Is Amazon’s eBook Returns Process Too Easy to Abuse?
Amazon loves to cater to the customer experience, which is a business model that has made them one of the biggest companies in the world. However, in the case of their unrestricted policy on eBook returns, they have left authors open to abuse by unscrupulous customers looking to read for free. While this policy is not new, a recent increase in social media posts and videos, urging customers to read and return books even after they’ve read the entire thing, has highlighted how easy this policy is to exploit. Is it finally time for the eBook giant to take a cue from the rest of the industry and tighten up their rules?
As of writing this, 43,545 people have signed a petition posted by author Reah Foxx on Change.org called Change Amazon Return Policies for Completed E-books: Protect Authors from Theft! Just a few more thousand and this will become one of the top signed petitions on the website.
The reason for this petition has to do with Amazon’s return policies – not for the physical products you buy on their website, but the return policy for digital eBooks bought through the Kindle store.
It’s always been a little-known fact that Amazon’s policy is pretty much no-questions-asked when it comes to digital books. You can navigate into your digital products on the Amazon homepage and click ‘Refund’ on an eBook within the first seven days to receive a quick, complete refund no matter how much of the book you’ve actually read.
And it’s not like this is an industry wide problem. Most of the other eBook retailers either don’t allow returns unless there are technical issues, or have much more restrictive policies. Rhiannon Futch posted a great breakdown of these policies on the Wide for the Win FB group, but you need to be a member to view it. But here are the links to those individual store policies:
- Kobo return policy
- Google return policy
- Apple return policy
- Barnes & Noble return policy
- Smashwords return policy
- Amazon return policy
So while Amazon’s less restrictive policy is a boon for customers, it’s not a great experience for the authors themselves. I mean, having a product returned is never a good thing for a retailer – but authors don’t get paid for eBooks that get returned, and a large number of returns will also trigger a Quality Notification that authors will have to address within their KDP Dashboard or else have their book suppressed from normal discoverability on Amazon – or even pulled completely. Until recently, this hasn’t been a huge issue for authors, as many customers either didn’t even know you could return digital products – much less ones you might have read in their entirety – or simply used the feature as intended, to return books bought accidentally or that they realized they didn’t like soon after starting them. Consequently, most authors reported only ever experiencing a handful of returns in the past.
However, that appears to have changed recently – with a lot of authors complaining that there’s been a sudden surge in book returns, including a claim in the petition that “One author had triple digit returns for March! That same author had single digit returns the prior TWO months combined.” There are also reports of readers using this to read entire series for free. They buy book one and read it within a week, return it and then buy book two, read that and return it, etc.
Reah writes in her petition: “There has been a huge upswing in author’s ebooks being returned to Amazon AFTER they have been read. 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.”
Some authors are even taking to TikTok to highlight the problem, including author Nikki Haverstock who posted this TikTok video:
The Times reached out to authors Jeanette Winterson and Ian Rankin for their thoughts on Amazon’s return policy, to which Rankin replied: “I am appalled. Writers have a tough enough time as it is trying to make a living. If someone can read your book without paying you anything for the privilege you’re sunk.”
But what’s driving this sudden surge in book returns? Many suspect that it’s due to a trend on TikTok in which avid readers have been using the platform to let other book fans know how they can exploit Amazon’s return policy to essentially read all the latest eBooks for free.
According to The Times, one such TikTok video has amassed 17 million views, and many self-published authors are concerned that it’s social media which has been driving the sudden influx of book returns. It’s a believable theory – after all, we interviewed an author whose book became a #1 bestseller after her video about it on TikTok reached 16.5 million viewers – so if videos about book returns have already reached millions more people, it’s credible that it would have an impact.
But what is the solution to this problem? Should Amazon’s return policy be adjusted? If so, how?
It’s a question that hasn’t needed to be answered until now, since I think most readers wouldn’t think such an easily-exploitable return policy existed – not to mention that there is limitless free reading material as a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, or merely somebody who browses the free eBooks that Kindle Select authors make available on a daily basis. The need to ‘steal’ books through exploiting this refund policy hasn’t really had that much appeal before it became a trend on TikTok.
But given that this trend now seems to be impacting authors, it’s worth thinking about the options that exist to combat exploiting Amazon’s refund policy – especially since many of them seem to exist in some way already.
For example, authors who are part of KDP Select and have their books in the Kindle Unlimited program can already track how many pages of a book their readers get through – so the technology is in place to prevent readers exploiting the refund policy by limiting that refund to those who’ve read, say, 20% or less of the book.
Likewise, a 7-day no-questions-asked refund policy seems rife for abuse, so perhaps that can be mitigated by only allowing a certain number of book returns in a given time period. For example, two per month. This would still allow customers to make returns, but it would get them to think twice about it and hopefully only return them for valid reasons. We actually discuss these ideas and more in yesterday’s industry issues and news podcast, as this was one of the topics we discussed – so have a listen for more details.
But the real question is: Will Amazon actually address this issue?
They’ve notoriously been slow to respond to pressure from authors in the past, given that the “customer experience” is always top priority.
However, the similar situation with how Audible’s returns were handled gives some hope that Amazon will take the prompt from this petition and do something to address how easy it is to exploit their eBook return policy. After all, none of the demands made seem to be outlandish – authors just want to get paid for books that were actually read. As much as Amazon focuses on the “customer experience” they have a proven track record in making sure that the customers they’re talking about are the ones who pay.
But we’d be interested to hear your opinion. Do you think Amazon’s return policy is too lenient? Do you think social media is driving this recent surge in book returns? And how would you handle things better? Let us know in the comments section below!