Earlier this month, Lisa Kessler, a paranormal romance author, logged into Kindle Direct Publishing to check her earnings from the previous month. On her publishing dashboard, she saw something she had never seen before in her 11 years as an author: a negative earnings balance.
The reason for the negative balance? Kindle e-book returns.
Authors are protesting Amazon's e-book return policy, a system they say allows readers to "steal" from self-published authors. Amazon's current return policy for e-books allows customers to "cancel an accidental book order within seven days." But, for some readers, seven days is more than enough time to finish a book and return it after reading, effectively treating Amazon like a library.
When an Amazon customer returns an e-book, royalties originally paid to the author at the time of purchase are deducted from their earnings balance. Authors can end up with negative balances when customers return books after the author has already been paid by Kindle Direct Publishing, an Amazon spokesperson said.
Authors and readers want to change the policy
Reah Foxx, a book lover from Louisiana, started a petition to change the policy after seeing "life hacks" circulating on social media that teach readers to abuse the Amazon return policy and read for free. To date, the petition has garnered almost 70,000 signatures.
Kessler said prior to the "read and return" trend, she would normally have one or two book returns a month, something she attributed to genuine accidental purchases. Now, she sees entire series of hers being returned.
"It really rattled me," she said. "You think, 'Can I still make a living if this continues?' and that's very disheartening."
Kristy Bromberg, a romance author, said she's had more returns in the past two months than she had in the entire eight months before that combined.
Those suggesting the read-and-return practice think they're "sticking it to Amazon," but in reality are only harming the authors, said Eva Creel, a fantasy writer who publishes under the name E. G. Creel.
"I have my book available at the library. If somebody wants to read it for free, they can," Creel said. "But reading it and making me think that I've made an income and then that income being taken away from me, that feels like stealing."
Science fiction and fantasy author Nicole Givens Kurtz said she's concerned that this trend will continue.
"If people continue to promote [reading and returning e-books], it impacts my income, which impacts my quality of life and my ability to take care of my family," she said. "I don't think readers quite understand or see the person behind the product."
Amazon's policy stands out from other big brands
Out of the five largest e-book retailers, Amazon is the only one that allows customers to easily return e-books within a seven-day window. Some other retailers have a flexible return policy, but require extra steps — Kobo and Apple iBooks both require contacting customer service to see if an item is eligible for a refund. Barnes & Noble and Smashwords do not allow any e-books to be returned.
E-books are also the only digital products Amazon allows customers to return.
"I don't really understand why digital movies and digital music aren't returnable, but digital books you have a whole week to read that book and return," Kessler said. "That doesn't make sense to me. It's still a digital product."
Kessler, Givens Kurtz, Creel, and other authors also suggest Amazon limit returns based on how much of a book a customer has read — say, after reading 20% of a book, it can no longer be returned.
"Amazon aims to provide the best possible experience for customers and authors. We have policies and mechanisms in place to prevent our e-books returns policy from being abused. We're always listening to feedback and we investigate any concerns we receive," an Amazon spokesperson said.
These authors are still loyal to their readers, and hope the ones returning books learn how the practice is harmful.
"Authors love readers. They're our lifeblood," said Chad Ryan, a horror and fantasy writer. "My hope is that readers will understand that influencers on TikTok and discussions on Facebook may have all the angles figured out on how to get e-books from Amazon for free, but it's not Amazon they're hurting here."
"Readers and writers have a symbiotic relationship, and most readers are the best," Kessler said. "The best thing to come out of this big scandal is that readers have writer's backs, and that means the world to writers."