E-book return hack comes with a steep price, author says

·3 min read
Edmonton author Trevor Wiltzen noticed a change in his online book sales after a TikTok trend gained popularity. (Trevor Wiltzen - image credit)
Edmonton author Trevor Wiltzen noticed a change in his online book sales after a TikTok trend gained popularity. (Trevor Wiltzen - image credit)

A loophole in Amazon's return policy is costing some authors a pretty penny, after trending on social media.

The TikTok trend has brought attention to Amazon's Kindle return policy and is encouraging people to read and return e-books within the appropriate window so they get their money back.

"Individuals are purchasing books, and they're reading them and then within two weeks returning them," independent author Trevor Wiltzen told CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

"So, what happens is they're treating Amazon like a library."

Wiltzen is author of the Mabel Davison mystery series and is self-published on Amazon. He said he noticed a change in his sales recently.

In Canada and the United States, customers have seven days to cancel a Kindle book order for a full refund, regardless of whether the book has been read or not. In other countries, customers have up to 14 days. The policy includes audiobooks.

But the trend has been hurting independent and self-published authors, Wiltzen said.

"They think Amazon is a big conglomerate, but Amazon got big that way by de-risking themselves and passing that risk on to the artist," Wiltzen said.

If an author chooses to self-publish on Amazon, depending on the book format, they can get anywhere from 30 to 75 per cent in royalties.

With every book return, even on digital copies, authors are losing out on royalties and delivery fees.

Authors also have to pay a download fee for Amazon. The fee is not refunded back to the author if their book is returned.

Wiltzen said he initially chose Amazon to self-publish because of its international audience.

"I have 17,000 readers from as far away as India or the United Arab Emirates, or Europe or South America," he said.

"The reach is fantastic for us to get our works out there."

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And while Wiltzen credits Amazon for helping independent authors get published, he said authors need more support.

"As self-published authors, we need that revenue to continue and publish more books," he said.

Book returns

Returning books isn't a new trend, it's something publishers have been dealing with for years.

"I don't think it's fair to read a book and then return it and expect to get your money back, because basically, that means publishers and authors are not paid for their work," said Kieran Leblanc, executive director of Book Publishers Association of Alberta.

Alexander Finbow, a publisher with Renegade Arts Canmore Ltd., said book returns highlight a flaw in the system.

Trevor Wiltzen
Trevor Wiltzen

When bookstores are unable to sell books, they return them back to the publisher. This system was introduced during the Great Depression and was a way to support bookstores.

"But in reality, it's a system which can be and is often abused by the biggest players in the game, and there can be unforeseen consequences of some of the decisions involved," Finbow said.

He said Amazon is a big player in the publishing industry and it can be hard to get them to change their policies.

"It might take some of the really big authors and publishers just to start putting pressure on Amazon to change," Finbow said.

Other digital services under Amazon, such as Amazon Prime and Amazon Music, do not have a return policy.

In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said "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. We're always listening to feedback and we investigate any concerns we receive."

Wiltzen is encouraging readers to support independent authors by promoting them through reviews or word of mouth.

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