Who Holds the Power?
When I first decided to self-publish, I must admit, I was in the dark about some policies of the platform I chose to self-publish with. I’ll talk about a couple of these policies now and how they provide what I call “the power at the top of the funnel.” Now, there’s also power at “the bottom of the funnel,” and you might be wondering where the author lives in the funnel. It’s in the middle, where there’s very little actual power. Let me explain.
Much has been said, especially recently, about two of the platform’s policies that impact authors. The first is their return policy, and the second is the reporting a book policy. Buying, reading, and returning a book allows a reader to get a free book, and then Amazon charges the author for its “delivery fee” for a digital item. Let’s remove taxes and things from the equation for simplicity and say an e-book costs $10, and the delivery fee is $0.15/MB. You buy the book for that $10. You read it. You enjoy the book and decide you still want to return it to Amazon to get that money back. Amazon accepts your return, and the author gets that return recorded on their sales dashboard. That $0.15/MB might not sound like a lot to you or to the people who perpetually return books, but if an author only sells 10 books in a month (again, to keep the math simple here), and all of those get returned because of some TikTok challenge encouraging people to use Amazon like a library, the author is charged back that fee. So, they now “owe Amazon” at least $0.15, depending on book file size. Multiply that to 100 books and 50 returns, or 1000 books and 500 returns (which are real numbers I’ve heard from authors recently), and you can begin to see the problem. Authors are essentially paying Amazon and readers for reading a book they wrote and published themselves.
This doesn’t include the cost to publish. When you add in editors, formatting, and cover design services, authors sometimes pay thousands of dollars just to publish their book. Again, for simplicity, we’ll say an author paid $1,000 for their publication-related services (and I’m leaving out things like subscriptions for stock photos, websites, and such) and charge $10 for that book. They’d need to sell 100 copies of their book just to break even. If people keep returning their book, they might never break even on that book. This is incredibly discouraging, to say the least, because authors – in particular, in my genre – are constantly giving away their books.
We have giveaways where all you have to do is comment on something or retweet, and you get a free e-book. Joined a newsletter? There’s a free ebook. Reach out to an author and tell them that you really love their books but can’t afford their newest – and I know several authors who will send you a copy. They might ask for an honest review, but that’s it. This particular author community is incredibly giving, and sometimes, to its detriment because self-published authors own all the costs related to publishing their books, and this is often their primary or secondary income that they wish could be their primary income but they can’t afford to quit their day job yet.
This issue obviously exists far and wide and isn’t just within Sapphic romance, which is what I write, but it’s worth noting that every time someone does this, an author loses money and starts to wonder if it’s even worth the hassle. We write because we can’t not write, but publishing is something altogether different, and I know some authors who have considered no longer publishing because of this policy. We’ve written to the publishing platform. There have been change.org petitions, but as long as the policy allows for it, readers will continue to believe they can use Amazon as a library. Yes, Kindle Unlimited exists for this reason, but buying an e-book is not part of a Kindle Unlimited subscription. I’ve also heard people suggesting that if they buy a paperback, they should just get the e-book included.
Authors pay for the paperback to be printed. When we set the price at $14.99, for example, that’s because we’re eating the print cost for the book, which varies by the book (due to length). Then, Amazon takes their cut off the sale. If everyone got a free e-book with every paperback purchase, most authors I know wouldn’t be able to afford to publish books at all.
For some reason, people go to a gas station to fill up their cars and they know they need to have money in their account to pay to fill up that tank. They don’t expect to get a free hot dog with their gas purchase every time they fill up. They also don’t go back to the gas station once they need to refill the tank and say, “I wasn’t satisfied with the gas I had the last time I was here. I’d like my money back.”
With art, however, people believe they can or that they shouldn’t have to pay for it. Would you go into a museum, look at all the beautiful art on the walls, and go back to the ticket counter after you’ve spent an hour walking around to ask for your money back because you didn’t like one of the paintings? Likely, no. If you do, and this actually works, do NOT put it as a challenge on TikTok. The museums would lose all their money and have to shut down.
When you don’t pay artists, you lose art. Writing is an art and a skill. It’s something that I, personally, went to school for. I spent a lot of time and money developing my skill, and I spend a lot of time continually developing myself to be the best writer I can be. Then, I spend the time writing, editing, formatting, cover-designing, and publishing or paying people for those services.
As a reader, if you don’t like the book, you always have the option of reviewing and telling people why. Reviews exist for that very reason. Samples exist for the very reason of deciding whether or not to buy the book. You can always read the sample, which is generally enough of the book to know if it’s for you or not. You have the description as well; reviews of other readers. I’ve sometimes posted up to 10% of my book (Amazon’s limit) on my site prior to it being published so that you can read through it there, if you want, and decide if it’s for you. You don’t have to read the book and return it. The more people do this and promote it for others to do the same, the worse it gets, and the harder it will get for people to be able to afford to publish their books.
Of course, I’m not talking about an accidental purchase, which I know happens because Amazon’s main goal (as for any purchasing site) is to make buying as easy as possible, meaning – you might 1-click and buy a book accidentally. I’m not talking about that here, because you probably just returned it right away and didn’t consume the content.
In the return policy example, you’ll see that Amazon has the top of funnel power by keeping the policy to make readers happy by allowing them to return a book even after they’ve already consumed the content. Readers also have the power here because they can choose to be a bad actor and return the book and/or tell others that they, too, can return a book after they read it. The author doesn’t have any power here. Their only choice would be to not publish on Amazon at all, which isn’t an option for most indie authors, and traditional publishers don’t have enough room in their annual schedules for all of these great books, even if we wanted to go that route.
With the report policy, this is where, once again, the author has little to no power. I’ve had this happen once so far, and I was lucky that I addressed the issues reported and Amazon left my book up during the process, but that was several years ago. It’s important to know that if you report typos to Amazon, they will contact the author and sometimes block their book from receiving sales until the fixes are made. Sometimes, there are legitimate typos in a book. It happens. I’ve read some of the biggest books in the world and spotted typos in them. Those books have been read countless times before being printed, and a typo still got through the process. Most indie authors have beta or ARC readers and at least one editor, and sometimes, more. We read and revise ourselves before the book goes to an editor. They do the same. Then, at minimum, it would go to betas, if the author uses them, and in some cases, there are up to 50 additional sets of eyes on a book prior to publication. Then, the author reviews it again and makes fixes.
If something still gets through and you notice, I don’t know an author who wouldn’t want to hear from you directly instead of reporting through Amazon. You can DM them on social media or go to their website to find their contact form or email address. This allows us to determine if what’s being reported are true typos or are intentional for the book/character. There are things authors do that are purposeful for their writer voice or character voice that may not look like a real word or might not be in line with traditional grammar rules. We can explain that it is or isn’t a typo, thank you for letting us know, and fix it on our own, re-uploading the file without Amazon having a report on their end. If we get even one of these, it can cause a problem, but if there are a few or several, Amazon can technically remove an author’s book or their entire catalog in an instant with no warning and no way of getting it back. We could no longer be able to publish on Amazon, period. We’d be forced to go through Amazon’s lengthy, often confusing support system to find out what happened, explain our side of things, and wish, hope, and pray that they give us our account back.
When this is someone’s income, you can imagine why the authors would want you to reach out to them directly instead of going through Amazon. You can also review the book if you’re concerned there are so many issues/typos and you want to make other readers aware of it because the author didn’t respond to your email or DM or they responded poorly. But remember, if you do this, and they do fix the issues, your review is up there forever unless you take it down, and others might be deterred from the book despite any issues being resolved.
It’s also important to know here that once one thing is reported, flagged, or blocked, it makes it more likely that something else will get blocked later. If this happens to you more than once - even if you’ve done nothing wrong - you’re more likely to get shut down.
There are bad author-actors out there as well: people who don’t care so much about spelling and grammar; people who are gaming the system by padding the back of their books with extra pages that don’t have anything to do with the book itself to get more page reads on KU and, therefore, more money. Those people aren’t really authors, in my opinion. They’re people trying to make money through Amazon by scamming readers. Authors are the ones trying to write great books and publish them so that readers can take a few hours away from the crazy world we live in and get caught up in a good book.
I wish I could say there were alternatives to Amazon that allowed us to publish ourselves, get broad exposure, and make enough money to keep publishing. Even though a lot of authors sell books from their sites or at bookstores, it’s very difficult to do that. Publishers in my genre, for example, as mentioned before, couldn’t even take on all of us, indie authors, even if they wanted to. So, when someone suggests we just don’t publish on Amazon, for most of us, that’s not really an option.
The power is at both ends of the deal, but not in the middle, and I think that’s something worth knowing. All writers want to do is write. That’s it. We have this thing inside us that makes us want to talk to the characters that live inside our heads and get their worlds on the page.
For years, I wrote for myself and didn’t publish. I was working at a job I was doing because I had to make money to survive, but it didn’t make me happy. I still have a day job now somewhere else, and I can find enjoyment in it, but writing is what I was meant to do. Getting my stories out to others has allowed me to join a community that’s giving, accepting, and welcoming. It’s allowed people to read the happily ever afters I write, to believe that love is possible, that there are accepting parents, that there are communities of people that want you to be a part of them, that there are characters they can relate to and see themselves in, and more.
In closing, I’ll simply say that most readers are amazing people who support authors by buying their books, reading them, reviewing, and posting about them on social media. To you, I will always be eternally grateful because you allow me and my wife to continue to do what we love.
You can sign this petition directly, if you haven’t already, to get Amazon to adjust their return policy or have it not impact the author with any fees if someone returns the book.