The Rise of the E-Book Jerk

Books Features

As the e-book has grown in popularity, so has a jerk-like new behavior: customers “returning” e-books for full refunds to score free reads.

Virtual book returns are more annoying than bankrupting, authors say. But it still drives authors nuts when it occurs.

“This is ridiculous,” novelist Brian McClellan tweeted last month as he watched two readers return his short story e-books.

“It’s more of an irritation than anything else,” McClellan, author of the Powder Mage Trilogy, later told Paste. “It amounted to just six-tenths of a percent of sales for the month of October. It’s not a big enough issue to make it worth discussing with Amazon.”

Amazon is the market-share leader in e-books and allows refunds within seven days—long enough to read just about any book for free. By contrast, Amazon allows physical books to be returned only in unread condition and doesn’t allow returns of other downloaded virtual items. Major competitors Barnes & Noble and Apple don’t allow e-book returns at all.

“Amazon is not ideal, and this kind of policy makes them even less ideal,” said political author Chris Faraone, who just released the e-book I Killed Breitbart. But the big picture, he added, is that Amazon distributes efficiently and pays authors on time—unlike many independent bookstores and distributors he has worked with.

“Since there’s relatively no overhead, it’s not the end of the world,” Faraone said of e-book returns. “Still, if I found someone who read my book and returned it, I would at least hope they’d put a Facebook post up to help me out a little and tell their friends about it.”

Earlier this year, Amazon’s e-book return policy was the target of a petition that drew over 5,600 signatures. Likening it to allowing customers to “return” a restaurant meal they had already eaten, the petition called the one-week return period “excessive,” as readers know much sooner whether an e-book doesn’t work or isn’t to their liking.

Amazon did not respond to Paste’s questions. But earlier this year, Nate Hoffelder of the Digital Reader blog suggested Amazon monitors e-book return abusers. He wrote that Amazon banned a frequent, e-book returning friend of his from further refunds in 2009.

Yet one thing’s for sure: e-book returnees aren’t changing their behavior.

Fantasy publisher Shawn Speakman has seen returns of the e-book version of his recent fantasy anthology Unfettered, which was published to raise funds for his cancer treatment. He said e-returns are “similar to someone buying a piece of clothing for a night out on the town and then, having used it, returning it.”

“I don’t personally understand the psychology that goes into returning an e-book, but every time it happens, I just smile and shake my head,” Speakman said. “My only hope is the returner is taking that money saved and giving it permanently to another writer.”

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