Tuesday, April 5, 2022

The TikTok trend of returning books: Cause and effect

Returning books

Something a little different today because it's timely and I've been encouraged to post about it. I'll go back to my regular programming shortly. The next post will be my "What Deanna Read" post in case you're worried I'll skip it for this month.

Kick back and grab yourself a cup of tea or coffee. This is going to be a long one.

If you're on social media and haven't heard already, where have you been? Has there been a rock you've been living under? Too immersed in the latest season of Bridgerton to see anything else? 😛😛😛 But seriously, there's a trend going around which started on TikTok where people were advocating buying a book reading it, then returning it, then buying another book, rinse repeat. As you can imagine that practice outraged a lot of people, particularly authors, who viewed it as stealing from authors whose livelihoods depend on the income from those book sales. When books are returned, they forgo that income from the sale because the money is returned to the buyer/reader. That's it in a nutshell, but there's more to it than that, because of the way the publishing industry works, the different kinds of authors, and human behavior. I'm going to try to unpack it while trying to remain as unbiased as possible.

First off, let me put this right out there. Is buying books, reading them, then returning them, then to repeat the process over and over again sucky? Yes. Do I condone it? No. Is it morally and ethically wrong? Yes. Should people stop doing it? Yes. Are they going to? Probably not.

And do you know what, to me, is the height of suckiness? When these serial book returners buy a charity anthology (currently there are a lot of them set up by authors to raise funds for those suffering in the Ukraine), read it, then return it for a refund. There's a special kind of super sucky in that behaviour and I'm sure there is some epic karma waiting to bite those people in the rear end.

Also, I do not know how many authors this trend is affecting, but from the looks of it, quite a few. That said, some people are saying that this trend is only affecting authors who market on TikTok or are prominent on social media and it is not affecting the majority of authors in the industry, just a small subset. It is said that most authors are happily ignorant of this trend and remain blissfully so. Is this true? I do not know, but I wanted to put it out there that there is a school of though that this trend does not have as broad a reach as some authors claim it has but only that the few who are affected are being loud and vocal about it. Don't come at me on this one, I'm merely pointing out one perspective on the matter and it might be a minor one.

On to the crux of the matter...

Publishing contract

Let's start with a little bit of background on the publishing industry. The publishing industry has long been a returns based industry. Publishers allow for up to 30% returns in their traditional publishing model where books are sent out to booksellers and those books get sold. Any unsold books are then sent back to the publisher to either be destroyed or sold at a discount in discount bookstores. With this in mind, publishers build that 30% return rate into the contracts of their authors. Get this! Returns are factored into author contracts and it's the cost of doing business. For more information on the topic, you can read this article.

Fast forward to the advent of self-publishing and now individuals are their own publishers. Self-published or indie authors publish their own books. They are responsible for everything. They pay all the upfront costs, and hope through sales, to recoup their investment and eventually make a profit and a living income. Being their own publisher has it's upsides likes control, autonomy, and independence. But that also means there's no traditional publisher behind them and there's no contract that's got the 30% estimated returns built into the contract and author's income. Every return hits the bottom line of the indie author.

I would like to make the point at this stage that returns has always been around. And returns have always been expected. All publishers and stores allow it, but (hopefully) within reason and people don't abuse the privilege. Of course, return policies can vary between stores and publishers, and between paper books and ebooks, but all publishers have return policies. You can Google the different return policies if you wish. Most of it is public information. Most prominent of them is Amazon's 7-day (in the US) no questions asked returns policy for ebooks (more on that later).

TikTok on phone

Then came TikTok. And someone posted a video saying they bought a book, read it, didn't like it, and returned it to get their money back. People who did not know they could return a book after it has been read took that as permission to do the same. People who didn't do it before started doing it. It's permission marketing at its finest.

I do not know how many people made those videos advocating such a practice. Anecdotal evidence says that there were a bunch and those people had large followings (in the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands) who basically were telling their followers that it was okay to participate in this practice. It's been a couple of weeks since this whole thing blew up and if you try to go back and search for the original videos they have mostly been deleted and are no longer available to view. What is still available and there's plenty of it are the videos of readers, booktokers, and authors decrying the practice, voicing their outrage, and shining a light on the practice. There is a lot of outrage!

As I said, it's been two weeks. Maybe more, I think I might have been a bit late to the whole thing. I'm often late to trendy stuff. That said, there has been a lot of debate on the topic. From the ethics and morality of doing it, to how the act hurts authors, to criticism of the one major ebook retailer who allows returns. There has been a lot of venting, ranting, and (did I mention?) outrage. There have been people demanding change and there have been people suggesting changing the conversation to focus on encouraging better behaviour when it comes to reading and returning books.

That's a lot to unpack, but I'm going to try.

First off, buying, reading, then returning books for a refund and doing it repeatedly is wrong.

Secondly, it affects authors' livelihoods, particularly indie authors.

Thirdly, retailers should not allow returns or set limits on returns, particularly Amazon.

The practice of buying, reading, and returning books is not new. People have been doing it for a long time. It's only seems so prevalent right now because it's trending on TikTok and social media is shining a light on it. I have heard of people whose accounts have been shut down for being serial returners in the past, so yes, it has happened before. Retailers and publishers are aware of it.

Thing is, those people who do that, who treat a book retailer as their own private lending library by doing this? They are not going to change overnight. They feel justified and entitled in what they do. Changing the conversation, focusing on encouraging people to look at other avenues of reading for free (libraries) or for a low cost (Kindle Unlimited or Scribd) is not going to change a lot of behaviour (maybe some) because those people were never going to be the ones to go out of their way to find their reading material anyway. It's like the people who read pirated books. They were never going to buy the book in the first place. I'm not condoning it, I'm giving you a different perspective to what is basic human nature and well, rather sucky people.

When it comes to serial returners, I expect it happens with paper books and people buying the books, reading them and returning them to physical brick and mortar bookstores. I do have anecdotal evidence of a colleague who has witnessed such an act. But even more, this is very easy to do with an ebook. Different ebook retailers have different return policies and you can look them up in detail if you want. The one being discussed the most is Amazon because they have a pretty generous 7-day no questions asked returns policy which will give you a full refund.

With indie authors (I've not heard any traditional authors quote numbers though they've joined their voices against returning books.), they have access to their sales dashboard in almost real time, so they can see how many books have been purchased, how many books have been borrowed and pages read (Kindle Unlimited), and what has been returned.

I have seen a number of authors share their stats publicly as a result of this trend. One author said her returns went from 1 or 2 a month to 100+ in the last week since the trend started. Another author said she went from zero returns to about 40+ returns. One author said her returns are sitting at around 10% (remember the industry standard is about 30%) and someone else said her returns have tripled.

Amazon logo on phones

Let me point out that these are returns from purchases. I make this distinction because I work with a lot of authors and I have authors who are exclusive to Amazon and whose books are in Kindle Unlimited which allows borrows and returns as part of the monthly subscription, and I have authors who are "wide" meaning they sell their books on all ebook retail platforms, not just Amazon. When an author is wide, their books are sold and purchased, not borrowed. Therefore, it goes to without saying that purchased books are not meant to be returned for a refund after the person has finished reading them. It is considered that the product is consumed.

The reason I am pointing out the difference between exclusive Amazon authors and wide authors is because a lot of my clients who are exclusive to Amazon and offer their books in Kindle Unlimited have not seen any change in their sales and income aside from a few exceptions where people have bought their books rather than borrowing them from Kindle Unlimited to read them. Based (again) on anecdotal evidence, most of the purchase, read, returns are being seen by authors who are wide because their books have to be purchased in order to be consumed. Their books cannot be borrowed. It is mostly the wide authors who are being affected by this trend. This might be happening to authors on their other retail platforms too other than Amazon, but most of the focus has been on Amazon because (obviously) they are the biggest ebook retailer.

Here are some comments from a book group on the topic that have supported my view:

Quotes:Can confirm that this has always affected wide authors more, and more noticeably, than those in KU because many of the binge / budget-conscious readers who do this read and return trick use it specifically to get books they can't borrow in KU. It has always been an issue, as any wide author with a decent sales history can confirm—these types will binge through an entire dozen book series, returning each volume as they go.
It's getting a lot worse for some right now, but it has always been an issue and Amazon's response has always been vaguely conciliatory at best.

Quotes:Yes, I'm seeing an uptick in my returns. 75 last month, most of which were for my most popular book that is wide. It's so frustrating.

Quotes:The moment I went wide, my returns went up. Right now, I'm looking at an increase on returns especially on my German books. Series are being read and returned. And the box-sets.
I have one series in KU and almost zero returns on that one.

Quotes:Same, my wide series has a LOT of returns. Book 1, my most popular book, has the most and to me the number is extremely high to be "normal" returns.

Quotes:That's exactly what I had thought about the KU but it's good to hear someone else voice it. I also think that if people are buying the book with the idea of returning it, authors would see an increase in sales, not? I'm sure not every time but I mean, if I was of the opinion that I was just going to return it, then I would go buy anything I wanted. Like, when I go to the library I get the max amount of books because it doesn't cost me anything and if I don't like a book in the first few chapters, I then have 14 other books to read. I agree there is a huge issue and that's not what I'm saying and it's wrong to make an author your library but I've worked retail for years and this isn't just a book issue. It's a society issue.

Quotes:It is not just a wide issue. I'm in KU. I have a series that being purchased one book at a time, returned a day or so after purchase, then the next book in the series is purchased and returned, etc through the whole 6 book series. so to say it's just a wide problem is not true. I have an author friend in KU who had over 100 returns of her new release. Amazon even unpublished her book initially because they thought there must be quality issues. (there weren't).

As you can imagine, a lot of authors are outraged at Amazon for allowing returns to happen, especially when the books have been read completely. Does Amazon have a very generous ebook return policy? Yes. Should Amazon get rid of the policy entirely? No. There are genuine reasons for needing to return a book, like accidentally buying a book with a twitchy one-click finger (I've done it a few times) or there's a fault with the book, etc. Still, Amazon has no limits on returns, and maybe Amazon should introduce some limits on returns such as if a book has been read up to X% or finished, the person should not be allowed to return the book. Amazon does have the technology to track that since they can tell how many pages a book has been read in Kindle Unlimited in order to pay authors or to mark a book that's been finished as read.

The complaints of Amazon's ebook return policy are not new. Every now and then the argument raises its head and authors get heated over it, but not more so than what is happening now. There's a petition going round to get Amazon to change the policy and a lot of people have signed it. If you want to sign it, you can find it here.

Here's the thing with Amazon. They've had this policy for as long as I have bought ebooks from them and it's a long time. I think I bought my first ebook from them in 2010 and before then, I was buying my ebooks from as early as 2000 from Peanut Press (they are not around anymore!). Anyway, I digress. The point is, the 7-day return policy has been around a long time. And Amazon has never seen the need to change it no matter the complaints by authors.

Unfortunately, right now, a group of people are abusing Amazon's return policy. They are gaming the system, abusing the system, whatever you want to call it. Yes, this is a bad thing. But there have always been people like that. It's just more obvious now because authors with access to their dashboards can see it happening almost in real time. That combination highlights the problem in a whole different way. It's a real, tangible, measurable thing.

A book group I'm in recently provided an update that the Authors' Guild had contacted Amazon about the increase in ebook returns and asking them about changing their returns policy. According to Amazon, they have not seen a significant increase in returns enough for them to notice anything untoward. Back to the whole publishing industry expecting a 30% return rate, yeah? I do not know what % threshold Amazon have set their returns at but obviously, this threshold has not been hit. Amazon is a business, a huge, money making business that cares about its bottom-line. Pretty sure they monitor that bottom-line to the nth degree. Rest assured, they will know if something is off. If the returns are significant enough for them to affect their bottom-line, yeah, they are going to do something about it, but so far, nope. Nothing.

I'm not saying any of this to excuse Amazon, only stating that's the way it is for them. Does this mean Amazon does not care about the individual little author? I don't know. That's not a debate I wish to get into. That said, I understand that some indie authors are losing their livelihoods with the increased number of returns and the impact on their income is very real. It might be the difference between paying the rent and giving up writing. It might be the difference between going back to look for a full time job with a guaranteed income rather than the uncertainty of telling stories and being left at the mercy of unscrupulous readers and the indifference of a retail giant. Losing authors and losing the wonderful stories they tell is a tragedy. As book lovers, we should all do what we can to support and promote the authors we love so that we can keep getting stories to read.

Petition form

It has been suggested that readers and authors email Amazon with the issue and ask them to look at and change their returns policy. Signing a petition, no matter how many signatures are on it is not going to make a difference to Amazon apparently. But it seems emails will make a difference. Some authors and book groups and even a few authors on TikTok have shared email address for people to email Amazon with. It seems that this approach has helped change some policies around audiobook returns in the past. If you're so inclined, there are a number of email addresses you can send an email to. Google them. They are not hard to find.

Here's one person's perspective on the effectiveness of petitions:

Quotes:Petitions never work with big businesses and especially not Amazon. I've seen authors do millions of petitions for Amazon over the years and I don't remember seeing not one make a difference.  This is why folks who are getting affected by this need to go to the MEDIA. You need to talk to people on these news sites and on industry sites and get some buzz talking outside of TikTok and a few author groups. I think authors don't realize how small the author community is meaning that we tend to think stuff is big news outside of us but it's not.  Most have never heard of this sudden burst of returns even plenty of authors haven't heard this was an issue especially if they aren't on TikTok like me. I only know because I am on Facebook and you guys from TikTok mentioned it. But what about millions of authors and readers not on social networks or who aren't in these author groups, book groups, etc. You'd be surprised to realize that something that seems so big to one group of people hasn't even been heard of by millions of others. And many authors say they haven't seen an increase in returns. I haven't either but it's been made like it's happening to everyone.

But yeah, if this is happening to you personally, your best bet is making a stink if you want Amazon to pay attention. Emails and posts won't do it. You need to let people who have some clout and who can get this to the masses know about this but unless you make Amazon "feel it" in some kind of way, nothing will change and Amazon doesn't lose money from these returns. So that's the issue there. And they claim there is no increase so everyone affected will probably have to flood all channels they can to get their attention and hope things change or that returns for go back to normal.

It would be better to go against TikTok instead of Amazon because if you blast TT in the media since the platform is so popular, it will get some attention. If you could get some news sites to cover this and write some articles mentioning that you believe TikTok encourages this, that might get farther than using Amazon as the lead-in. Just a suggestion but yeah a bigger stink needs to be made. Not saying Amazon will care even then but no company likes to look bad.

Amidst all this outrage is a group of people who are working on changing the focus of the trend from returning books to alternative reading avenues, being proactive about encouraging change in ebook retailers, and not feeding the beast that is the TikTok trend.

I get that a lot of people are upset. A lot of people are outraged, either personally or on behalf of authors. Do I want to add my voice to the outrage? Yes, of course I do. This topic has consumed a lot of my attention and conversation between me and my friends, me and my husband, and me and my non-romance reading best bud (we had a really good chat about it this morning). I've posted a few TikTok videos about it. You can watch them here and here), but for the most part, I've stayed mostly silent on social media. I've asked a question about it in my TikTok authors 'group about whether to add my voice to the topic or to leave it since talking about it more will bring attention to the matter and the opinions varied.

Here is just a subset of some of those opinions:

Quotes:I'm of the latter thought. I can't control others, I can only control me. Anything else it's a waste of time and to give it attention only makes the problem grow as in gives unscrupulous people the idea when had it not crossed their purview, they wouldn't have thought of it.

Quotes:I would also worry about spreading the ‘hack’. I know people who do this with movies and audios and they know it’s wrong but don’t care. I’ve seen it spoken about for years and nothing will stop people or pirates.

Quotes:I think it's important for readers to know that it directly impacts authors. Books aren't treated like other wholesale products. I think if more people knew, the behavior might change.

Quotes:It’s better to speak out against problems than not. Some readers may stop doing it cuz they didn’t know authors get charged for returned books and not the big companies.

Quotes:I believe speaking out is okay as long as it is done with class. If your bashing and calling people names, it really doesn't say much for the authors behavior and may even affect your following. Or who knows you may get lucky and get millions of followers. Just make sure if you do respond, do it from a place your comfortable with from public scrutiny. I did see a few authors doing that as well.

Quotes:This is a problem that's existed since before Booktok's existence - I have to wonder if it's only getting worse the more people complain about it, since I've never seen a pro-return video on its own but have seen tons of stitches from authors decrying the practice. I wonder if a better approach would be anyone brave enough to share their earnings to make videos explaining how little the vast majority of authors actually earn and what an impact mass returns has on the bottom line. I remember way back in college when Napster was the big thing and how we'd justify downloading music with, "They won't miss the money, they're rich musicians." And I've definitely seen comments in that vein regarding authors and piracy/returns. There's a disconnect between reality and what the average reader thinks authors make. I might make my own vid breaking it down. First, I have to get off FB and get my work done... 😉

Quotes:Even children know at a young age the difference between right and wrong. The people who are returning books know what they are doing is wrong. It's a strange entitlement to avoid paying for services or art. But there are people who do it. It seems like a victimless crime and a way to "beat amazon" or whatever. But they know what they are doing is not right. it's deviant. And tiktok has a knack for finding those seams.
I don't think any videos, even if thoughtful, will shame readers into NOT returns books. So I think it's more on Amazon to change their return policy for ebooks, but I don't think their system can build that out. The system is built to get people to the site, keep them there and sell them stuff. If those are the main objectives, buy something, return something, etc. you are engaging with amazon's platform and more likely to buy more if they cater to you. sorry I am rambling and really sorta clueless, but I guess my two points are: sociopaths are going to be sociopaths, and amazon is the facilitator, not tiktok.

Despite my outrage (yes, yes, I know, there'a a lot of outrage), and I got pretty cranky when people were returning books that were raising money for the suffering in the Ukraine, I think we need to approach this whole topic with clear heads and rational minds. It doesn't help to get emotional or freak out or rant though I understand the desire to do so. That's kind of why I got rather long winded on this topic.

Yes, books are being returned after they have been read.

Yes, authors are being affected.

Yes, it's a sucky thing to do.

Yes, people have been doing it for a long time and many who do it will continue to do it despite the consequences because they are entitled turds. Human nature is human nature and there will always be those who will abuse a system, take advantage, and hurt people in the process.
And yes, people who did not know they could do it before are doing it now because of the exposure the trend has given to the practice.

But attacking those who do it will not change anything. Calling out people who do it might make them dig in their heels and continue to do it. People are stubborn that way. Again, human nature.

Instead, maybe it's necessary to be rational about the whole thing.

Perhaps education will change the behaviours of those who can be changed when they understand the consequences of what they are doing.

And perhaps with enough of a movement, a change can be influenced with Amazon and their ebook return policy.

But at the end of the day, we need to understand that the industry is what it is. Returns have been a large part of the industry for a long time. Amazon has been doing business this way for a long time. Sucky people have existed for a long time.

What's new the the upsurge of indie authors in the industry. And there are a lot of them.

Perhaps with one voice, authors can make change happen.

PS. Opinions of others have been left anonymous to protect their identity.

Let me know what you think of this issue and if you've encountered any of it.

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  1. Great Post, and you are absolutely correct. I can only speak for Europe, and esp UK, but a limit on Returns would be hard to police as it is in consumer law that you have a certain amount of time to change your mind with purchases on line. I thought 28 days. I will check my account and see what amazon UK do.
    As you say, I have only ever returned books when I clicked too fast. Never returned one I'd read, although I maybe should have done that with one I read! If I'm unsure I get a sample

    1. Even with Amazon, I think it varies by country. I know that returns is required by law in most countries, so Amazon is legally required to offer returns. And yes, I agree that while it would be helpful to authors for Amazon to limit returns on eBooks, it's not as easy to police even if they have the technology to be able to determine if the ebook should be returned or not.

  2. Still being offered a return on an order from 21 March!

    1. I think it's 14 days in the UK with Amazon. It's 7 days in Australia, same as the US, too. Had to do a bit of digging to find that.

  3. I have never returned a book ever, if I didn't like it well so be it that is the way things go, I think it is wrong that people are reading and returning the way they do these days but I also think that you should be able to return anything that you have bought that fails to meet your expectations, but if the same person is doing it continually then the seller should be able to stop it somehow, great post

    Have Fun


    1. I've returned a few where I've accidentally purchased it, but not ones I've finished. I read a terrible book recently and I had the fleeting thought that I could return it, but I didn't. After all, I've already read it. It's done.

  4. Hey, lady!

    To add to this article just a bit from a former Indie small press--in 2014, we saw a spike in read and returns and wondered what had happened. We couldn't pay out a royalty to an author that we didn't have because someone returned the book so we didn't get money to pay them. This went on a little while along with another weird thing that happened. Reviews were disappearing back then too. A reader would buy a book and review it, then it would be like that review never existed. This happened on several of the books we had published for our authors.

    I've been seeing the complains on FB not TikTok. I have both apps but I only visit TikTok rarely.

    What I do know is, it effects authors and if they have publishers, it effects them too. This isn't something to be taken lightly, but what can any of us do? Most of us are poor. Also, speaking on that, the hate an author without a big name gets for opening a Kickstarter for writing is unbelievable. So whoever said we need a donate button on our websites needs to think again. We don't have time to fight with everyone about getting paid. And it would be a fight.

    Great article. Lots of good info in there. A lot said about the rage too. There has been a lot of it that I've seen too.


    1. Oh yes, I can totally see where it would be an impact on a small press.

    2. I really like Jen's comment. That would bankrupt a small publisher.
      A friend of mine told me the story of one friend that had the returns withdrawn directly from her bank account, instead of her royalties. That is horrifying. I didn't know that was possible, and it's completely scarred my friend.

    3. Holy cow! I did not know it was possible for a publisher to be able to withdraw money from an author's account. How do they even have the permission to do that?

  5. I really appreciate this piece and how informative it was. I mean, we all believe in a return policy for damaged items or an accidental buy. But not to "try out" a new author without consequence or as a cost effective means of feeding your reading addiction. That's just ludicrous and cruel.

    1. There are others way to try out a book. Amazon provides quite a few. The "look inside feature" which often allows a person to read up to 2 chapters of the book depending on the length of the book. I'd know 2 chapters in if the book was for me or not. The sample feature where they can download a sample of the book to read. Or even the subscription service with Kindle Unlimited where they can borrow a book, read it, and return it because that's the point of the service.