBooks for a monthly fee, and compensates authors per pages read. In this case, people are paying individually for the book in a sales transaction, reading the book, and then returning it for a full refund.
This practice hurts authors.
Claire Woodcock of VICE reports,
For each download of an eBook priced between $2.99 and $9.99 with a 70-30 split between royalties and Amazon, authors have to pay a delivery fee for sending the eBook files to people's eReaders, which is deducted from the author's KDP royalties. [....]"
When a book is returned, the royalties revert to Amazon, but Amazon still keeps the delivery fee. Thus, negative royalty balances can be created, as the author owes Amazon for delivery. Authors are basically forced to pay for the books that were read for free.
There has been pushback from some readers on this, who think there is nothing wrong with returning eBooks you have read (you can see some quotes in the article here and then some horrific comments in the screenshots of this Twitter thread here. You can see even more conversations about the practice here). But returning a book because you read it halfway and didn't like it, or returning it because you bought it on accident, etc., isn't what people are complaining about. Most authors and readers seem to be understanding of certain situations that warrant an eBook return. The problem is when a book is consumed in its entirety and then returned. It's people taking advantage of the system, and not realizing authors have to pay for it.
Authors have been vocal about the practice and have been pleading with readers who have taken advantage of the return policy, screen-capping negative royalty balances and taking to social media to explain why this trend is damaging. There is even a petition on Change.org that has garnered 68,000 signatures so far asking for the policy to be adjusted to counter "read and return."
Some of the solutions presented are implementing a system where Amazon tracks pages read (like they do for books in Kindle Unlimited), and after a certain percentage of the book is consumed, you cannot get it refunded. This sounds fair to me. As authors have pointed out, you can download free samples of the book first, use free library apps to get a copy of the book, or use your local library. Some readers brought up they have no access to libraries or books are otherwise hard for them to get, so some authors even said they'd offer books for free if they were contacted directly. So, there are numerous ways to access books freely, or to read enough of the book beforehand to determine whether or not it catches your eye to buy.
I admit that I haven't heard anything from traditionally published writers speaking on this; only from self-published authors. But I'm assuming people are reading and returning traditionally published books as well; it seems like a problem that would affect all writers. No matter what, it's frustrating to see this practice being adopted and it genuinely hurts authors.
I regularly struggle with whether or not I should go traditional or resume my self-publishing plans...and learning about "read and return" has me genuinely nervous if I decide to go self-pub. I would hate to have to owe Amazon and see a bunch of returns for my book. It would break my heart. I can only imagine how other authors feel to see this happen to them.
I really hope this trend dies down, or Amazon exercises measures to ensure "read and return" doesn't happen. I have doubts about both, though...but I hope authors who share their experiences can open readers' eyes and have them strongly reconsider returning a book after they have consumed it in full just for the sake of gaming the system.