Amazon's e-book return policy: Fair or unfair?

AmazonGalleycat has a great article questioning Amazon’s Kindle book return policy. The author, Jason Boog, explains that nearly 1,200 people have signed a petition calling on Amazon to change its policy, which currently allows readers seven days (long enough to read the book!) to ask for a refund.

It isn’t clear to me from the petition itself exactly what these 1,200 people would like the policy changed to. I bristled a little at the inflammatory tone of the petition—it had that tint of, ‘readers are all potential criminals in waiting, on the verge of screwing us over,’ which, as a reader who pays for all her content, offends me.

I also got the impression that they seemed to think sampling was giving the reader enough to go on. But in my experience, not all books have samples available, and in some cases, the sample is short enough that substantive errors in the book might not be apparent.

However, I do agree that seven days is a really long time, and it’s fair to say that for many people, it would be long enough to read the whole book, and is perhaps overly generous to the reader at the expense of the author.

I do think that some kind of return policy is warranted. In the past, I truly have downloaded books with formatting errors, typos and other problems, and I did deserve a refund for those unreadable books. But I don’t think that refund window has to be seven days. I’d like a long enough period of time to allow for a quick preview and to make sure everything is fine, but I’m OK with cutting off the refund window once that’s done.

What do you think? Is the current seven-day return policy too liberal?

About Joanna Cabot (1592 Articles)
"I’m a journalist, a teacher and an e-book fiend. I work as a French teacher at a K-3 private school. I use drama, music, puppets, props and all manner of tech in my job, and I love it. I enjoy moving between all the classes and having a relationship with each child in the school. Kids are hilarious, and I enjoy watching them grow and learn. My current device of choice for reading is my Amazon Kindle Touch, but I have owned or used devices by Sony, Kobo, Aluratek and others. I also read on my tablet devices using the Kindle app, and I enjoy synching between them, so that I’m always up to date no matter where I am or what I have with me."

22 Comments on Amazon's e-book return policy: Fair or unfair?

  1. MarylandBill // April 2, 2013 at 9:58 pm //

    I don’t think seven days is an unreasonable period to have an ebook before returning it. If the authors are worried about people treating the policy as a virtual library, there are ways to stop that as well. I suspect that Amazon would take action if someone was returning the majority of ebooks they buy (since each transaction will cost them money).

    Heck, for those who are going to abuse the ability to return books, a day is more than enough time to break encryption and make a copy, so in reality there is little way you can limit things unless you shut down the right to return all together.

  2. I don’t believe 7 days is an unreasonable period.
    For myself, I often buy books but don’t read them for more than a week.
    Avid readers often have a virtual bookshelf of books on the “to be read” pile.

    If authors and booksellers don’t want books returned due to formatting errors they should put forth some effort and actually proof read and edit their books before selling them.

    Another thing they could change is to stop releasing old books with new covers causing readers to rebuy books they’ve already read.

  3. I’m an author, and I have had books returned. Not many, but a few. Sometimes I cringe, knowing that a return was a cheap way to read a book, but at the same time, I have to agree with the policy; in fact, I have my own policy for the other companies who don’t allow returns. I guarantee my books. All you have to do is tell me why you didn’t like it. I have been fooled by samples myself. All seems good, then the plot falls apart, or the ending is rushed. That’s not fair to a reader. A reader should feel comfortable that the rest of the book is as good as the sample, so, the long-winded answer is, no, I don’t think seven days is too long. I believe 99% of readers will be fair. All we have to do is write books to please them.

  4. Name Required // April 3, 2013 at 2:24 am //

    If somebody wants to cheat 7 seconds is enough.
    Step 1. Purchase a book
    Step 2. Go to the your Amazon library and download the book
    Step 3. Demand a refund claiming that your cat stepped on the keyboard and purchased the book
    Step 4. At your leisure use an USB cable to load the illicit book into your Kindle that never leaves the airplane mode.

    Please notice, you do not need the help of Apprentice Alf, or P2P networks, or IRC channels or anything to cheat this way. And you most definitely do not need 7 days for the above to work. It would work like a charm … until a flag at Amazon server pops up and they notice the ratio between your purchased and returned books and they ban you from shopping at Amazon forever.

  5. Hayden Johnstone // April 3, 2013 at 3:27 am //

    I guess that if the ebook is unreadable (formatting errors, typos and other problems) then the duration of the return period should be irrelevant. A complete refund or the offer to replace it with a new corrected version should be the way to go. This is customer service.

    If you return an ebook after a few days that has no errors, then Amazon will be putting a small black mark against your name and you will soon find yourself on the outside.

    I have bought books/ebooks which I sometimes found uninteresting. I didn’t ask for a refund, I just stopped buying any new books from those authors.

    I usually don’t buy books/ebooks when they are released, I instead wait for a while to see the reviews before departing with my money. That way I have based my decision on some research and hopefully don’t get a book with errors or is not my type of book. Then I feel that it is not anyone else’s fault but mine if the book is no good.

  6. In my case, the length of the time to return a book doesn’t matter. It is the rare book that I buy and read immediately; usually, I see a book that interests me, I buy it, and it sits on my device for months. I’m one of those people who tends to buy a book because it looks interesting, not because I need something to read.

  7. I’m with Richard. The books don’t usually sit on my device for months, but they often sit longer than 7 days. Since the majority of books I buy are $2.99 or less, if the book has problems, I just shrug and move on. If I spend $7.99 or more for a book, I check it out thoroughly beforehand. I find reviews especially helpful to find the back list books the publishers haven’t bothered to clean up. Those I just don’t buy.

    I’ve only returned a few books. One was for horrendous formatting that I was lucky enough to catch in time. One turned out to be a book I had previously purchased from another store and didn’t recognize until I started reading it. And one was a complete accidental purchase. I’d read the sample of a Prime Lending book, and I clicked the wrong link at the end of the sample. I wanted to borrow it, but I bought it instead. That return happened within seconds, and then I turned around and borrowed it.

    I believe each of them were “proper” returns, although I suppose someone could quibble with 2 and 3. As an author, I’ve seen a few returns on my KDP statements, and, yes, they are disappointing, and I’d love to know why they were returned, but I don’t lose any sleep over it.

  8. As an author, I feel Amazon’s return policy is pretty much a non-issue. Returns are less than 1% of my sales. Amazon monitors people who abuse the system, and will take action against them — so that small percentage of people will be taken care of. For someone who bought my book by accident or really hated it, let them get their money back. As others have pointed out, if someone wants to steal content they can anyway, so reducing the return period only serves to punish the honest reader who accidentally buys a book but doesn’t realize it for several days.

  9. This may sound silly, but I would be embarrassed to return a book which I have finished. A few times, I got to about 30-50% and then knew I wasn’t going to go on with it. However, this is life and I shrugged and got on to something else. I think I have returned one or two over the 5 years I have been a Kindle reader, but those were for formatting issues which I found within the 1-week period. You definitely cannot tell from some samples what the book itself is like. I almost always get samples of cookbooks, even if they are 99 cents, because if it has no table of contents, that can be a deal-breaker. I have heard on the Kindle forum that Amazon does keep track of returns so would imagine they would shut down those who abuse the system.

  10. This “controversy” just keeps bubbling up every now and then and frankly, I think it boils down to author paranoia. For some reason, there is a subset of authors out there who like to think a good cross-section of their readers are criminals who want to steal from them. Any little thing they don’t understand, and this paranoia comes out in the form of a witch hunt.

    The majority of people who return books are not speed-readers looking for a free week of entertainment. As others have said, Amazon would catch on to them pretty darn quick and their Amazon account will go bye-bye. You wouldn’t be able to get away with anything often enough to make it worth the risk.

    Authors need to trust their readers a little more. Amazon trusts their customers and can catch the ones who make a habit out of cheating the system. Amazon’s customers appreciate them for this trust and reciprocate with their business. I personally am turned off by authors who cannot trust their readers in the same way and tend to avoid books by authors who think their own readers are their enemies.

  11. I’ve returned 2 ebooks from Amazon. One had no sample to check ahead of time, and was filled with horrid formatting errors and cost me $7.99. The other book went on sale just hours after I purchased it. I paid $9.99 (new release for best seller) and the sale price was $2.99. Amazon wouldn’t issue a price difference refund, so I returned the book, waited several hours and repurchased at the new low price. Both of these returns are ones a brick and mortar store has done for me in the past with a printed book, so I don’t feel that I’ve cheated anyone.

  12. If an author is suffering from a large number of returns, I think he or she should look deeper than Amazon’s return policy to correct the issue.

    I cannot believe Amazon is going to let any of the customers get away with gaming the system for very long before banning them.

  13. Remember that movie with Adam Sandler — “Punch-Drunk Love?” He was a fanatic about finding loopholes in promotional systems to get free stuff. I KNOW people like that. Find some that read fast and you will find people who will scam Amazon’s return policy.

    There are a lot of amateurish books online which warrant a return policy of some sort. (Authors — hire some professionals). A week may be too long for a digital product. Though a tech-savvy person can get around anything. The bottom line is most readers will not return something they have read and enjoyed. Relax. Trust people’s basic decency.

  14. This seven day return policy is laughable and it’s obvious Amazon is exploiting authors. I don’t buy eBooks on Amazon any more because of this. As a reader, when I buy a book, I take responsibility. Seven days is ridiculous and degrading to authors and readers alike. It’s saying the authors aren’t good enough, and the readers aren’t smart enough.

  15. Stephen, I currently have 672 Kindle books in my account, very few of which were free. So these authors have not been exploited but rather have benefited from my purchase and the purchases of countless others. You say, “As a reader, when I buy a book, I take responsibility.” What does that mean? Does it mean that you never return a product which arrives damaged? A defective product is YOUR responsibility? Really?

  16. Stephen: I’m an author, and I don’t think Amazon is exploiting authors. We have to remember that Amazon’s customers are not authors, but readers. They have to satisfy them. If a reader buys a book and isn’t satisfied with it, I see no problem in allowing them to return it. Yes, a few will take advantage, but not many. Of the thousands of books I’ve sold, not more than 25 or 30 have been returned. I’m not going to gripe about that. The only thing I wish Amazon would do is ask the reader to supply a reason why they returned it and they pass that reason along to the author–anonymously, of course.

  17. Giacomo, I would strongly agree that to return a book, a reason would have to be supplied. Surely the author deserves to know if there is something wrong with the formatting or the book is rife with misspellings. Not liking the book isn’t a good enough reason. I have abandoned reading several books which I have paid for but did not return them. It’s the chance you take with any book; you aren’t going to like them all but that does not mean it’s a bad book or someone else would not enjoy it.

  18. I agree, Mary. On my website I have a personal guarantee on my books, but I do ask for a reason. I have never had a return yet from the website, but I did get a very nice person on Amazon who wrote and said she returned it because of the foul language. That’s my fault. I should have found a better way to warn people that the book had violence and language. I think readers are 99% honest and would never return books without a good reason. For the few who might…we have to live with that.

  19. Wow, thread necromancy.

    The problem with allowing returns at all is that you hit the scenario where someone downloads it, cracks it, then “returns” it. With Apprentice Alf, this process is now essentially as easy as drag and drop. This is also why CDs, DVDs, and software are not returnable once they’ve been opened: if you’ve opened it, you could have ripped/cracked it.

    The problem with not allowing returns is that sooner or later someone’s going to click on the wrong thing, or buy a book thinking it was something else, or just otherwise make a mistake that could cost them money. And it’s easier to do with digital, where you can’t fully examine the product before you buy it. If you don’t allow people in that situation to get their money back—and don’t give people who could be in that situation the benefit of the doubt—it’s a great big public relations hassle. And if you’re going to do it at all, you might as well give them a reasonable period of time, like a week. (Just be glad it’s not the thirty day period Amazon allows for physical item returns!)

    Amazon’s return policy has always been very liberal, but they also try to prevent abuses. Sometimes their abuse prevention policy does turn up some false positives like this, this, and this case, to name a few), and cause public relations debacles, even so. I wouldn’t imagine they’d let someone get away with buying and returning Kindle books as a regular habit.

    (Oh, and scamming trial offers for free stuff was not new at the time of Punch-Drunk Love. There’s a silly old movie called Who’s Minding the Mint where a fellow did the same thing and it ended up getting him into a bit of trouble after his employers at the US Mint started wondering just how he was living so high…)

  20. For those trying to cheat the system? Even if Amazon closes the account of serial read/returners after too many refunds are requested, what’s stopping them from just creating a new account under a different email and user name? Instead, I think the solution is to check how much of the book has been read. If less than 25%, then refund it. If more than that, then no refund. As for an appropriate time-period? I think 3 to 4 days is enough time. However, I think returns have more to do with e-pirates.

    I feel that the dilemma isn’t that readers are purchasing a book(s) and returning them after reading them for a refund, the problem is most definitely related to e-piracy. Usually after a book has been refunded, within a day or two I can always find pirated copies. The major distributors of pirated eBooks purchase the book, remove the DRM, and then return it.

  21. @Sherry, your point of pirates removing DRM and then returning it is why your suggestions of less than 25% read won’t work. It’s too easy to download a book, strip the DRM and then return it, without reading any of it.

    That said, as an author, I’m still not worried about returns. Or piracy. My returns have been minimal, and I see piracy as free advertising, so I’d be totally cool to see pirated copies of my work. Then I’ll know I’ve become big enough for people to care enough to pirate me.

  22. Actually, I just checked. My first fiction book is up on a pirate site. I’m feeling strangely chuffed now. :)

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