A TikTok trend where users encourage others to purchase, read, and return Amazon ebooks within the company’s return policy window has irked independent authors, who claim to have seen dramatic spikes in their ebook return rates since the trend went viral.
The #ReadAndReturn challenge drew attention to Amazon’s Kindle return policy, which states that readers can “cancel an accidental book order within seven days.” But what’s been presented as a literary community “life hack” is hurting romance-fantasy authors like Lisa Kessler’s bottom line.
“When you buy a digital book, if you read and return it, Amazon just turns around and gets the money back from the author, plus Amazon builds in a digital delivery fee and so Amazon is still getting that delivery fee but we get all the royalties taken back,” Kessler told Motherboard.
Kessler, who self-publishes several book series, says that before the challenge, she would see on average one or two returns per month. But when she checked her Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) sales dashboard on June 1st, she says she was shocked to find a negative account balance.
“It’s ridiculous,” K. Bromberg, another self-published author, told Motherboard. “Like you can literally see it in your dashboard. Someone goes through a series — they buy a book, they return it, they go to the next book in the series, they buy it, they return it. You can’t see names, but it’s like when there are three returns in a row, like from day-to-day to day, it’s like come on!”
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. For free ebooks that are returned where the author was never earning, the authors are still seeing the delivery fee deducted from their account, according to Kessler.
Delivery costs start at $0.15 in the US and are multiplied by the number of megabytes a book contains. At first, these rates only look like pennies, but when digital book files include any graphics or images like book covers, that delivery cost goes up quickly. This, Kessler says, is how authors with large file-sized ebooks who see a lot of ebook returns can end up owing Amazon money at the end of the month.
“People are definitely gaming Amazon’s return system,” said Kessler. “I think readers didn’t realize it was coming back to hit the authors and I don’t think Amazon realizes that people are misusing their return policy.”
In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said the company listens to customer feedback and investigates any concerns received.
“Amazon aims to provide the best possible experience for customers and authors. We have policies and mechanisms in place to prevent our e-books returns policy from being abused.”
But many independent authors believe that’s not the case. Some authors who take issue with Amazon’s ebook return policy have pointed out that Amazon should be able to track pages read on ebooks like it does on Kindle Unlimited, which has a different royalty system where Amazon pays authors per page read. At the time of publishing, a Change.org petition calling for Amazon to change its ebook return policy for completed ebooks has received nearly 65,000 signatures.
TikTok user @samanthaestchic first heard about the controversy when independent authors and supportive readers started calling for people to stop reading and returning books to Amazon. She’s since received backlash for what she saw as an uncompromising discussion.
“Speaking out against a challenge to read a book and return it is fine,” she told Motherboard. “But I think it blended into everything where it was like, ‘If you ever return a book you’re a bad person. You’re costing the author money.’ I think there needed to be some nuance that just wasn’t there.”
@samanthaestchic says there have been instances where she has returned an ebook. She says got a chapter in, realized the tone wasn’t for her but skimmed the rest of the book to see if it would improve. Even though she may have ‘finished the book’ by Amazon Kindle’s metric standards, she says there’s a difference between skimming and reading. It took her two hours to decide to return the ebook.
“I did leave a review just letting other people know why I returned it,” she said. “In my mind, if people recognize what the book is, they won't buy it and return it. It’s sketchy when people buy books with the point of returning them. You can use a library for that. I don’t think readers should be treating authors like they’re libraries.”
Jennie Halperin, executive director of Library Futures, a nonprofit that advocates for libraries and digital ownership rights, says that the #ReadAndReturn trend has exposed how Amazon’s policies and quasi-monopolistic control over the ebook have created unfavorable market conditions for writers and creators.
“One thing that can’t be understated is how important these independent publishers, independent creators, independent authors are to Amazon sales, particularly the ebook market,” Halperin told Motherboard “So much of this is really impacting writers who aren’t protected by large publishing companies that control up to 85% of large commercial publishing. I think it’s really worth looking at who is not protected by a large publishing company as well.”
The authors and readers interviewed for this story all agree that Amazon Kindle’s ebook return policy is extensive, some noting that other digital services like Amazon Music and Prime Video do not give customers the opportunity to return these types of media at all. Calls for policy change have suggested a two-day return period or preventing returns once a certain percentage of a book has been read.
While there are other ebook distributors like Barnes & Noble and Apple, most authors see most of their sales coming from Amazon.
“They have us,” said Bromberg. “They know it doesn’t really matter what they do. We’re kind of stuck here.”