Today on Self-Publishing News: Amazon has amended its returns policy after authors pushed back. Also, is BookTok always good for authors? And, in our Tech Corner, new AI helps readers discover your books.
These are among the topics discussed on Self-Publishing News with ALLi News Editor Dan Holloway and News and Podcast Producer Howard Lovy.
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About the Hosts
Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and spoken word artist. He is the MC of the performance arts show The New Libertines Earlier this year he competed at the National Poetry Slam final at the Royal Albert Hall. His latest collection, The Transparency of Sutures, is available on Kindle.
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last eight years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcripts: Amazon Amends Returns Policy
Howard Lovy: Hello, and welcome to the October 2022 edition of Self-Publishing News from the Alliance of Independent Authors. I'm Howard Lovy, ALLi's news and podcast producer, and book editor at howardlovy.com. Joining me is ALLi News editor, Dan Holloway.
Hello Dan, how are you?
Dan Holloway: Hi, Howard. I'm good. How are you?
Howard Lovy: Good. Well, you might hear the sounds of rain, hail, and sleet in the background as autumn hits hard here in northern Michigan. Other than that, our listeners might be interested in a new podcast I launched with ALLi Director Orna Ross called Creative Self-Publishing. In every episode, we'll discuss how to become a profitable self-publisher, while also retaining your unique creative voice. As you know, there are many paths to self-publishing, and we'll help you discover yours. I'm really enjoying these sessions with Orna, who, as you know, literally wrote the book on creativity.
Dan Holloway: That's fabulous. Yes. So, I shall look forward to hearing what you both have to say.
Howard Lovy: It's going to be every other Sunday.
Now, our first story involves a change at Amazon's returns policy, which is a relief to indie authors and also a kind of victory for ALLi in our lobbying efforts. So, tell us about the problem, and Amazon's recently announced solution.
Dan Holloway: The problem was that eBook returns are basically treated, or digital returns have been treated by Amazon very much like physical returns. To the extent that, if you buy a physical product, if you return it within a certain period of time, then you get a full refund, provided it hasn't been used, and legislation, consumer protection, has always been driven by the amount of time it's been. So, the cooling off period, if you like, since you made the purchase.
It's very easy, with a physical product, to work out whether or not it's still saleable. That's the thing, isn't it? So, if you return, is it something you can then resell and it's still as new?
Howard Lovy: Right, and I like the example you give in your column about buying a new pair of shoes.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, that's because I've had various experiences of shoes, and I always used to make the mistake of trying them on outside, and as soon as you try them on outside, you scuff them up and you can't return them. But if you try them on your carpet, it does no damage to the shoe. If it turns out you've got the wrong size, then you just return them and get the right size.
Howard Lovy: Right, but it's a problem when you're talking about a digital product.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, because with digital products, you can't tell whether it's being used or not. So, what's been happening is, people have been reading the whole of an eBook and then returning it and getting a full refund if they've done so within the requisite amount of time.
The problem, from an author's point of view, is that when someone returns an eBook, they get a refund, and the royalty you got from that book gets taken away from you, and in some cases, people were ending up with a negative balance because you'd earn the royalty one month and then the next month, if you hadn't made very many sales, you had all these returns coming in. So, you could end up with a negative balance on your Amazon account.
So, the genres you would expect, ones where you get really avid readers. So, the types of genres where people take books out of libraries and read them within it was, I think, a two-week period, that's no problem. If you're a fantasy, thriller, romance reader, people read books a lot quicker than one a fortnight. So, they were just reading them and returning them, reading them and returning them, and this was creating a real issue.
But now, Amazon have agreed to reduce returns to, I think it's 10%. If, once you've read 10% of the book, you can't return it anymore. So, that's the equivalent of scuffing it up by going outside in your shoes.
Howard Lovy: Right, okay. So, does this satisfy most of the concerns that authors have?
Dan Holloway: Well, interestingly, and this is how I finished the article at the time, this was just eBooks, it wasn't audiobooks. And of course, one of the big problems that Amazon had was with Audiblegate, was that people were doing this with audiobooks through Audible, and Amazon were using Audible Plus membership as, they were almost encouraging people to do it. They were saying, look, one of the benefits of being a member of this scheme is that you can return your audiobooks for up to a year, and people were doing that. They were listening to the audiobook, returning them, getting another one, and the same problem was happening with people getting the royalties taken away.
But this week, and it will be in this week's column that Amazon have made an announcement that has changed.
So, they are finally catching up a little bit with audiobooks, and what they have said is that you will no longer be able to do that if you bought the book using a credit card or a debit card. You'll only be able to do it if you bought the book using an Audible credit. So, Audible credits, if you use an Audible credit to buy an audiobook, then you can still return it for up to 365 days. If you used a credit or debit card, you can't.
Howard Lovy: That still doesn't make a lot of sense because you buy Audible credits through credit card.
Dan Holloway: You do, and so the Authors and Rights Holders group who have been spearheading the Audiblegate campaign, this is exactly what they're saying, is that actually this is essentially funneling more people into Audible, into getting Audible memberships, by making the difference between being an Audible member and not even greater.
So, do I really want to say that it's a marketing ploy dressed up as good news? I think, probably, there isn't any other way of saying it.
Howard Lovy: So, this isn't a complete victory, but it's a step in the right direction, at least when it comes to digital books, but not audiobooks quite yet.
Dan Holloway: It's a step in the right direction. It's a recognition that digital products are different from physical products. Amazon are at least recognizing that there is a problem with audiobooks, even if their way of dealing it hasn't really made author groups and voice artist groups very happy.
Howard Lovy: Well, I know ALLi's been very vocal in this, and I assume that we'll continue to lobby Amazon for a policy that makes more sense.
Dan Holloway: I would imagine so, yes. It's certainly one of the big issues that's facing authors at the moment, because it's directly affecting lots of people's bottom line.
Howard Lovy: Well, one way readers found out about Amazon's old returns policy was through TikTok, or I guess specifically a subgenre known as BookTok. These influencers are powerful in the book world, and they're the talk of the industry, but their influence isn't always positive. Can you talk a little bit about BookTok?
Dan Holloway: Yeah, that was a very neat segue.
Howard Lovy: Thank you.
Dan Holloway: Exactly, you'd almost think it was planned. So, BookTok is, I mean, TikTok has become huge. I think it's the most frequently used social media platform there is now. The prediction that I saw was 1.8 billion monthly users by the end of this year. So, it really is absolutely enormous, and BookTok is an important niche part of that. TikTokers who read books are really, really passionate about their books, and so obviously, if they tell you to go and do returns, they're not going to take two weeks to read a book, they take two days or less to read a book.
It's one of those things, the publishing industry, the book industry in general, it loves these hype cycles. We've been through lots and lots of hype cycles, we're going to be talking a little bit about a hype cycle later in our tech corner with artificial intelligence. We've seen it with blockchain, we've seen it with audio to some extent. We love the latest thing, and especially the latest big thing, and TikTok is the latest big thing.
Howard Lovy: But this is something that the publishing industry didn't really plan, it kind of rose organically through TikTok, and now they're trying to-
Dan Holloway: Yeah, they've gone, ooh, look at that, there are people who read stuff, let's go and tell them what to read. So yeah, I mean, just as an example.
Howard Lovy: They're hugely influential, from what I've been reading. They can send a book that was released maybe five years ago up the best seller's list.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, they can be hugely influential. So, the latest thing, we've got Frankfurt going on at the moment. TikTok is essentially taking over Frankfurt book fair. So, there will be the TikTok stage this Sunday. TikTok is taking over the main stage at the book fair, and BookTok people will be there all day just talking about books. People will be BookToking from Frankfurt, and Frankfurt are absolutely loving this, and it's sort of showing they're down with the kids.
I think it was James Dorn, bless him, actually used the phrase kids in that very Steve Buscemi type way when he was talking about TikTok, and how great it was a little while ago.
So, the book industry has absolutely fallen all over TikTok. Penguin Random House came up with a deal with TikTok, which allows them to help create BookTok content, and provide unique in-app ways of buying from people who create, who promote Penguin Random House books. Part of the problem that you get with that, is people who grow movements organically don't then like outsiders coming in and telling them how to use those movements.
Howard Lovy: Right, exactly.
Dan Holloway: This hasn't gone down well with BookTokers themselves.
Howard Lovy: Yeah. Well, I mean, it sounds like maybe some BookTokers can make a little money from publishers wanting them to plug their books, and then it no longer becomes an organic thing, I suppose, it becomes just another marketing tool.
Dan Holloway: But yes, that wasn't the main point, which I thoroughly derailed, and which you're very rightly pulling me back to, which is that actually BookTok, we love it, we get excited by it, but it can actually be really, it's a big beast, and big beasts can bite.
So, a really good example of this, and I reported it when it was published. So, Alex Aster, who is an author who had a contract, was traditionally published, had a book coming out during the pandemic that didn't do so well, as happened a lot during the pandemic, was dropped by a publisher, went on TikTok and said, does anyone like the sound of this, and gave a pitch for a book called Lightlark, which was her passion project that she'd been pursuing for about a decade. Publishers had told her to drop this, her agent had said, no, give up on this, it's got no future. TikTok said, we love this, and she ended up with a six-figure deal from it, just because TikTok thought it was fabulous.
The book recently came out, and needless to say, the inevitable happened and social media basically piled onto it and said, this is rubbish, you can tell it's a passion project that shouldn't have been allowed out, and it's been absolutely rubbished. So, this is just one example of how something that's huge and organic can tear you down as quickly as it builds you up, and it's utterly beyond your control. So, you very much embrace it at your peril.
Howard Lovy: I suppose it's the equivalent of a bad Amazon review, only with a much larger audience.
Dan Holloway: It's exactly it, yes. You can't escape. If you're going to use it to your benefit, you can expect then, when the book comes out, for people to be giving their opinions about it, and some of those opinions will have a large reach and you won't like.
Howard Lovy: So, beware of BookTok, it's a double-edged sword.
Dan Holloway: It's a double-edged sword. It's also a place where things are spread about how to game the system, so, it's not universally a fabulous thing.
Howard Lovy: Yeah. Well, speaking of BookTok it's also going to be a topic at our own SelfPubCon, an online conference on the 29th and 30th of October, on the theme of reaching more readers.
Dan Holloway: Yes. So, Laurence O'Bryan is going to be taking us through all things BookTok, I hope helping us to navigate exactly those difficult waters.
SelfPubCon comes out twice a year to coincide with these big book fairs. This is the one that coincides with Frankfurt, and it's 24 hours of fabulous content. 24 hours, 24 different sections. You can sign up for free to get three days’ worth of access to it.
There are various tiers of passes, which will get you six months access or lifetime access to all SelfPubCon material.
Howard Lovy: Great, and I'll put a link in the show notes, on the blog that accompanies this podcast.
So, it's all about discovery, and I hear our technology theme music in the background, if you listen carefully, which means it's time for our technology corner. Today it's all about discovery.
As indie authors know, a big challenge is book discovery, how to make sure your book finds its audience, and artificial intelligence is coming to the rescue with a new product, or a company, called Tertulia. So, tell us about this, Dan.
Dan Holloway: Yeah. So, I think I mentioned hype cycles earlier, we used to talk about AI in terms of marketing and everyone got very excited about it. So, Wattpad have been using artificial intelligence to drive discovery for a long time, PublishDrive made a big thing about how they use AI and machine learning based on metadata, to try and help you craft better book descriptions. So, that was a really helpful use of artificial intelligence.
Then obviously, more recently we've been talking about the slightly more negative side for creators with AI-generated art, and AI-generated voice narration, and the problems that has led to for people who make their living in those areas.
But now we've come back full circle and we've got this new thing called Tertulia, which is doing something slightly different and slightly more sophisticated, to drive readers and books together. What it's doing is, it's essentially scraping social media. So, it's trying to find out what it is that social media is talking about. So, it's scraping all the conversations on social media to find out which books people are talking about right now, where are the conversations. So that, if you have the app, it will tell you what the hot topics are right now, so you can then use the app to buy the book and then take part in the conversation.
So, one of the things that makes it interesting is that if you want an actual physical book, it's partnering with Ingram. So, if your book is available through Ingram, then you can press a button in the app, say, oh, this sounds like a really interesting conversation that's happening about blah, blah, blah, and you can press the button and then Ingram will print on demand, if it's an indie book, or will send you from their warehousing system, and the book will turn up on your doorstep and you then take part in the conversation.
Howard Lovy: Well, that sounds great. That sounds like a win-win for everybody.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, it's quite exciting. The fact that Ingram are involved obviously means that people who are going print on demand through IngramSpark, it will be available, and our books will be available if people are talking about them on social media.
It's interesting tech as well because, say your book title is, The Dog Ate My Homework. What it has to do is, the app has to be able to decide whether of all the conversations on social media where the words ‘the dog ate my homework' come up, which ones are actually about your book and which ones are teachers saying, I had this student today who said, the dog ate my homework, and which ones are students saying, oh, I'm going to tell the teacher the dog ate my homework, and which ones are actually people saying, oh, I read this really good book called The Dog Ate My Homework.
So, from a machine learning point of view, it's really quite interesting how they will be able to do this, and actually decide that some conversations are about books and some conversations using the same words aren't about book. So, it's technically quite interesting.
Howard Lovy: Well, it sounds like a great way for people to participate in conversations that are important to them, even if it's something niche, they can buy the book.
Alright, Dan, well, that's about all the time we have for today. Thank you for giving us an update on technology, and BookTok, and then everything else. For more updates, people can catch your blog on selfpublishingadvice.org every week. I'll talk to you next month.
Dan Holloway: Brilliant. Thank you, Howard.
Howard Lovy: Okay, thanks Dan.