A burst of Amazon ebook returns cost self-published authors their royalties, and the platform has updated its ebook return policy in an attempt to correct the problem.
This summer, a trend spun up on BookTok in which content creators recommended a “hack” to their followers: buy an eBook from Amazon, then return it within seven days for a refund, effectively using the platform as a digital library.
#ReadandReturn got a lot of attention after indie authors started sharing what happens to them when ebook readers return their books on Amazon’s platform.
Lisa Kessler, who self-publishes paranormal romance and thrillers under the name L.A. Kessler, tweeted:
“Just a reminder that Amazon is NOT a library. When you read and return a book it COSTS the author… It’s June 1st and I owe Amazon at the moment because people are reading through the Muse series and returning the books when they finish…. Authors need to eat too…”
At the time of Kessler’s tweet, Kindle readers could return any ebook for a refund within seven days of purchase, regardless of how much or how little they’d read. The problem is that the refund cuts into the author’s earnings. When a reader buys an ebook from the platform, Amazon pays royalties to the writer. When that book is returned, Amazon pulls those royalties back. Returns made after those royalties are cashed out by the author can result in a negative balance for the writer.
The policy was meant to provide leeway when Kindle readers made “accidental” ebook purchases, but when abused, it deprives writers of pay.
Indie authors, like Lisa Kessler, who use Amazon’s platform went to social media to protest readers’ abuse of the policy. Where readers thought they were fighting “The Man” that is Amazon, they were really hurting the authors who put in the work of writing great indie books.
To be clear, the authors aren’t opposed to libraries. “I have my book available at the library. If somebody wants to read it for free, they can,” indie writer E.G. Creel told NPR in June. “But reading it and making me think that I’ve made an income and then that income being taken away from me, that feels like stealing.”
Media outlets like NPR, the Verge, and Euronews picked up the story, and the Author’s Guild began pressuring Amazon to update its return policy to prevent users from abusing its generous terms. In September, Amazon announced that it would update the ebook return policy.
Amazon’s Updated Policy
According to the Author’s Guild, under the new policy, “any customer who wishes to return an ebook after reading more than 10 percent will need to send in a customer service request, which will be reviewed by a representative to ensure that the return request is genuine and complies with Amazon’s policies against abuse.”
Many who joined the #ReadandReturn trend didn’t have bad intentions. Few readers understand how book royalties are paid and how authors earn their income. Both indie and traditionally published authors can help combat trends like these by educating their readers on the publishing industry and using their platforms to share the importance of paying for art. For now, self-published authors can be a little more confident about their earning potential on the Amazon Kindle platform.
Now, Read and Return on TikTok is populated with authors and their supporters espousing the values of paying for books, and, of course, celebrating the contributions of writers and their work.