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Why You Shouldn't Worry About Returns and Refunds of Your Self-Published Book

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

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The Horrible Review I Got on Udemy

Actual review from my top-selling course on Udemy, How to Self Publish an Audio Book:

"A big NOOO. After having been through the 1/3 of the course i decided to interrupt it and go to another course i purchased which I'm enjoying. The information are very superficial, it leaves the feeling that its not from experience but from youtube learning instead, I'm very disappointed and I'm asking for a refund for the first time."

Well, I shared my experience from producing nine audiobooks that have been available on Audible for a few years now. But some customers will be disappointed with what they purchase, regardless of what you offer. Admit it; you're not happy with everything you buy. Other customers get loud with negative reviews because they want a refund and need to justify why they want their money back.

I don't fret that somehow my books or content are bad. And here's why you shouldn't worry about it either.

It’s Just Business as Usual . . . And Getting Worse

Sellers, including self-published authors, can expect that a portion of their sales will be returned.

As reported on CNBC, survey research by the National Retail Federation and Appriss Retail found that 16.6% of total merchandise sold in 2021 was returned. That is up from 10.6% in 2020. The average rate of returns for online commerce was 20.8% in 2021, which is up from 18.1% the year prior. The pandemic could have accounted for the higher return rate from people shifting to shopping online, which is a different shopping experience. Regardless of the reason, it is still a significant portion of sales.

Using these metrics, this means that for every 10 books you sell, you can expect that at least two of them might be returned for a refund. Take comfort in that if your return rate is lower than 10 percent to 20 percent, you’re beating the retail odds.

In the brick-and-mortar bookstore business, Publishers Weekly reports that up to 30% of books are returned. This isn’t the same as returns of direct-to-customer sales either through your own website or Amazon. In traditional publishing, when a bookstore “buys” your book, it isn’t really a sale until it is sold at the cash register. Therefore, bookstores often retain the right to return books purchased for inventory.

"Library-ing"

Amazon’s and Audible’s policies are generous for returns. As of this original post date, both Amazon and Audible have a 7-day return window for eBooks and audiobooks. That’s not very long, but long enough to finish a book for a fast reader. For print, it’s a 30-day window.

I’ve seen a number of posts and videos on social media from authors who complain about abuses of these policies with readers who buy books but then return for a full refund even if the customer read the whole book. I call this “library-ing” since that’s how these customers are using the system. They read and return. Why they do it is up for debate. Cheap? Content pirates? Can’t find the books they want at their public libraries?

Cursing nameless, faceless customers for alleged unethical behavior is not helpful. I think it’s bad karma. Come to grips with the fact that not everyone will like everything you do.

How Many of Your Books Have Really Been Returned?

With physical print-on-demand books you’ve published through KDP, the print book could have become damaged in production or shipping. Amazon is very accommodating when it comes to customer returns and replacements for these situations. They may handle a customer return and replacement for a print book without you ever being aware of how and when they resolved the issue. You might not see that in your KDP reporting. I haven’t.

For orders that are completely refunded, KDP authors can find how many of their book sales have been refunded . . . sort of. Currently, that data is under the old KDP Reports under the Month-to-Date tab. However, that data is only available for the current month and previous month. So unless you’ve been pretty obsessive about manually tracking this data over time, it’s lost after about 60 days. I’m hoping that at some point in the future, this data will be added with easier access and historical stats in the new KDP Reports Beta reporting.

Because it’s currently such limited reporting, are the self-published authors who cry about returns and refunds keeping track of this manually to justify their concerns? I have my doubts there. Or are they just presuming returns and refunds are happening because their sales are low or fluctuating?

It’s easier for audiobook authors to count returns and refunds using ACX. The number of books refunded is noted for each title for all available time periods and lifetime. In total for all of my audiobooks, I currently have a less than 1 percent lifetime return rate.

The Reality of Returns and Refunds

Teasing out the real reason why it happens can be almost impossible. Amazon, KDP, and ACX for audiobooks will never tell you which customers made the returns. Nor will they give you the reason the customer offered for the return. All you might know is that a return occurred.

When comments are available about a refund or return, realize it’s just feedback. Returns and refunds do not always mean that your book or content is bad. It might just be a bad fit for a particular customer’s expectations.

This is the reality of retail and online commerce. Don’t take it personally. Take it professionally.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Heidi Thorne