Monday 29 April 2013

Is a book simply a commodity? Should you be able to get a refund on a book if you didn't enjoy it?

“The Kindle Store will provide refunds for up to 7 days for customers unsatisfied with their ebook purchases.”  Amazon.

As a writer, I have made my books available for free, as many authors do, and that is my choice.  I have donated royalties to charity. My choice. Similarly, like most writers, I have worked for free, and again this has been a personal decision. I have also downloaded ebooks that were on free promotion on occasion (although I generally pay for the ebooks I read). Whether or not authors should/shouldn’t offer their work for free is another topic for debate. 

But getting a refund for a book after you have read it?  That’s a different matter.  Yes, I agree if a book has been badly formatted or is full of typos there is cause for dissatisfaction (although hopefully this should have come to light when you checked out the sample pages of the book before buying).  And sometimes you might click the Buy button twice by mistake. 

However, is it possible to abuse the system?  Amazon say that they can check for serial returners and they would certainly have the data to do this.  After all, it isn’t good business for them (or the writers, of course).  Like many authors, when I read my sales reports there are occasions when a reader has returned one of my titles for a refund.  It would be really helpful as a writer to have some feedback on why this is.  In researching this topic, one author mentioned an average figure of 2% returns. More data would certainly be useful.  

I am making an assumption that the returns rules apply because of the consumer protection law for distance selling. After all, the Amazon policy also applies to paper books, in which a reader has up to 30 days to make a return, so this is not really an issue about ebooks. However, what concerns me is the basis for returning a book. What if it is formatted correctly and well-written but you don’t like it?  Has anyone ever taken a book back to a bookshop on the basis that they didn’t enjoy it? 

Is a book simply a commodity? Can we apply the same argument to other “creative” items.  If we don’t like a piece of music we get a refund on the download or cd?  If we’ve been to the cinema and we thought the film ended badly, do we insist on a ticket refund? What does this mean for creative producers like writers and composers? Is it right or fair?

If you are a writer, reader or a creative producer, what do you think?    

For a range of viewpoints check out:


  1. Hi Jane,
    I agree it's a really difficult area. I remember when I got my first ever refund I was horrified and outraged!:) Now I try to ignore them - out of roughly 250-300 sales I get about 6 returns, sometimes less, sometimes more. There's nothing wrong with the formatting so I'm sure some of the returns are because the reader just plain didn't like it, and while I can sympathise to a certain extent I agree that it would be a lot harder to return a print book you'd part-read. CDs I'm pretty sure have to be unopened, as do many returnable items - at Ikea you lose a percentage of your refund if you've even opened the package to look at the colour!

    But some returns I'm sure are from readers who have simply read the book, liked it, but because they are within the 7 days think they might as well get a refund and spend their £1.99 on something else. In this way, ebook reading becomes a bit like a lending library - if you're a fast reader you could literally spend a couple of pound once only and just keep reading and returning. Well, Amazon say they are wise to this but I've never heard of anyone having their account closed by Amazon.

    1. Hi Joanne - thanks for stopping by. Your comment about Ikea made me smile - it's true, there are different standards for creative "products". I would never dream of taking a book back to Waterstones if I hadn't enjoyed it. Interesting what you say about readers using the returns system like a library service. It hadn't occurred to me that a reader might enjoy my book yet still return it - which is reassuring in a perverse kind of way! I love your blog, btw, and have especially enjoyed your A-Z posts throughout April. Always thought-provoking. Thanks.

  2. Hi Jane,
    I'm a bit late coming to this post due to lack of internet connection while away at a horse show - you'd think they'd design some way of doing it for those of us that live away in our trucks at shows, wouldn't you? - but I feel strongly about this subject.
    This is a seriously unfair policy for writers. Many people read fast and get through a lot of books - if they don't buy stacks in advance (like I do) but buy and read straight away, they might never have to pay for their reading.
    Clearly it's a tiny number of people, but every penny counts somewhere along the line and considering how small the cost of an ebook, I'm pretty disgusted that readers might consider it acceptable to cheat writers out of the pittance we get for our hours and hours of work.
    This is similar to people who buy a dress, wear it to a party and then return it to the store because they 'made a mistake'.

    1. Hi Deborah - yes, this is an important issue and I do hope that Amazon try to prevent people using ebooks as a continuous free library - after all there are "real" libraries out there (we have a few left yet!) and you can also access the kindle library too. I think part of the problem is that e-books are so cheap now it pressurises writers to keep their prices low as people don't expect to pay much. It really does "commodotize" ebooks (if there is such a word!) which will ultimately devalue them completely. When Amazon have their 20p a book promotions (Life of Pi being one, so these are big name authors) it makes it impossible for indie authors (or any authors) to compete for readers. I think our consumerist culture means many people don't join the dots of a creative process, or simply have a disconnect with it. After all, if it only takes two hours to read, maybe it only took 2 hours to write? Creativity is constantly undervalued and not seen as "proper work." I'll get off my soapbox now! btw I hope your horse show was successful!

    2. You soapbox away and I'll join you!
      BTW I'm finding myself re-defining 'success' these days, and I think that's an important facility for satisfaction.
      'My little pony' (he's 15.3hh) is 19 years old and on Friday he scored 63% in Grand Prix - nowhere near a winning score, but to me that's success!

    3. Your "little pony" sounds fabulous! Interested in what you say about redefining success and would like to more. Can you mention this in your guest blog?

    4. Will see how I can incorporate that - it's almost done :)
      And yes, he is fabulous - and doesn't he know it!