Kicking back with a page-turning summer read is one of my favorite parts of this season. But a TikTok trend is turning this summer into a huge financial headache for many writers who should be raking in some much-deserved cash for all the hard work that goes into writing, rewriting, revising, and finally publishing a book.
Recently, Lisa Kessler, an award-winning author of 44 novels in the paranormal romance and thriller genres, shared her thoughts about this problem in a tweet that quickly went viral.
Kessler told BuzzFeed that readers buying and returning her eBooks is a new problem that started earlier this year. "Until May, I rarely ever had a returned eBook, and when I did it would be just one or two, which I chalked up to accidental purchases, totally understandable. But last month, there was a sudden swell of returns of an entire series of books."
As Kessler noticed the returns mainly occurring within her Museseries, they don't seem to be related to people disliking the book or making accidental purchases. If you accidentally bought book one in a series or didn't like it, why would you buy book two next and then go on to book three?
"I discovered that in March there was a TikTok video instructing readers about this loophole in Amazon's return policy allowing them to read books quickly and return them. It even had a hashtag, #ReadAndReturnChallenge, but I don't think they realized that Amazon was turning around and deducting money from the authors."
There is a big and lively debate over on BookTok about the ethics of returning books — videos in the #ReturningBooks hashtag have been viewed over 500,000 times. Some users feel that it's fine to return books as long as they're following the retailer's policies. But others think that abusing return policies by reading full books and returning them is wrong because it causes direct harm to the authors.
When an eBook is returned, the royalties from the sale get deducted from the author's Amazon account. But that's not the only cost to writers. Kessler says, "There is also a digital delivery fee that Amazon charges the author, and we do not receive those back when a book is returned."
Amazon's current eBook return policy allows users to return a Kindle book within seven days for a refund. To clarify, Kessler says, "This does not relate to Kindle Unlimited [Amazon's eBook subscription plan], which pays authors by the pages read, so those returns don't affect us."
Kessler says that she's heard from hundreds of authors who have been hurt by this TikTok trend. "In May, many saw this wave of returns. One had over 250 eBook returns in May alone. That is crushing to an indie author who is paying for book covers and editing up front, hoping for the royalties to cover all their expenses."
"I also heard from an author who was offering the first book in her series for free and when the returns started piling up, it cost her for every copy to comp the delivery fee."
"It's frustrating because Amazon doesn't allow returns for digital movies once you hit the play button. The same is true of digital music. Why would digital books be any different?"
Of course, there are many other ways to get books for free or try before you buy that don't hurt authors' bottom lines. For example, you can read free samples of many eBooks on Amazon before you buy. And many libraries offer eBooks to their members — my local library uses the Libby app to do this, and I love that I can check out audiobooks or eBooks through this service.
But libraries aren't perfect — yours might not always carry the books you want to read, or you might have to wait a couple of weeks to get the next book in a series when you want it RIGHT NOW. So, if you'd like to show your support for authors, you can sign a petition on Change.org to encourage Amazon to change their return policy on eBooks so it's more equitable for writers. And you can follow Lisa Kessler on Twitter and the Kindle store.