Did you know that book publishing is the one industry in which publishers are expected to reimburse bookstores for unsold inventory? It’s an arrangement that was instituted during the Great Depression and it was intended to ensure that bookstores would stock books by new authors, take chances on large print runs, and generally keep inventory available even when sales of non-essential items like books were slim. Those returned books become the publisher’s problem—they have to warehouse or pulp the books that come back—while the booksellers move on to the next new title. Done correctly, booksellers argue (rightly or wrongly), this process allows them to stay afloat, and to offer a wide range of physical books by a variety of authors. Done incorrectly, though, booksellers can buy vast inventories of print copies to have on hand without really having to care about whether those copies actually get sold. It’s a quirk of the industry, and one that can be a real trial for publishers logistically and financially, but it’s not the main topic of discussion today (though it might crop up later).
Today we’re talking about customer returns. If you’re an avid BookTok user (or if you follow the Porcupine’s Quill social media accounts), you might have seen the posts about a certain Kindle “hack.” Readers challenge themselves to buy an ebook, and then return it within a seven-day window to take advantage of Amazon’s refund policy. Essentially, readers get to read a book for free when they’d normally have to pay for it.
Naturally, this has spawned a debate across social media and news channels, with some considering such behaviour theft while others vociferously argue for their right to return books. But the debate is vast and confusing, full of flawed analogies, apples-to-oranges comparisons and straw man arguments. In this post, I’d like to take a look at some of these complications, and tease out where the controversy might lie in this issue that, for many in the publishing industry, might seem pretty cut and dry.
1. What do we mean when we talk about returns?
For the purposes of our book returns discussion there are three main types of customer book returns:
Case A: A person reads a small part of the book and returns it.
I think we can all agree that this case is the least objectionable. If you’ve picked up a book, read a chapter, and then discovered that you’ve already read it, or that the topic’s not what you expected, or that the writing style isn’t for you, most of us would say it’s not unreasonable to return a book in those instances. You made an honest mistake and you’d like your money back.
Case B: A person reads the whole book and returns it because they didn’t like it.
This second case is a bit more of a stretch. Books don’t usually come with a satisfaction guarantee. (Well, some, like “Heather’s Picks” at Indigo, do, but it’s not the norm.) It is understood that tastes are subjective, that some people will find a certain book resonates with them while others find the book objectionable or boring or not representative of their tastes or values. Often publishers do their utmost to ensure the right audiences find the right books by writing product descriptions and back cover copy, soliciting blurbs, sending out review copies to media organizations, providing previews, etc. Sometimes, despite all these efforts, a reader, still doesn’t like the book. Such is life. But simply getting to the end and not liking the book doesn’t entitle the reader to a refund any more than getting to the end of a boring film entitles the watcher to a refund from the cinema.
Case C: A person reads the whole book and returns it even though they did like it.
This is where the real brouhaha surrounding this topic has arisen. In one article, an author noticed an uptick in purchases and returns on Kindle for all volumes in a series, not just the first book. It isn’t difficult to surmise that readers read and enjoyed the first book, returned it, then read and enjoyed the subsequent books in the series before returning those, too. It is obvious here that the motivation is simply to read a book for free, essentially treating Amazon (or any bookstore) as a library without the fuss of having to wait for your local branch to acquire a print or digital copy.
It is my contention that how we feel about these different book return scenarios is somewhat tied to how we think about books, essentially how we answer the question:
2. What do we mean when we talk about books?
“Okay, Porcupette Steph,” you’re probably thinking. “We know what books are. Book are where the stories live.” And that’s true, but it bears unpacking.
Consumable or not?
On the one hand, we might think primarily about books as physical objects—as products consisting of bound paper inside sturdy covers.
But nowadays, that definition of “book” doesn’t quite do the trick. With the ebooks and audiobooks coming on the scene, we need to think about the wider concept of the book beyond its physical appearance—after all, ebooks and audiobooks have no tangible form. They live digitally as files, often in the cloud, and though we can license their use, we don’t actually own them in a way we can touch and hold. With that in mind, we might come to the conclusion that actually, a book is a consumable product—it’s not the physical thing that you’re buying but the story inside. Once you have read the story, it gets digested in your brain and becomes a part of you.
The shirt analogy
One BookToker arguing in favour of book returns put forth the analogy that a book is like a shirt. To paraphrase, the analogy goes something like this:
You order a shirt online, try it on when it arrives and decide it doesn’t fit. You can bring it back to the store or ship it back to the website to get a refund since the retailer can (in theory) resell the shirt to another customer.
Perhaps this analogy works if you consider a book to be nothing more than object. Perhaps if the book is still in perfect condition. Perhaps if restocking it in a retail store or an online vendor’s warehouse is not prohibitively expensive. Perhaps if you’ve only read the first chapter of a book and decide it’s not for you. Perhaps if the designer of the shirt isn’t charged a fee for your return. Perhaps then, the analogy makes sense.
The shirt analogy redux
For me, the analogy of a book as being like a shirt is flawed. A more accurate analogy, which considers a more nuanced view of the book as a consumable object might be:
You order a shirt online, try it on when it when it arrives, tuck the tags in, wear it to a brunch date and a BBQ, spot clean it and generally enjoy it for a bit. But after all that, you decide that you don’t like the style anymore. Can you still return it for a full refund?
Most people would say no. While it isn’t damaged or defective, and the tags are still on, you got the value out of the item already. You wore it, treated it as your own, made it part of your style. To return it at that point would mean returning a used product.
The thing to remember is, books are still different from shirts in one respect. Remember at the beginning of my post when I talked about bookstore returns? If that shirt were a book, the bookstore would return it, too! The publisher would be on the hook for it, and the author, alas, gets nothing. But you still got your story.
You’ve had your book, and you’ve eaten it, too.
Free Shipping Ain’t
There’s an added complication when it comes to online orders. The cost of goods is not just the price of the thing you bought (like a shirt)—it’s the cost of getting that shirt to you, also. “Who cares?” you say. “Shipping is free!” But if you think about it, there’s no such thing as free shipping. The truth is, free shipping is just subsidized shipping—you might not pay for it, but the seller certainly does.
Ebooks are no different, especially from Amazon. Though no physical product is changing hands and no shipping fees are charged to get the book from the warehouse to you, the seller (the author or publisher) is still charged a “delivery fee” to get the book to your Kindle or ereader. That fee is not refundable even if the book is returned, so not only does the seller lose out on the purchase price, they also have to pay the fee for that refunded sale. Some self-published authors have found themselves with royalty statements in the negatives—they owe money to Amazon for books that readers have enjoyed and then returned.
I find it interesting that, though this is the focus of the news stories I have read regarding book returns, many of the social media posts about the topic completely ignore the issue and speak only of their presumed right to return products they don’t want.
3. Who’s entitled to return a book?
My choice of words here is deliberate. A lot of the BookTokers talked about “entitlement,” many decrying the entitlement of authors who think they should be compensated for “bad” books.
I’m quite frankly baffled by the thought that it’s a bad thing for authors to feel entitled to compensation for their work, regardless of its quality. It’s part of any fundamental understanding of authorship that payment is exchanged for the words they’ve written. This payment is determined (traditionally) as a percentage of sales, so if those sales are constantly being negated by returns, the author doesn’t get paid. And it is in the best interests of all readers to make sure authors are fed, watered, and producing the beautiful books we depend upon for entertainment and enjoyment.
The problematic author problem
I can see how things might get sticky if you find out that a book is racist or sexist or homophobic or in any way discriminatory. Or perhaps you find out an author has spouted off views in public that you find repugnant. In that case, you are obviously within your rights to refuse to buy any of that author’s books. You are additionally within your rights to divest yourself of any of said problematic author’s books that you’ve already have read and that you no longer want to keep, whether through donation or heck, even destruction.
But if you’ve already paid for and consumed it, you’re not entitled to your money back, no matter how much you want to publish the author for their sins. You did your due diligence you did before you bought the book—you read the back cover copy, the blurbs, the reviews etc. You might now feel you’ve made a mistake, but like all adults, you learn from it and move on. You don’t try to make others pay for it.
The impoverished reader issue
Another argument I’ve seen, however weak, is that some readers claim that they can’t afford the books they want to read, and so they have to resort to this Kindle hack in order to access them. I find this to be unconvincing for several reasons (and I’m heartened that some BookTokers called out this type of entitlement as well).
First and most obviously, libraries are a thing that exist. Free access to a wide variety of books, both physically and digitally, is one of the highlights of a public library system. Granted, some library systems are better funded than others, and some might not keep in their collection the exact book you want to read at any given time. BUT that’s a great argument for advocating for increased library funding in underserved areas; it’s not a great argument for reading and returning books so you can get them for free.
Second, however much we may wish it were so, free entertainment is not a right. Simply wanting to read a book is not a morally sound reason to resort to book piracy, nor is it sufficient to justify the read-and-return hack.
The loophole defence
Another argument I’ve seen is that readers are not doing anything wrong; they’re just taking advantage of a loophole. Are they technically correct? Maybe. Is what they’re doing illegal? No. Is it ethical? I don’t think so.
It’s pretty obvious that this is undesirable behaviour. If you buy a film or music album, the product becomes non-returnable once you open the packaging (in the case of dinosaur physical copies) or once you hit the play button (on digital streaming services). The fact that ebooks do not enjoy that same policy is puzzling, and it’s little wonder that people are taking advantage of it if they can, regardless of the ethics involved. Authors and publishers can only hope that the publicity surrounding this book return issue might draw Amazon’s attention to the loophole, and that in the future they will be treated to the same protections as deep-pocketed film and music studios.
The bottom line
For me, the most compelling argument against this whole read-and-return business is the potential for harm. It is clear to anyone who takes the time to read the articles surrounding this book return issue that no one is saying, “book returns should be disallowed under all circumstances, no exceptions.” But forcing independent authors to pay out of pocket for readers to enjoy their work for free is pretty deplorable, and forcing publishing companies to swallow the costs for your reading convenience—or your moral outrange—leaves a bad taste in the mouth, too.
The questions surrounding the ethics of returns are complex and evolving. With the rise of online shopping—and the subsequent rise of online returning—our society will have to come to terms with when and why we should return the items that we buy.
And I’m not just thinking of the big guy eating the costs of returns—I’m thinking about the environmental impacts of shipping, the waste of returned objects that never get restocked and are instead discarded, the cost to small businesses, and yes, the harm to independent publishers and authors. We all need to remember that in order for our literary ecosystem to thrive, we have to nurture it. After all, we can’t expect to enjoy the fruits of our literary labour if we keep hacking off branches due to our own laziness, entitlement or greed.
Thank you for stopping by to read my thoughts on this issue that I feel needs a little more discussion—and some action on the part of retailers. If you would like to weigh in on this book returns business, please leave a comment below!