Returns

Although, on the whole, I think I’d rather be talking about film sequels, this isn’t a post about Return of the Jedi or Return of the King. It’s about audiobook listeners returning audiobooks. Yeah, I know. Big yawn, right?

Ordinarily, I’d agree with you. But something has recently come to light that affects many authors and narrators. Not in a good way. I’ll come onto it in a moment after I’ve laid out a little background.

Amazon has what I consider to be a reasonable policy for returns of its Kindle ebooks. A reader can return the ebook within 7 days* of purchase. Since it is possible to accidentally purchase an ebook you didn’t intend to with Amazon’s one-click function, it seems only fair that the reader who does this should be able to return the ebook without fuss. I also have no problem with a reader being able to return the ebook if they can’t get on with the writing style or subject matter and struggle to get past, say, the third chapter, or if the content is utter crap scraped from the internet and published as some sort of scam.

This policy can, of course, be abused. I have held conversations with people who have used Amazon as a lending library by reading and returning ebooks within the period allowed, but I believe Amazon has been clamping down on this practice. I usually get a smattering of ebook returns each month, but they seem to be far fewer now than they were two or three years back. Although the thought of someone buying one of my books, reading the entire thing and then returning it for a refund doesn’t exactly fill me with joy (since I don’t get paid for that ‘purchase’), it happens so infrequently that ebook returns aren’t really an issue for me.

How do I know that ebooks are returned infrequently? Amazon provides this information on my sales dashboard and in the monthly reports I download to compile sales figures. I also receive returns details from most other retailers through which I sell, such as Kobo or GooglePlay. Simple, transparent, as it should be.

So, what about audiobooks? More specifically, audiobooks sold through Audible (or Apple or Amazon via Audible’s distribution arm, ACX)? I’ll post some links shortly to more detailed explanations of the issue for anyone who’s interested; what follows is the potted version.

Audible members pay a monthly subscription, in return for which they have monthly credits (one per month with the basic subscription) they can use to ‘purchase’ an audiobook. Audible is owned by Amazon. It is alleged that both companies are encouraging members to exchange their used credit for a refund, i.e. to reuse the credit to ‘buy’ another audiobook with no questions asked. It doesn’t matter if the audiobook has been listened to and enjoyed in its entirety—the member can return the audiobook and reuse the credit for another book.

You might be thinking that sounds like a great deal for the Audible member, and I’d have to agree with you. But what about the author of the book in question and (if different and they are sharing royalties) the narrator? Ah, there’s the rub. You see, the cost of the refund isn’t borne by Audible or Amazon, but by the author and narrator. Some authors are claiming to be losing up to 50% of their audiobook income. For many of us, this income is part of our livelihoods.

To make things worse, unlike Amazon with ebook sales, Audible doesn’t provide authors with details of audiobooks returned. All we are given are the net sales figures. So, if I sold twelve audiobooks this month, but seven of them were returned by the listeners as allegedly encouraged to do by Audible, I would be paid for five audiobooks and wouldn’t know there were seven more copies sold but subsequently refunded.

To exacerbate matters even further, listeners aren’t limited to 7 or 14 days to return the audiobook for a refund. Fair enough, you might think—it takes longer to judge whether an audiobook is up to scratch than an ebook, so they probably get 21 or even 28 days. Nope, they get 365 days, Yes, you read that correctly. An Audible member could exchange their monthly credit for one of my books, listen to and enjoy the book, and return it up to a year later, whereupon Audible would recoup the refunded cost from me. If I had no sales during that particular month, I’d owe them money.

That’s not what I signed up for when I published my audiobooks on Audible. I was keen to enter the world of audiobooks as a means of getting my work to a wider audience and, naturally, boosting my writing income. I simply cannot afford to, in effect, give my audiobooks away for nothing.

I am deep into producing the second Earth Haven novel in audio. It is a massively time-consuming project that will have taken me the best part of a year by the time it is ready for publication. That’s at least as long as it took me to write, revise and edit the book in the first place. I’m wondering if it’s worth the effort. At the least, I’ll be looking to publish the completed audiobook in places other than Audible.

That’s the thing: unless Audible stops doing as alleged—encouraging returns and allowing them for up to a year without question—and unless it starts providing details of returns to authors and narrators, many content providers will be thinking twice about placing more content with them. What sounded such a good deal for Audible members will become increasingly less so as the flow of new content dries up.

A Facebook group has been set up to pool information and experiences, and to coordinate approaches to Audible. (I’ll link to it shortly in case you’re affected by this—I believe you’ll need to prove you’re an author or narrator before you’ll be allowed to join.) The initial response isn’t promising. While Audible has recently acknowledged there is an issue**, it appears thus far to be reluctant to provide details of returns to authors upon request.

I wondered whether I ought to talk about this. There could be audiobook listeners looking in who weren’t aware that it was possible to use Audible membership as, in effect, an unlimited lending library, and go trotting off to sign up. I am also aware there are people out there who believe that all digital content should be freely available to whoever wants it. Well, all I can say to them is that I, like many others, work my butt off to produce digital content and I simply cannot afford to provide it without any financial return. I hope that most audiobook consumers will agree that authors and narrators deserve to be paid for their work. If we’re not going to be, most of us will stop doing it.

* in the US; in the UK, for some reason, it seems to be 14 days

** from a ‘Letter to the ACX Community’ sent by email on 11th November:
“In addition, we’ve recently heard from members of the ACX community who are concerned about Audible’s overall return policy. While this customer benefit is for active members in good standing and suspicious activity is rare, we take your concerns very seriously and are actively reviewing the policy with this feedback under consideration.”

Links
Audiblegate! The incredible true story of missing sales
The Digital Reader
Facebook group