Amazon's Digital Returns Problem

Amazon has a viral problem with its e-book return program

Amazon's Digital Returns Problem

Amazon has a viral problem with its e-book return program

The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses, at

Here's what the kids are doing with e-book returns

Amazon's undisputed place at the top of the e-book market gives it tremendous leeway to put whatever policies it wants in place, partners (and in some cases, customers) be damned. For example, the company has a generous/porous return policy for digital books that can lend itself to a little digital arbitrage in the hands of motivated users. The CBC lays it out, by way of a new trend on TikTok:

In Canada and the United States, customers have seven days to cancel a Kindle book order for a full refund, regardless of whether the book has been read or not. In other countries, customers have up to 14 days. The policy includes audiobooks.
But the trend has been hurting independent and self-published authors, Wiltzen said.
"They think Amazon is a big conglomerate, but Amazon got big that way by de-risking themselves and passing that risk on to the artist," Wiltzen said.

In particular, authors who self-publish on Amazon have to pay a download fee when customers buy their books. When a book is returned, so are the authors' royalties — the download fee is not.

The book industry in general is generous — another word might be finicky, still another, high-handed — when it comes to returns. Print books, for example, can be "bought" by bookstores from wholesalers and then returned for whatever reason at full price at an indefinite time.

Publisher Anne Trubek has written about this at length, showing how it creates perverse incentives for publishers to print, and wholesalers to ship, books that will never sell (or will only apparently be "sold"), only for their returns to cancel out a large portion of the profits the publisher might have believed they'd banked on a title. What's happening in digital is a little different: it's almost like if the wholesaler charged extra fees for stocking and shipping the books (and indeed, it does cost real money to move these books around, wayward atoms that they are).

In both cases, it feels less about fairness and more about power. The most powerful entity, the one who supplies the basic infrastructure of ordering and delivering the books, is free to impose whatever terms they wish on their partners. There may be options wholly outside that system, but they're not competitive ones. So Amazon/the book distribution universe gets its way, and its partners eat the costs.

However, at the same time, there are good reasons why Amazon offers digital book returns at no cost to the customer. First of all, there's an expectation, set by physical and digital retail all over the world, that new and unused items are returnable within a reasonable window of time. (Is a week a reasonable window? Is two weeks? This can be debated!)

Besides straight accidents — not uncommon, especially in a world where one click can trigger a purchase! — there are mistakes of intent or remorse or misinformation. There are gifts, and duplicates, and miscommunications. There are hundreds of legitimate reasons why someone would return a digital book.

Here's a personal example: in April, I preordered a copy of the new Cambridge centenary edition of James Joyce's Ulysses for the Kindle. Yes, I am precisely that kind of nerd.

But I was excited, not just because I love Joyce in general and Ulysses in particular, but because I love that edition of Ulysses. It also promised to come full of explanatory and critical essays.

Finally, we also have to say it: even though Ulysses is now in the public domain, and plenty of editions are and have been available for the Kindle, they are, universally, trash. They suck! They're nearly all paid ripoffs of a free digital file that offers nothing more than a  mangled version of an already mistake-riddled text.

Having a good digital edition of a book like Ulysses that a student or scholar can use would be a huge step forward. However, despite what was promised, that is not what the Kindle version of the Centenary Edition of Ulysses is.

It's not even really an e-book, in anything but the grossest terms. It's a digital replica of the print edition. It can't be read on any E Ink Kindle e-reader, only in the Kindle app, and even in that case, only for certain operating systems.

None of this was made clear when I preordered the book in April, or when the book (originally set to be published before Bloomsday) was delayed until later in the summer. It only was made known once the e-book was officially available for sale on June 22. And I only found out that I wouldn't be able to read the new Ulysses on my Kindle when the order was fulfilled.

Naturally, I did what customers often do when the item they've ordered turns out not to be what it purported to be: I returned it. Happily, Amazon processed the return almost immediately. Hopefully, Cambridge University Press was not too overwhelmed by returns or any attendant download or purchase fees. I'm sure the print replica digital edition will find whatever homes such an undertaking deserves.

Why am I telling this story, besides sheer temporal coincidence? Hey, don't knock temporal coincidence! We wouldn't have Ulysses without it. But also, this is a case where a clear solution is not obvious. It's not great that the marauding teens of BookTok (TikTok for books, naturally) are whipping through genre fiction and stiffing self-published authors with the bill. But in general, I think Amazon offering a return policy that's generous to readers is a good and necessary thing.

That's it?

So what, Tim? Both sides are right? Okay, here's what I propose, should this become an even bigger problem:

  • Amazon should make it a priority to give more and better information about its digital book titles, including preorders. Let readers know who's publishing the book, what formats it's going to be available in, etc.
  • Amazon should make it harder to buy books accidentally. This might slow down e-book sales, which is why it it's unlikely to happen.
  • Amazon should eat the bogus download fee it charges self-published authors in the case of returns. However, Amazon has a monopoly for books sold on its platform, and massive pricing and term-setting power in the world of digital books period, which is why this is unlikely to happen.
  • Still, it would be a good show! Amazon could use some good press, and a chance to remember that its self-published authors are customers too. I feels a little like Liam Neeson in Schindler's List, during the brief scenes where he tries to persuade Ralph Fiennes to be a kind, generous concentration camp overseer. "Amazon, the Good?"

Let's just say, it seems unlikely.

What does seem likely? This isn't the last time you're going to hear about e-book returns for Kindle books. What BookTok is making viral today will become a full-blown pandemic across a much wider swath of users tomorrow.