Let’s Talk About Books

by Julie, enjoying the warmer weather in Somerville

This week a friend asked if I’d heard about a a trend on TikTok called Read Return Challenge. I hadn’t, so I looked into it. Apparently there’s a trend encouraging people to buy a book or audiobook, read or listen to it, and then return it for a refund. I know that I don’t have to explain to readers of this blog why that is problematic. When a book or audiobook is returned to Amazon, Amazon doesn’t take the financial hit. Authors do. Sure, Amazon loses their portion of the sale, but they make enough money to offset the loss. For indie bookstores, the return of a sale has a bigger effect. They operate on slim margins, and returns add up.

But this is about more than money. It’s the spirit of the thing. Not liking something creative–whether it is a book, a meal, a play, music, or a movie–does not mean you can return it. When you experience something creative, you are taking a “risk”. A risk that it may not be to your liking. A risk that you may not enjoy it right away. A risk that you may have a visceral reaction and truly loathe the experience. We are living in a thumbs up/thumbs down world, and creative endeavors require a more nuanced conversation. Having feelings about your experience is part of that conversation, and helps you develop critical skills.

I suspect that the creators of the Read Return Challenge weren’t being critics of the work. They were gaming the system. On the backs of writers. Not cool.

Which brings me to other thoughts about the book business. There are many ways people can get and read books. One is, of course, the library. Authors love libraries. Requesting your local librarian purchase a book or series you’re interested in shows support for the author. Budgets for libraries are being cut, so showing support for your local library is crucial. That means getting a card, using it, and advocating for the library with your local government.

Not every library has the wherewithal to purchase indie books. Programs like Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited are a subscription service that pays authors, but also allows the reader to enjoy an unlimited number of books every month. There are traditionally published books in the program, but there are also a lot of indie authors.

Another way to access books, if you’re a reviewer, is NetGalley. NetGalley is how many Goodreads reviewers, for example, get books early and share their thoughts. Word of mouth is still the best form of advertising, so this is important. Blatant Self Promotion time: The Plot Thickets, Garden Squad #5, is up on NetGalley.

Many publishers do giveaways as part of book promotions. Goodreads is one place where you can find them. Publishers will also announce them (follow them on social media), as will authors.

BookBub is another book source readers should know about. There aren’t free books on the site, but there are book deals. Signing up is free.

If you want to support indie bookshops, but there isn’t one in your area, Bookshop.org is a great resource. I’ve curated reading lists on Bookshop.org for Sisters in Crime, which is another great way to use the site.

Barnes & Noble is also an important part of the book ecosystem, as are other online retailers.

If you have a local library you love, and would like to support, Sisters in Crime has a “We Love Libraries” $500 grant that is given out six times a year. Pass this link to your local librarian.

If you have a local independent bookstore you love, Sisters in Crime also has a “We Love Bookstores” $500 grant that is given out six times a year. Pass this link to your bookstore.

Thank you, dear readers, for supporting this blog, and for supporting the authors who visit us. And for those of you who review books, THANK YOU!

What’s your favorite way of accessing/reading books? Me, I’m a combo Kindle/Audiobook/Bookstore/Library reader. And conferences–I have yet to come back from a conference without a bunch of books and a long reading list.

50 Thoughts

  1. That is so horrible. What kind of idiot would think up a challenge like that???? I would never return a book even if I hated it. That’s like going to the grocery store and getting a bag of M&M’s, eating half of it, returning it and saying I didn’t like this peanut butter flavor, can I have my money back.

  2. I love ebooks, and thanks for highlighting yet another problematic TikTok Challenge. Ah, the misspent years of youth.

    Your post reminded why I wrote this on my about page: “Books have the power to influence choices made at life’s crossroads. Through stories, readers learn the likely results of their choices, helping them transform their lives by avoiding negative consequences. The story you write has the power to shape the lives of young and old.”

    Let’s embed more cautionary tales on “theft” and the consequences in the subplots — that’ll learn ’em!

  3. I hadn’t heard about that TikTok thing. Just. No.

    I don’t listen to audiobooks much unless I’m on a long solo drive, which I haven’t done much lately, but I’m glad most of my books are available that way. Otherwise I read from all the same sources you do. Aren’t we lucky?

  4. Hearing about this new TikTok thing makes my blood boil. Reading and then returning a book is THEFT, plain and simple.

    I love audiobooks and subscribe to Audible. I have a huge collection of print books and ebooks. If there’s a way to own books, I’m all in. In fact, there are a few books I’ve purchased in one format and then gone back and bout in one or two other formats as well! Returning one would never enter my mind.

  5. The thing with TikTok doesn’t surprise me. No one feels like they have to pay for anything on their own anymore so resorting to criminal activity strikes me as being par for the course.

    I don’t do audio or ebooks so even if I had not a shred of personal integrity I couldn’t do the challenge. And nothing I would ever do in the first place.

    For me, I prefer the physical copy of books. I get them from the bookstore and ARCs for review purposes. Call me a Dead Tree Reader, I guess.

  6. Hi Julie,
    Great post in support of authors with great strategies and links to act upon! The Tik Tok Challenge has been all over the blogs I read, but your post gave clarity to specific ways to support authors. I just forwarded the link to my local library.

    I read a painful post from one author who checked his dashboard, only to find out he was losing more money then he had earned in a month’s time, from these returns. Just Awful. I am a member of SinC, a novice writer and avid reader and have never in my wildest dreams considered returning a book, other than to the library.

    I appreciate how you framed the discussion on how creative works often require nuanced conversations. I have found that I have been challenged to reconsider books I have not connected to, when I have spoken with others about it and hear their interpretation.

    Let’s hope we see book sellers do their part to stop this trend. Certainly ebooks have a trail of whether the book was read. If it rises to a certain percentage, it should not be able to be returned.

    Thank you for your thoughtful post on this important matter!

    Sharon Elizabeth

    1. Sharon, thank you for your comment (and for being a member of SinC). That dashboard story drives it home, doesn’t it? I agree with you on conversations with people who like or don’t like something I’ve experienced. I’ve had many wonderful post-theater conversations with people who had a different reaction to a piece than I did.

  7. Great sources! As a subscriber to Amazon Prime, I get ebooks free on their site and read them on my tablet through my Kindle app.

  8. Love reading books which means I’m always on the lookout for them. Going to conferences is tons of fun and a great way to be introduced to new authors and reconnect with those we know so well AND picking up some books in the process. I’m a paperback book reader only so bookstores are good for me. Living in a small town, lots of times I depend on the library because bookstores aren’t available to me. But on doctor appointment trips or vacations, I search them out. I’m always great appreciative of authors who hold contest giving us readers a chance to win copies of their books. I do enter giveaways on places like Goodreads and blogs as well. To show my appreciation and to give other readers a heads up, I always leave my honest reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble and Kobo and others if my time allows because some of the others don’t allow copy and paste. I then share those posts on social media like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  9. The TikTok challenge? UGH!!!! Brava to you for spreading the word about this unconscionable thievery.

    My reading is divided between print and the occasional ebook. I support brick and mortar bookstores, both chain and indie, both domestic and foreign.

      1. Thanks for saying that. 🙂 Authors and books make my world a delightful place, rain or shine. Blessings to my Mom for taking me to the magical library in our town when we first moved there. I was seven. 🙂

  10. My guess is that the TikTokkers, like most people who don’t actually know writers, figure they’re rich and can afford to lose the revenue. (HAH!) I really hope this is just a flavor-of-the-month on TikTok and they’ll go back to the weird makeup tutorials soon!

  11. I have heard about the read/return phenomenon, but I didn’t know it was a TikTok challenge. I don’t think I’ve ever returned a book. If I buy a duplicate, I give it to a friend. Same with a book I didn’t like. Someone out there would like it, so I donate it to the library or give it away. But read and deliberately return? Ugh.

    I’m not much on audiobooks, but I do read both print and ebook. Much easier to travel with my several books on my iPad then several books in my suitcase.

  12. Ugh – makes my blood boil. I can’t think of a single book I have ever returned anyplace but the local library! Sure, I’ve bought books I didn’t like, but I figure that’s a matter of taste and not the fault of the author or bookstore. Read/return reminds of me of the complaints stores had back in the day about the number of gowns and dresses that came back immediately after a high profile social event. I hoped all those concealed tags PINCHED! Enough on to happier topics.

    I’m a Kindle/bookstore reader. My local library is still on COVID hours and opens infrequently so I haven’t plumbed their depths – it’s on my bucket list.

    Julie, thank you for posting the link for bookstores. I had no idea and we have an excellent and deserving indie bookstore in Fort Kent. I’ll get the link to Heidi!

  13. I’ve never returned a book either. It’s really horrible. Bookbub deals of the day are my nemesis. It’s so easy to find a book and buy it. Sigh. But I often use our local library and a local independent book store. Great piece, Julie!

  14. I don’t keep up with TikTok & never heard of this disgusting challenge. Maybe some popular authors should make their own TikToks in response. I can remember once returning a book many years ago when I received the same book as a gift a few days later, but it’s just not something I would ever even think about doing otherwise. I buy books from my local bookstore & sometimes from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, used books in person or online and ebooks from Amazon. I’m also a big library and Libby user for books, ebooks, audiobooks and movies. If you aren’t willing to support authors, you can’t expect them to be able to afford to continue publishing!

  15. After having zero returns for months, in April, I had 14 books returned, one each of my 19 books published out from the Canadian market. I was tempted to write Amazon and ask them the ban that reader from buying books, but I let it go. No returns in May, so I’m hopeful I’m escaping the notice of TikTokers.

  16. Not being a TikToker, I wasn’t aware of this abomination. Who thinks stealing is funny? I doubt that most of these thieves have any idea of what they are really doing. I rarely return anything for any reason. Just not worth the hassle.

    I have a live/hate relationship with BookBub. I have to learn to have more discipline! And they DO have freebies from time to time. That’s how I learned of them. I’m a big supporter of my indie bookstore, Aaron’s in Lititz, PA. Well worth the little extra cost for the service and friendship.

  17. And here, I just returned a book this morning. Don’t worry, it was a library audio book that I returned via the Overdrive app (which was how I had borrowed it in the first place). And I returned it 11 days early, thank you very much. And yes, I know this isn’t what you were talking about.

    My first thought when I heard about this challenge was a bit of incredulity. When I buy a book, it’s often months before I actually get a chance to read it. By then, any return period would have long expired anyway. How can you read a book you bought so quickly?

    I could see returning a book if you realized it wasn’t for you within a chapter or two. And yes, I’ve stumbled upon books like that upon occasion.

    HOWEVER, the main idea behind this is enough to make me see red. You don’t get things for free in life. Authors deserve to be paid for their work. This is dead wrong and the fact that so many people seem to see nothing wrong with it boggles my mind. Heck, even big companies like Amazon deserve their share of the profit if you bought it from them. (We can get into who deserves how much, but that’s a different issue.) You wouldn’t return to Starbucks with an empty cup and demand a refund, would you? So why do the same with a book?

  18. Thanks for letting us know, Julie. I know there was some outcry about Audible’s terms for returns in 2020; the Authors Guild and others brought the issue to light (https://www.authorsguild.org/industry-advocacy/statement-on-audible-and-acx-updated-terms/). Audible & ACX ended up tweaking some of their terms after that.

    Yay for your book being on NetGalley! And so thankful for the grants from Sisters in Crime for libraries & bookstores. 🙂

    1. I love reading physical books. Hardcovers are wonderful, and I also read paperbacks as long as the print is not too small. I don’t use E-books, Kindle or Audio books because those just don’t provide the same ambiance for me. And yes, I LOVE my local library! I never run out of cozy mysteries to read, and that is how I like it to be!

  19. I am bewildered by the number of people who will think up really stupid nefarious or injurious (or both) stunts and promote them on TikTok like a big fat joke. I am also bewildered by all the bad things that have increased in general. Somewhere we have lost ethical and moral behavior and we aren’t getting better. Of course, both those things are now good themes to use in stories to show how unethical civilization is becoming!

  20. One hundred percent right on, Julie! It reminds me of the days when some people decided it was okay to download music without paying for it. The people hurt most by these schemes are the artists.
    Personally, I buy ebooks and hardcopies. I also get a lot from my local library. I wish the people gaming the system thought more about folks other than themselves.

  21. I usually purchase books from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. I am so sorry that people are trying to milk the system. It is not far to you, the publisher or anyone. God bless you.

  22. I was glad to see Amazon’s new one week return policy. It won’t stop all cheaters, but it will help. The few times I have had to return a book, it was within hours, usually minutes, because, yes, Amazon, you do let me buy the same book twice and send a different book from the one on my invoice every once in a few thousand books.
    I can’t understand readers who do not get that they are stealing from authors, our heroes!

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