Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
GalleyCat’s Dianna Dilworth may have surprised a few readers with her recent post on how to return a Kindle ebook. Although Amazon’s return policy is not new, it’s an easily overlooked feature, particularly when most other digital products are non-refundable.
Now, I do not own a Kindle so I can’t write from personal experience, but Amazon’s customer service page would lead most to believe that ebooks can be returned for whatever reason within that seven-day window:
Books you purchase from the Kindle Store are eligible for return and refund if we receive your request within seven days of the date of purchase. Once a refund is issued, you’ll no longer have access to the book. To request a refund and return, visit Manage Your Kindle, click the actions tab for the title you’d like to return, and select “Return for refund.”
So I echo Ms. Dilworth’s initial question: Should ebooks be returnable?
As I was preparing this post, I found myself flip-flopping with my answer, because there are just so many complications. On the one hand, I understand customers who feel that formatting problems are a justifiable reason for a return, particularly when decorative type, data-heavy tables, and other graphic displays are unreadable, and especially so if these elements are fundamental to a book’s value. That said, these formatting issues exist because of a poorly designed or faulty file delivered by the publisher (or author, if self-published.) It is technically not the e-tailer’s fault. And, since a lot of publishers don’t accept returns on ebooks, this is why some companies like Barnes & Noble will notify the publisher of the issue and replace the customer’s file when corrected, but they will not issue a refund. Now tell that to a frustrated customer. She just wants to be able to read her ebook that she paid for. So Amazon decides keeping the customer happy is worth eating the cost.
Plus, it’s no secret that Amazon has faced some trouble with”self-publishers” flooding the ebook market with poorly written sludge, plagiarized material, misleading content, and multiple iterations of public domain works. Although the company has taken steps to rectify some these problems, it may be a while before the company sheds its “Spamazon” moniker. And, while some of this junk should be blatantly obvious to readers, I suspect there are some deceptive submissions that would leave readers spouting expletives for days were it not for Amazon’s return policy.
But I also agree with some of the commenters who responded to the GalleyCat post: Seven days sure is a long time to figure out whether or not you like your ebook. Depending on the length of the book and the speed at which a person can read, a week is plenty of time to finish an entire book. I would assume that Amazon has a reliable method for identifying and banning repeat offenders solely looking to abuse the system and get something for nothing on everyone else’s dime.
That said, I’d like to think Google has the right idea. They, too, accept returns on ebooks, but with a few restrictions:
You may return an ebook for a refund if the ebook does not perform as described, provided that we receive your request within 7 days of purchase. In certain cases, we may consider refunds outside this period, but please note we make these decisions at our sole discretion. Refunds will not be granted in situations of purchase abuse.
To me, this approach is respectful and addresses key concerns while providing clear, acceptable boundaries that really should satisfy most customer complaints.
As previously mentioned, other companies like Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Sony do not accept ebook returns at all. Readers searching Barnes & Noble’s fine print will find the following:
Once you order a NOOK Book, it cannot be canceled or refunded. If you have technical difficulty with the product, please see our NOOK Book help section.
This language echoes the policies of some of the big publishers. Simon and Schuster states, “Due to the digital nature of the product, we cannot accept eBook returns.” Random House uses a slightly more friendly approach: “eBooks are sold on a non-returnable basis. However, we recognize there will be technical problems that may prevent consumers from downloading eBooks successfully. Customers should contact the seller of the eBook for technical assistance.”
Now, I still don’t know if returnable ebooks are the answer, and there are a whole bunch of complexities that I haven’t even touched on in this post. (P.S., I encourage you to add them in the comments!)
The thing is, regardless of what you or I think, some companies are saying “yes” to ebook returns, and I fear that customers may end up shaking some angry fists at the naysayers. (Heck, even “we’ll think about it” sounds a lot better than a big fat “no.”) The differentiating factor for these big companies is not the quantity of titles available for purchase, nor is it the company-branded device with whatever unique fancy features. At this point, the big players all have respectable ereaders or tablets up for grabs. What makes or breaks a customer is now going to be the service. The small stuff. And returnable ebooks fall neatly into that category.