Saturday, May 7, 2016

Is Amazon's Ebook Returns Policy Unfair?

Ask many indie authors if Amazon's ebooks returns policy is unfair, and many will say yes without hesitation. I've read quite a few takes on the matter from both sides over the past few years. Most recently, I read this take in which a reader apparently rationalizes returns on the basis that a book is overpriced. This was a bit of a new reason to me--and left me with a, well, not-great taste in my mouth. A few Amazon "facts" first:

1) You have seven days after purchasing an ebook to return it for a refund.
Don't return me, please! ;)

2) The book supposedly disappears from your Amazon library after you return it.

3) Amazon clamps down on abusers of its returns policy.

A quick examination of the above:

1) Amazon's returns policy certainly is generous (whether it is generous to a fault depends on your perspective). Kobo allows 14 days, while Barnes and Noble has a no-returns policy for its Nook books. Amazon has no criteria set for ebook returns; that is, you can have read 100 percent of a book or 5 percent, and return it.

Amazon's website gives accidental purchases as a reason people would want to return ebooks. Such accidental purchases are the ONLY reason I return ebooks. I've done so perhaps two times ever, and the website provides a way (parental controls) to help limit some accidental purchases.

2) The book is supposed to vanish from your library after you return it. That is only fair, right? You should no longer have access to it. Except in the cases where I returned a book, it stayed. On and on. At least a week. Past that, I don't know if it remained, but in any case, there used to be (and may still be) books that do not disappear, at least for a good while.

3) Amazon no longer gives people who abuse its returns policy the opportunity to return ebooks. This post from Passive Guy goes into one such situation. However, Amazon does not say how much is too much. The Passive Guy post estimates 40 percent to 60 percent is enough to get you flagged.

Amazon's Take (As I Understand It)

I have read that Amazon has the returns policy it does to encourage people who are nervous about taking a chance on an author or book to purchase the book. I tried to find this post I read a year or two ago but to no avail. I do remember one example it gave, based on apparent Amazon research. Suppose you have a pool of 100 prospective readers who are at least open to the idea of trying X new author/book. If Amazon had no returns policy, these folks are much less likely to take that chance. If they know they can return a book and get their money back, absolutely no harm done, they are a lot more likely to buy.

In this way, an author who sells 100 copies may get a disheartening 10 returns. BUT if there was not this flexible returns policy, the author may have sold only 50-75 copies. So in the big picture, the author does win out, with 90 purchases versus 50 to 75.

And, of course, there is the fact that Amazon is willing to take a loss on potential returns to sell its other products. Big business, baby. In this regard, the returns policy benefit is mainly to Amazon, although it does keep the Kindle loyalty going (good for some Kindle authors).

My Take (Which Could Be in Progress)

My take...well. These are common arguments I have heard against the returns policy as it is now.
  • Readers can sample the beginning of a book. That should be enough for them to make up their mind as to whether they want to take a chance on an author. That upfront percentage is also enough to signal to individual readers whether a book's grammar, formatting, etc. meets their standards.
  • Physical books can be returned, and hardly anyone complains. Even Barnes and Noble allows seven days for the return of physical books, while it does not have this policy for ebooks.
  • Amazon should cap the percentage read/progress in the book before allowing a return. So, if you have read 75 percent of a book and the cap is 25 percent, you can't return the book.
All of these arguments are valid, and as a reader and a consumer in general, I know it is unrealistic to expect that I will like EVERYTHING I buy. I've rented/bought movies and books I did not like. The only ebooks I have returned are accidental purchases that I never intended to make. After these accidental purchases, I returned the ebooks promptly. I did not attempt to read the ebooks even after they lingered in my library (there was a reason I did not want to buy them).

So, I'm thinking about how an ideal returns policy would look. Something like, "Amazon allows ebook returns for accidental purchases. Returns must be made within 24 hours, and there should be no more than 10 percent reading progress shown. Returns will also be allowed for reasons of poor formatting that are not evident in the ebook sample. Otherwise, consumers are advised to maximize the use of ebook samples for what they are."

Hmm. Doesn't sound too consumer-friendly to me (although I'm sure it reads fine to some people). All things equal, I imagine Amazon pretty much knows what it is doing. As an author, I've had my fair share of gritted teeth over ebook returns, so it's not like I don't know the pain. But if it means I reached a larger consumer base and received more net sales, that is good. (If I ever find that blog post link, I will add it. If anyone finds it, let me know!)

It is true that the policy as is opens itself up to abuse. People who buy a book despite a price that they think is too high/unfair, read it and then return it...well. That's just wrong, in my opinion. You knew the price upfront and chose to buy the book. It does seem like Amazon needs to lower the percentage of returns for what it considers an abuse of the policy. Of course 40-60 percent is just a guess, but it would be good to know the exact percentage.

I also think the ebook samples are sufficient to figure out if you want to take a chance on an author. I do understand, though, that some people's buying habits are different. Some people don't want an ebook sample file plus the ebook file on their devices. That is a lot of clutter, and they don't really use the computer for ebook browsing. That does kind of sound flimsy, and I am not entirely convinced, but anything that leads to more exposure than I would have gotten otherwise sounds okay.

Bottom line: Amazon's ebooks returns policy is unfair in some respects, but it seems to work overall. It can be particularly disheartening for new indie authors, but as they get used to it, the pain lessens. And if an overwhelming proportion of your books are being returned? You could be really unlucky, or maybe you should look at potential culprits such as formatting or grammar.

Hmm. That may be all for now! :D This has been an interesting topic to write about.


Fran Heckrotte said...

I'm actually not in favor of the return policy except for accidental purchases. Readers do get an option of reading 20 percent of the book. I feel that gives them incite into whether it attracts their attention or discourages them. IF, however, there is a return policy, then it should only be allowed if the reader has read no more than 50 percent of the book. As Judge Judy says, if you eat the steak you pay for it. Well, it only takes a few bites of a steak to know if its good or not. If 50 percent is eaten, a good option might be to return 50 percent of the sales price to the consumer.

Q. Kelly said...

I really like the idea of partial refunds! I will probably do another post on a related topic at some point, touching on why it's good for retailers in general to have flexible return policies. Not focusing on Amazon. Just a general thing. Starter idea: