More Amazon Shenanigans?

The quick answer is “no”. But let’s get to the question before going into the answer. Over the last couple of months, the indie community has become more and more concerned with the number e-book returns they’ve been seeing of late. Normally, I wouldn’t pay any attention to such complaints except. . . I’ve seen an uptick in returns as well and there’s been a pattern to them.

A little bit of background. Each of the main e-book retailers has a return policy. IIRC, you cannot return e-books to Barnes & Noble. The last time I looked, Apple had a two week window for returns of e-books. With Kobo, you have to initiate contact with their Help desk to see if you can return a book or not. Amazon has a seven day return policy. But the question comes from their own wording on the FAQ about returns and something that has been going around on TikTok and has caused a number of authors to see their return numbers go up dramatically.

Cancel an accidental book order within seven days. Approved refunds are credited to the original payment source within three to five days.

The above is from Amazon’s FAQs. Note that it is for an “accidental book order”. That phrase is key, especially in light of what the TikTok posts were advocating. Basically, the “Kindle hack” encouraged readers to buy, read and then return their e-books. As long as it was within the seven day period, Amazon didn’t bat an eye. A number of genre writers, especially romance writers, almost instantly saw an uptick in their returns.

We aren’t talking about a single book either. The trend seemed to be entire series being “bought”, binge read and then returned. The justification behind this “hack” seemed to be tat the readers weren’t stealing. They were just sticking it to Amazon. forgotten in the equation were the authors. Oops.

What they didn’t realize is the royalties we earned from those “sales” will be deducted from our account upon return. If the purchase date and return date fall in the same month, it shows up as numbers and all we can do is shake our heads and wish we were getting those royalties and wonder why the book was returned.

The kicker comes when the return happens the next month. Those royalties are now deducted from anything we earn in the new month. It is a negative cashflow.

Before someone comes in and says Amazon has a policy against serial returners, I know. You’re correct. They do. But as authors we have little to no way of triggering it because we don’t know who returned a book or why. Amazon also is not transparent in what it takes to be considered a serial returner, especially where e-books are concerned.

So why doesn’t Amazon do more to stop these readers? It wouldn’t be difficult to run a bit of code to see who has made it a habit of “buying” e-books and the returning them. There are any number of possible answers, but I can think of several. First, the returns represent such a small percentage of Amazon’s business that it would probably cost more to implement such a code and follow up with it than it costs them to refund the cost of the e-book. Second, it could be seen as a way to “encourage” writers to go exclusive with Amazon so their books are in Kindle Unlimited instead of being sold on other platforms. The justification there is the returns would go down because people who pay to be part of KU could borrow the book and return it when they were done with it. Forget about th fact the author would very possibly make less that way.

There are other possible reasons as well.

Here’s the thing. I’ve returned e-books before. I’ve returned a grand total of three books across multiple platforms since the early days of the format. The first one I returned I did so because it was so locked up with DRM that I didn’t have anything that could read it. It was a reference book bought from an author’s site that misrepresented the programs it could be read with. The second book was an accidental purchase. My idiot cat walked across my desk and stepped on the mouse and hit the instant purchase on a non-Amazon site. I immediately contacted the site and explained, noting I had not downloaded the book. The one Amazon book I returned I did so because the author didn’t check the formatting and it turned out to be a 300-plus page book consisting of one–ONE–paragraph. Nope. That is the epitome of wall of text.

But if I buy a book, start reading it and decide I don’t like the book, I don’t return it. I figure it’s on me for not checking the reviews or reading the preview. I certainly don’t return a book after I’ve finished it. If I plan on doing that, I’ll borrow the book from the library.

And here’s the thing–and maybe it is something readers don’t know. Indie writers who publish wide almost always use a service like Draft2Digital or Smashwords to put their books on the main library lending apps like Overdrive. So if you have a library card and your library is affiliated with one of the supporting apps, you can borrow our books. We still get paid. You don’t have to pay anything.

But, to answer the question posed at the top of the post, no, Amazon isn’t up to new shenanigans. They certainly don’t have the worst return policy of the major e-book retailers. But people will be people and there are always those who try to beat or hack the system without thinking about the impact on the creators.

That doesn’t mean Amazon can’t do better. It could tighten up on why an e-book can be returned and make the process to do so a bit less convenient.

So what do we as creators and as readers with a sense of ethics do? Well, we could sign the MoveOn petition but how much good will that really do? My suggestion is that we contact Amazon. No, not the general “help” button because that will go to a minion somewhere who has no authority to do anything. Instead, e-mail the officers of the company, including Andy Jassy who took over for Jeff Bezos. Let the powers-that-be know there is something we’re concerned about and why.

Now, I’m going to step away from my soapbox and wish everyone a Happy 4th of July. For all our problems right now, this is still a great country. So spend a few minutes today considering what makes it so. Enjoy being with your families and loved ones. Remember those of us who blog here have the freedom to do so because of the foundations upon which this country is built.

13 comments

  1. It could tighten up on why an e-book can be returned and make the process to do so a bit less convenient.

    Or just make it so they notice when someone does it repeatedly.

    Even Asurion (sp?) insurance notices when we have three headphones break in a row, and starts requiring us to send them in to get the refund. (Which costs more than just refunding, but a cheater could be pulling a fast one.)

    1. Agreed but, as I said, I can see them looking only at their own bottom line and thinking actually reviewing the returns, frequency of same, etc., as falling in the loss category and as costing them more than just refunding does.

      1. I was picturing more of a flat “third return, you lose ability to do returns for a year”- same sort of algorithm as the preorder mess.

  2. Since this Ian’s tictok thing, maybe a counter is a little skit of someone going to demonstrate this trick, only to find out the author has delisted because they couldn’t make a living writing?

  3. Depends on the price point and the publisher. If you own Tor Books all bets are off. (Though I can and will cut a check direct to the author).

    But yes. With decent free samples there’s no excuse for returning an indy that didn’t pan out (Like book 5 or 6 falling off the “this interests me” cliff).

    I did discover that in pulling an entire series off my Amazon “cloud” because it took a turn of Not Just No, But Hell No, something weird happened. I got a credit. Noticed it by the second return, so stopped, but… These were way older purchases than seven days ago.

    In terms of fairness to authors, that’s dead wrong.

    Speaking of which has anyone seen the EULA for Amazon’s art market place? Any red flags? I am thinking of putting my Wizarding art up there.

    1. Indeed – with a free sample, there’s usually enough to make a judgement if you like the book enough to pay for it.
      It is a mild annoyance, to see a ‘return’, though, especially when my eBooks are mostly priced around $3. I haven’t noticed a big run on returns, though – usually about one a month.

  4. Why doesn’t Amazon go after them?

    Ah, but how would we know? Rare, rare indeed is the idiot who runs around screaming “I was abusing their policies, and they cut me off!” ….Granted, I *have* seen that before. The first time this was a really big deal, when KDP was new. Someone was actually highly offended because Amazon terminated her account (think it was a her, IIRC), for over 500 read & returns. Entire account closed, not just Kindle book buying.

    She and… at least two other people in her twitter feed were screaming about how wrong Amazon was, and trying to use social media shaming to force Amazon to give them their accounts back. And I was just shaking my head, thinking about how far into self-justification one could sink that they couldn’t recognize that this was a bad idea?

    The other perennial issue that I know exists is when people borrow their way through series because they’re ripping the books and load them up for servers full of content on the bit torrent end, because there’s a currency there in having unique content other people don’t have when you’re all trading your stolen content around. That’s… an entire rabbit hole that is currently not worth my time and effort to try to track, because 1.) trying to get criminals to stop being criminal is an exercise in frustration, and 2.) trying to go after criminals for being criminal is usually a giant sinkhole of time and frustration (and money, if you can get it to the point you’re going after them in court)

  5. This past year I did my first book return to Amazon. I sent it back within 24 hours of purchase – didn’t finish the whole thing. It was the latest entry in a series which I liked and had (up to then) purchased every book in the series. It got some good reviews. I knew the series as a whole had a left slant but liked it anyway – but this went HARD left and contained some truly revolting scenes, as in don’t even think of trying to eat while you read this book. I also left a detailed review explaining what I didn’t like and why – trying to give a specific explanation for other readers. But yes, the system appears to be ripe for abuse. I do think Amazon should tighten up their return policy.

  6. People who “hack the system” like that are the same sort of people who buy a fancy dress for a formal dinner and return it the next day because “it’s not really my color”.

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