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Self-publishing News: Anger At The Amazon Ebook Returns Scam Driven By BookTok

Self-publishing News: Anger at the Amazon Ebook Returns Scam Driven by BookTok

In this week's Self-Publishing News Special, ALLi News Editor Dan Holloway looks at authors’ angry response to the Amazon ebook return scam that started on TikTok.

Dan Holloway head and shoulders

ALLi's News Editor Dan Holloway

The new Self-publishing News Podcast is out in which Howard and I discuss, among other things, why Amazon removed indie authors' books without warning or explanation earlier this year. In another temporary change, this week's #indieauthorchat will have happened when we go to press to avoid clashing with ALLi's presence at London Book Fair!

Authors' Petition to Change Amazon's Returns Policy Following Returns Scam Shared on TikTok

It seems like a long time since I first wrote about Audiblegate. And while the fantastic work of the authors and rights holders group has carried on, the story hasn’t broken the surface much recently. But in the last week, Amazon’s returns problem has become big news again. A petition has garnered 34,000 signatures and counting (somehow it’s less soul-nourishing to watch the figure rise in real time than it was Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter – which closed this week at $41,754,153 by the way). The Society of Authors has got behind it, and it’s been embraced by traditionally published and self-published authors alike

But this time it’s not audiobooks that are boiling the blood. It’s ebooks. The returns scam that has seen hundreds of authors claiming to have been on the receiving end of a massive spike in returns originated on TikTok. Specifically it started with people sharing “tips” on the BookTok hashtag. Which is hugely disappointing because BookTok is a thriving ecosystem of hundreds of thousands of avid readers if not more. It has got many writers deeply enthusiastic and its potential for spreading the word about books has been heralded by the likes of James Daunt. Unfortunately, as with many effective networks, the good spreads as quickly as the bad. And BookTok posters have been sharing advice on how to get around Amazon’s returns policy and get a refund for books they have finished reading provided they do it within the week that Amazon allows.  

The Cost of ebook Returns

It’s interesting that elsewhere in this week’s news I have two stories about the alleged cost of piracy. And when we see stories about social media driven trends, they tend to involve piracy rather than buying and returning. There is one particular detail that makes this story different from those piracy schemes. Many point to the possibly huge indirect cost of piracy to authors. But the Amazon ebooks return scam has an actual, direct, cost. Because (for those ebooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99) there is a delivery cost for sending files to people’s ereaders. It’s one of the things anyone who publishes picture books will despair over. And the bad news is that it’s paid by the author and not refunded if the book is returned. Which means we could actually end up owing Amazon money for the books we publish. 

The petition calls for a reduction in returns time to 48 hours and an insistence that readers not be eligible to return books that have had more than 20% completed.

Happy 10th Birthday to ALLi

It can’t have escaped your notice that a certain organization dedicated to championing the cause of indie authors has celebrated a major milestone of late. I will let you read through all the posts about ALLi’s birthday at your leisure. But I do want to say what an honour it’s been to have been part of this journey. And to have been on it since the very first day we burst onto the scene at London Book Fair 10 years ago. In that time, we’ve seen remarkable progress. And for the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of reporting on much of that progress — as well as some less happy stories. I am genuinely excited to see what the next decade might bring, and look forward to reporting on each breakthrough as it happens. 

The Cost of Piracy

Piracy has been with us as long as people have been creating things. I’ve reported on many stories over the years, from illegal download sites, to apps designed to counteract the pirates. But something that has always caused controversy is the financial impact of piracy. We all feel aggrieved that people steal our work without paying. But what is the actual financial cost of that theft? After all, it’s fairly safe to say that not everyone who pirates a copy of a book or a video would have bought it if they couldn’t get it for free. 

That’s the question posed by two stories in this week’s news (and that’s before we get onto adjacent stories about Amazon's returns scam, and the dispute between libraries and publishers over the “cost of lending, which is in the news again this week after Maryland’s ebook licensing law looks like it may have been permanently iced).

First up is a claim from Italian publishers that piracy cost them 771 million Euros during the pandemic. The claim comes from part of a piece of IPSOS research. It found that the worst offenders were university students. 81% of them admitted pirating books. The survey found 82% of people realised piracy is a crime. Only 39% thought it was serious.

Meanwhile, a lot has been made of Russia's attempts to legalise digital piracy. This follows the withdrawal of many platforms from the country.

Are Hybrid Fairs the Future?

The Book Fair season is well underway. As this goes to press, London Book Fair is already half way through. It’s the first year since 2019 that book fairs have, ostensibly, returned to something approximating a familiar reschedule. Only the fairs themselves are anything but fully familiar. While Covid still weighs heavily on the actual venues, the programmes now also tend to have a digital dimension. Bologna Children’s Book Fair saw 200,000 log in to its website last month, And London’s registration comes with an access all areas digital pass. Which is handy for those attending from around the world. But also for the thousands who expected to attend in person but found themselves unable to as a result of Covid.

It remains to be seen how much of this digital presence will continue once Covid has receded. But events everywhere this year highlight sustainability and the need for the publishing world to be accessible to groups traditionally marginalised within it. And if the industry really takes those seriously, rowing back on the digital element of events would send a really strange message.

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Upcoming Conferences and Events

Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA) – Zoom meetings the 2nd Saturday of each month

JUNE 2022

Wild Words Festival, 3-5 June (Cuffley End UK) – click the link for an ALLi discount (adult tickets £100 from £120, 5-12 years tickets £40 from £60)

Dan Holloway

Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and spoken word artist. He is the MC of the performance arts show The New Libertines, which has appeared at festivals and fringes from Manchester to Stoke Newington. In 2010 he was the winner of the 100th episode of the international spoken prose event Literary Death Match, and 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 for Kindle at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Transparency-Sutures-Dan-Holloway-ebook/dp/B01A6YAA40

This Post Has 10 Comments
  1. I’m encouraging Author’s to petition Amazon to allow us, for certain titles as we dictate, to have some books be -unreturnable-. I’m also going to take a strong look at code protection or any other anti-piracy technique I can use. I would also encourage my fellow authors to stop with the ridiculous pricing of e-books… Stop giving away your work! We only value what we pay for.
    .02

  2. I’m encouraging Author’s to petition Amazon to allow us, for certain titles as we dictate, to have some books be unreturnable. I’m also going to take a strong look at code protection or any other anti-piracy technique I can use. I would also encourage my fellow authors to stop with the ridiculous pricing of e-books… Stop giving away your work! We only value what we pay for.
    .02

  3. Hi,
    Small thing, but the petition was actually started by an avid reader, not an author, because she was so appalled by the behaviour of the people promoting the “read and return” trend on Tik Tok.

    I am an author though and I frequently see people buy a book in my series, return it a few days later for a refund then buy the next book in the series. Rinse and repeat. I’ve also had readers buy the whole series at once, then return them all at once. I started April in negative sales because of this. Thankfully I haven’t been hit as hard as some of the more popular authors, but because I’m still a small fish, those returns really sting.

  4. I had two books returned last week the day after they’d been bought. (The paucity of my sales currently enables me to isolate those books!) Presumably, even if Amazon lowers the returns window to 48 hours, Tik Tokkers will quickly post information on how to break the books so that they can be ‘kept’ even after they’ve been ‘returned’?

  5. Thank you for writing about the book returns issue! However, a point of clarification — authors are NOT charged the delivery fee for returned ebooks. This myth continues to spread, but it was confirmed by many authors through both communications with Amazon as well as on our official Amazon royalty reports. The only way an author would actually “owe” Amazon money in a particular month was if they had more returns in that month than they had sales, but this has nothing to do with the delivery fee.

    Funny enough, the fact that Amazon *doesn’t* charge authors delivery fees on returned books that were in fact delivered only serves to highlight what a scam the delivery fee is in the first place, but that’s another story!

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