The Scourge of Buy/Read Return
Indie Writers Hitting Back
In my last piece for Kendall Horror, I highlighted how the indie community can come together and try to get a fair shake from the larger marketing platforms. Well, here I am again. This time though, it’s to throw a spotlight on something that’s been happening for some time now, and has been costing independent writers across the board.
Most readers are honourable people who make purchases in good faith. You guys read the work, often tell your friends and reading circles about the ones you enjoyed, sometimes even review or inbox the writer to tell them how much you liked their work. It’s a great relationship between a writer and his readers, and it’s important. Writers often do giveaways, especially around release dates, so you can get free stuff if you look for it. We try and look out for you as best we can, we really do.
I say all this because the vast majority of readers are great, supportive people. This post isn’t directed at you guys. We love you all.
In the past few weeks, it has come to light that certain bloggers on the TikTok platform have been advocating the use of a loophole in the Amazon returns policy, advising their audiences to buy a book, read it and return it, to essentially read for free. Their assertion is that it’s a victimless crime, that it’s an author issue and not a reader one. They assert that it doesn’t hurt the writer, and that it barely ever happens anyway. They’ve even gone to the extent of calling foul on writers’ complaints about piracy, saying it’s a rare occurrence.
Let me set the record straight on this: piracy does happen ALL the time, and there’s not a lot a writer can do about it. Bigger presses have armies of people who can watch for it, send out cease and desist letters and get a website shut down if they’re selling PDF’s of their authors’ books. Indie writers don’t have any of that, and it’s expensive in time and money if it gets legal. See, you can send cease and desists IF you can find someone to contact, but all they will do is take down your book and put it back later. If, by some luck, that entire site is taken down, then another three pop up in their place with exactly the same catalogue of books. It’s a losing battle, and there are literally hundreds of these sites. To be clear, I’m not talking about every free book site out there. I know there are reputable sites which stock free content with the permission of the author, or those which stock only public domain work. I’m not criticising those sites at all. I’m talking about the ones which rip books from the author, convert them and sell them for themselves. It does happen, it’s prevalent within the literary community and there is very little an independent writer can do to stop it. If we tried, we’d never have time to write anything. It really would be a full-time job.
That’s the easy matter out of the way. Now, let’s talk about buy-read-return, and how that impacts a writer.
So, in my last article, I spoke a bit about how the arrangement between a writer and Amazon works. I won’t go into all that again, but suffice to say that it’s very much skewed in favour of the platform. When it comes to returns, it’s worse. Of course, honest returns happen. A reader might one-click a book they didn’t want by mistake. That’s not what we’re talking about here, and most writers will factor that into any kind of projections they make about a release and their quarterly royalties. What I’m talking about is readers who purchase a book, read the whole thing and then return it. There is no mechanism to stop that from happening. None. This impacts the writer because they get hit with the cost, as the marketplace recoups those losses. Amazon charges the writer a download fee for every book sold, and we don’t get that back if the book is returned. I know several writers who have ended up owing Amazon when they fully expected to be making a profit. There are posts from indie writers all over Facebook, telling the same story of entire series being bought, read and returned. That is not supporting the indie community.
These booktokkers who are advocating this behaviour argue that it’s rare. It isn’t. Thousands of books are used in this way on a weekly basis, and it hits independent writers hardest. Again, I highlighted exactly why indies don’t get a fair shake before, so I’ll just say that earning a small percentage of the RRP on any book doesn’t leave a lot of wriggle room for returns. It is another reason that some writers have left the industry with a bad taste in their mouth. They’re already rolling huge rocks uphill to get a book into the world, and then they find they’re fighting against theft too … because that is what this is.
But indie writers are trying to help themselves. As I said previously, writers are posting about their experiences and impacts of them all the time, especially in the past couple of weeks. One writer has made a TikTok video of her own, trying to counter the arguments made by those vloggers advocating this behaviour. And now, Reah Foxx has begun a petition to try and reform the returns policy to better protect writers. At the time of writing, it has just over ten thousand signatories, but we can always use more supporters. The petition (created by @ReahFoxx) can be found here …
Let’s band together now, as a community, and let people know that this isn’t okay.
Paul Flewitt is a horror and dark fantasy writer from Sheffield, UK, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Paul began publishing in 2012, beginning with the flash fiction story, Smoke, for OzHorrorCon’s Book of the Tribes anthology. He went on to pen further short stories, including Paradise Park, Climbing Out, Apartment 16c and Always Beneath.
In 2012, he also published his first novel, Poor Jeffrey, which was received to much critical acclaim.
Paul cites writers such as Clive Barker, Stephen King, James Herbert and JRR Tolkien as inspirations on his own writing.
Paul continues to write, contributing to Matt Shaw’s The Many Deaths of Edgar Allan Poe anthology in 2020 with The Last Horror of Dear Eddie. He also began releasing free short stories and fanfiction on his Wattpad account for fun.
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