The Return for Refund problem

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Returning a book  for a refund after you’ve read it, because you didn’t like it is a problem that is currently under the spotlight in social media.  The debate happening in book circles  is pitting readers and authors against one another. For the main part it’s taking place on TikTok but it can also be found on Facebook and Twitter and in blogs – and it’s not a new problem. It wasn’t that long ago that Audible was under fire too for allowing the exact same problem to exist – people could buy audio books, listen, then return for refunds. *Sigh* You can see the TikTok I created for this here. For those of you who don’t wish to fall into a TikTok hole right this minute, my opinion is a very loud NO! A person who buys an eBook, reads it all the way through, and then returns it for a refund, simply because they didn’t like it, is stealing. #booktok is currently filled with authors – and readers I’m happy to say – protesting the practice. Sadly there are a large number of people defending it. So let’s unpack it a little shall we?

Someone wanders onto a book platform and sees a book…

Image: McLittle Stock via Shutterstock. ID: 325538504
Someone returns an eBook they bought and asks for a refund. The reason they give is that they didn’t like the book. In and of itself, this isn’t a huge problem – when it’s one book here and there and it’s being returned for a legitimate reason. Some of you may remember that when I released Pet Me last year, the wrong file was uploaded (yes by me…sigh) and because of the way the Amazon pre-order system works, I was unable to rectify the problem until after the book was sent out to people. I had six people return the book – four of those six returns reached out to me to let me know they’d repurchased the correct version. I have no problem with this at all. I want you, however, to imagine another scenario. In this scenario, someone buys Pet Me today, reads it, doesn’t like it and returns it for a refund because they didn’t like it. They didn’t get to page ten and think “I don’t think I’m into unicorn kink” and return it. They didn’t think “oh crap, I thought this was about a unicorn petting zoo” and return it.  They didn’t say “ah no I cannot read an entire book in present tense” and hit refund. They opened it, read it all the way through to the very end and THEN they returned it for a refund because “eh…didn’t like it.” That, my friends, is a problem. Pet Me retails for .99 cents because it’s a first in series. So my royalty is around .33 cents. Not a lot, right? It becomes a lot when more than one book is returned.  I make my living by writing. Creating stories featuring sweet, sexy men with a touch of sass is how I pay my bills. Having books returned has an impact – sometimes minimal, sometimes important – on an author’s income. There is one author I know (who is a friend of mine) who writes beautiful books. Has extensive editing done on them. In the space of a month 120 people returned books. Books that had been in their  possession for longer than the week Amazon specifies, and for no reason other than “didn’t like it”. “But, but, but Angelique,” I hear you all say, “if that many people returned the book(s) – there must be a problem with it/them.” That is the first thing any author thinks of so they check – and no there’s nothing wrong with this author’s books. Editing is fine, formatting is fine, nothing is missing. Simply a quite large group of readers returned their books.

Refund Bandits

I’m going to call these readers Refund Bandits – and please, I beg you, do not come at me with #notallreaders because we know that – and what they are doing is stating “I didn’t like it, give me my money back”. When they are called out on it, they say things like “Don’t write books if you can’t afford for someone to return them” which… I have no words to reply to that. Don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself here. I write because I love to write. However, I publish to make money – because I quite like being able to pay my bills and feed my cats. Have you ever met a hangry Tonkinese? It’s not pretty.  So to the person who wrote that comment – you can fuck all the way off. This isn’t about what *I* – and my fellow authors – can afford, it’s about people thinking they are entitled to consume our products for free. It’s gets even more ludicrous when we talk about series. Every couple of months I see this happen with my San Capistrano books – and have author friends who have had the same experience: Day 1: Someone buys The Beach House Day 2: Someone returns The Beach House. Someone buys Tides of Love. Day 3: Tides of Love is returned. Winds of Change sells. Day 4: Winds of Change is returned. Stormy Seas sells. Day 5: Stormy Seas is returned. Scattered Shells sells. (Heh! Say that fast) Day 6: Scattered Shells is returned. Safe Haven sells. Day 7: Safe Haven is returned. Blazing Sands sells. Apparently Refund Bandits think we are unable to see what’s happening. They are treating platforms as libraries. That’s the reality. For whatever reason they are not using an actual library, or getting a Kindle Unlimited subscription, or the Kobo equivalent (which doesn’t require authors to be exclusive, so yes my books are in there), or Scribd or any one of the possible ways of reading a book at low cost/no cost. They could even join ARC teams and get the book ahead of time absolutely free. None of these options take away from an author’s income.

It’s a problem for everyone

Now, this practice takes place across all genres and platforms and hits all authors – Trad and Indie. It’s not an Indie problem. It’s not a romance problem. It happens all over the place. It’s tempting to think that the likes of Stephen King or Neil Gaiman can afford some refunds because they have huge audiences and matching incomes so it doesn’t matter. It does matter. It’s theft. Yes it hits Indie Authors harder than it does big name trad published authors but that is not not the point. The point is the Refund Bandits are stealing a product because they can. Once a reader has read a book, a writer can’t take back that fact. They have met the characters, they have experienced their journey, they have slain the dragon, had second breakfast, been hit in the face with the bucket of blood, ridden the broomstick, watched Bailey try his tail for the first time… whatever the author created, the reader has accessed and experienced it – and then if they are a Refund Bandit, they have demanded their money back. We however can’t take back that they’ve consumed what we created. If you go to the cinema ( I know…pandemic…nobody is going to the movies but you get my point) and watch a movie and do not like it, you cannot rock up to the cashier and demand your money back. If you go to the supermarket and buy some ice cream and eat the tub, you can’t go back in and demand your money back because you didn’t like it. Hell, even clothing stores these days operate a “choose with care, we do not refund because you changed your mind” policy. You can’t even buy a hard copy of a book, read it, and return it – it has to be unread. Yet it’s possible to do this with eBooks.

Why do they do it?

I think there are many reasons people think it’s okay to be a Refund Bandit. Firstly, we are talking about a small  refund – for my books we’re talking between $0.99 and $4.99 – it’s not a huge amount of money, so where’s the problem? The problem is that it hits our bottom line. We, Trad and Indie publishers alike, are still undervaluing eBooks and while that discussion is for another post, it has some bearing here. Since eBooks – especially Indie eBooks  – are undervalued in general, their perceived value is diminished. It’s okay to return it because it’s not like it’s something important. Except that like all books, it is important for some people. Secondly, when we as a community/society think of authors and their incomes we tend to default to Big Name Trad Published Authors (BNTPA) as our examples. The problem is that the Stephen Kings and the Neil Gaimans are exceptions even in the trad publishing world. They are these weird and wonderful outliers of whom we are all in awe and wish to emulate. In Indie published MMRomance we have writers like Lucy Lennox and Nora Phoenix – Big Name Indie Authors (BNIA). They work damned hard to make the income they make – we all do. Most of us do not make what they make but you shouldn’t return our books for refund when you’re finished reading and you shouldn’t return their books either. Whether the book is from Stephen King or Lucy Lennox or me – reading it all the way through then returning it because ‘ I didn’t like it’ is some seriously bullshit behaviour. I would hazard a guess that if we did some digging we would find that romance probably has a higher return rate too but again…not the point of this post. Thirdly, they do it because they can. You see, another popular response from the Refund Bandits is “well there’s a refund policy. Talk to the platforms about changing the refund policy so we can’t do it.” Now…I am going to be the first to agree that the platforms need to stop simply refunding indiscriminately and the best way to do this would be to use similar technology to that which allows them to calculate page reads for things like Kindle Unlimited. Refuse to refund if more than say a third of the book has been read. Or if the book has been in the readers possession for longer than seven days. I know some of you are going to tell me that most platforms do have the seven day policy – I know and I also know they don’t enforce it. Want to know how I know?  When I first noticed that this was happening, I returned a copy of one of my own books for a refund and it went through without a problem. That copy has been on my Kindle for nearly four years. Again, however, this is not the point. The whole “but the platform lets us” argument translates to “I know it’s wrong but the platform lets me do it so I will”. The average six year old behaves better than Refund Bandits. I want each of you to shut your eyes and imagine you make your living as a writer. It doesn’t matter what genre. You make your living by writing books. You pay your rent, you food, your electricity bill, put gas in your car, pay taxes with the money you make writing books.  And out there are a group of people who think it’s okay to read the book you spent weeks writing, more weeks editing, days formatting, and for which you have spent possibly a small fortune finding a cover, then return it for a full refund. They then do the same with the next book on their list. It’s not that they didn’t like it – it’s that they’ve found a way to game the system while still being able to put hand on heart and tell you they don’t support book pirating.

When is it okay to return a book for a refund?

So, is it ever okay to ask for a refund? Yes, there are times when it’s absolutely valid. If there is something wrong with it that impedes the ability to read the book – things like formatting being weird or the entire first chapter is one long word vomit with no capitals, commas, or periods. Most of the time, in these cases, there has been an issue at the point of upload and the file can be replaced with a correct one, but if you’d rather just cut your losses, that’s fine. If you are two chapters in and thinking “wait that thing did what with its tentacles? Nope, nope, nope, nope.” – go ahead and return for a refund. You’re three chapters in, it’s a word salad, the editing is making you twitch? Do Not Finish (DNF) and rest assured, returning at this point for a refund isn’t an issue. “Okay,” you say, “ but Angelique, what do I do with that book I read and hated that I can’t get a refund for?” I should show you my Kindle – I have a dozen or more books I hated, DNFd, or just could not read for one reason or other. You could just be like me and ignore it. Or…you could delete it. I’m pretty confident that every single day you throw away/get rid of/forget something that cost you way more than an eBook. I just threw out a lettuce I’d forgotten I bought – it was trying to morphe into some kind of slimy, sentient being, so into the bin it went. Goodbye slimy, semi-sentient, $4.50 lettuce monster. “But,” I hear Refund Bandits saying, “I can’t just throw away $4.99 or even 99 cents. That’s my hard earned money.” It’s funny how the ‘hard earned money’ is important when it’s their money…think about that for a moment. If you read a book and do not like it, there are a myriad of options open to you. Leave a bad review – authors know their work isn’t for everyone and they know or should know that reviews are for readers, not for authors*. Find other readers on Goodreads who agree that the book is awful – trust me you’ll find them. Goodreads is a great place for readers to connect. Delete the book from your Kindle. Tell your friends not to read it. Hell, add the author’s name to your spreadsheet on the “Don’t Like” tab. Do whatever feeds your soul but Do. Not. Return. It. For. A. Refund.
*Please don’t tag authors in bad reviews. Don’t send them copies of bad reviews. There is a difference between politely and respectfully contacting them with an issue you’d like to raise and simply tagging them wildly to show them just how much you hated their latest oeuvre. By all means write them, just please don’t tag us in them.