Returning Ebooks After Reading Them? Seriously, No.

May 26, 2022 Musings 7

hands holding an ereader

Indie author Carrie Lomax recently tweeted about readers buying, reading, and returning her ebooks.

“Nothing like seeing people go through an entire series – buy, return, buy, return – to make you never want to write again,” she said.

Apparently some TikTok “book lovers” have been recommending this strategy as a way to save money. And Lomax isn’t the only independent author who has experienced the problem, as you can see if you read through the replies to her tweet.

The infuriating thing is, authors targeted in this way have very little recourse, due to Amazon’s liberal returns policies. If a customer were doing this in a physical bookstore, on a regular basis, you’d better believe the manager would put a stop to it. (I certainly would have, back in my bookstore days. Even if it meant going up the chain of command to my district manager for backing.) But under Amazon’s policies, it’s not hard for readers to get away with it.

If that strategy sounds like a good idea to you, read on. (If you are appalled, feel free to read on anyway. Just know I’m not addressing you.)

Let me be perfectly clear: Buying and reading an entire ebook and then returning it is stealing. It may not be considered theft under the law, but it’s unethical, immoral, and totally unfair to the author.

Look, I get that there are legitimate reasons to return a book, whether it’s a print copy or an ebook. (Authors understand that, too.) Maybe the text has significant errors, either factual or because of poor editing. Maybe several pages or even chapters are missing, or a flaw in the coding means you can’t even open the ebook. Maybe you started reading and realized after the first chapter or two that this book is not your cup of tea. Maybe you one-clicked without meaning to, or you didn’t realize you already had a copy of an earlier edition. I’ve done this myself, a time or two. The point is, those reasons justify returning the book before you finish it—not after you’ve read it. And if you return a book for those reasons, you are doing so occasionally, not as a regular practice. Key word: occasionally.

But buying, reading, and returning every book in a series in a row, as Lomax and other authors are reporting? This is unfair, unethical, and reflects very poorly on the book community. It’s clear that these readers are using purchase-read-and-return as a strategy to avoid buying books. (After all, if you didn’t like the first book you read, you wouldn’t keep reading the author’s other books.)

Most independent authors (heck, most authors, period, no matter how they get published) make very little money from their writing, compared to the amount of time and effort they put into it. There are exceptions—some authors make a comfortable living, and some big-name authors make enormous sums. But most authors aren’t making all that much money from their writing. Many of them work a day job just to pay the bills. Even a successful midlist author may only make $20,000 to $30,000 per year. An independent author may make less than that—often much less.

When you read an author’s books without paying them for their hard work and creativity, you are taking something from them without compensating them for it.

If you can’t afford to buy books, there’s this great thing called a library, where you can borrow books to your heart’s content. What’s the difference? First of all, the library did buy a copy, or perhaps several copies, of the book you are reading, so the author did earn some money on the sale. Secondly, the library is a public institution whose purpose is to loan books to the public. As a society, we have agreed that this is an important public good, worth supporting with our taxes. Most authors are glad to have their books in libraries, because it helps readers discover them. And some of those readers will become fans who will buy the author’s future books, and maybe some of their backlist as well.

At this point, someone in the back is probably muttering that their library doesn’t have the book they want to read. There’s a solution to that, too: interlibrary loan. If the book is in another library, your library can basically borrow it from the other library and loan it to you. There’s usually a small fee; at my library, I think it is $3. (It costs something to ship a book from one library to another, after all.)

But (says the person in the back), the book I want to read is self-published, so it’s not in any libraries. Well then, yes, you have a problem. You will either have to pay for the book, or put it on your wishlist and hope someone gives it to you for Christmas/Hanukkah/birthday/whatever.

What you don’t do, ever, is steal it. Or “buy” it, when you have no intention of keeping it. That’s just plain rude.

7 Responses to “Returning Ebooks After Reading Them? Seriously, No.

  1. Anne - Books of My Heart

    I saw this tweet somewhere. No, just no. I don’t think I have ever returned a book, whether I have read it or not. I did return an audio once when I realized it was also part of a box set.

  2. Lory @ Entering the Enchanted Castle

    This is horrendous. Especially the repeated exploitation of the same author, that is really low. I do hope it is a trend that will die a deserved death.

    As for your library not having the book you want, many libraries also accept recommendations. I use an e-library which has purchased many of the books I’ve recommended. Love the library!
    Lory @ Entering the Enchanted Castle recently posted…#Narniathon21: The unforbidden fruitMy Profile

  3. Angela (Angel's Guilty Pleasures)

    What a well written post. This is so sad that people do this practice. This is how not to support your authors and encourage them to continue writing.

    As you say the Library is a magical place to get books for free and most have inter loaning and love recommendations for purchases.

  4. Angela

    Oh man, this makes me so mad!! Have people never heard of the library?? I don’t know how you can call yourself a book lover and do something like this!

  5. Katherine

    I’m absolutely horrified! Why would someone do this? The only reasons I have returned books are one that smelled incredibly of mold and one because my then 3 year old accidentally bought the book my Kindle was advertising. I’ve been stunned in the past when people talk about returning a book they read just because they didn’t like it but using Amazon like a library is just awful. That’s what a library is for!

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