When was the last time you bought a DVD, brought it home, watched it, and then returned it for no other reason than you were never going to watch it again? When was the last time you did the same for a CD? an MP3? An electronic device?
How about a book?
There is a story making the rounds right now about a reader who bought an author’s series of books, read them, and then returned them––before contacting the author directly to tell her she’d done so, and to please make her works free so she wouldn’t have to keep returning them.
The author banned the ‘reader’ from her page, and posted screenshots of what had been said. Then, the ‘reader’ retaliated by making a new account just to harass her again, claiming that the author could have been a bestseller someday if only they had done what she’d asked (never mind that the author makes no money on a returned-sale). The reader closed with the lines “We shouldn’t have to pay for the stories in your head!”
The story was so ludicrous I was prepared to call it a simple troll, but then I saw the screenshots myself. The author has since deleted the posts to preserve her quiet life, and out of respect for that wish, I will not release any names or screenshots. I do not know the author personally, but the screenshots were not doctored.
What I want to talk about with this story is not just the flagrant abuse of the return system on Amazon, which deserves its own coverage (15% read or within seven days, you get a full refund), but about the idea that a book, as an author friend put it, is somehow worth less than other types of entertainment media.
If you buy a DVD and try to return it, shrink-wrap gone and without the disc itself having any defects, it’d be pretty hard to do so. Same with a CD, or an MP3. But somehow books, perhaps because bookstores and libraries generally have the same feeling, or perhaps because books seem like a right, rather than a privilege, both readers AND authors devalue their work.
For the last few years in the indie community, there has been a lot of pressure for authors to price their work at 99 cents, for example, because there was simply no other way to compete with the online catalogs that were bursting at the seams with new content every day. It has its pros and cons–readers now have so many choices that their reading material will never, ever run out, but it also has corrupted the integrity of Amazon sales rankings, which can be gamed–sell 50 copies on a given day in your genre, and you could make the Top 10–become a bestseller! (some genres are more competitive than others, but a bestseller status used to mean selling at least 100,000 copies in any given year.) With the price gauging authors themselves perpetuated, now 99 cents is expected by many readers, and if you charge more than that, you are possibly dooming your book to a low search rank and out of the ‘price range’ of many readers.
After all, I have seen readers complain about prices quite a bit. They compare books to their daily coffee: why should I pay more for a coffee than an ebook. Because so much is free on the internet, that attitude is to be expected. Even authors sometimes fall into the trap of asking why a cover artist’s work, for example, is so much, when they are only going to sell their book for 99 cents. (Answer: a book can be sold multiple times; a cover can only be sold once. The price you set for your book is not the artist’s problem.)
All of this is not to blame authors alone, because it really is a symptom of modern media and the struggle to be noticed in a sea of perma-free books, Wattpad, piracy sites, and celebrated, NY Times List authors that are “guaranteed” not to be a “waste” of the reader’s money. But hey, even authors with brand name recognition are beginning to feel the pinch of a culture that simply doesn’t read all that much (the median for women is 5 books/yr and for men, 3 books/yr).
But for a reader to expect and even demand that an author make her books free? To specifically target that author, approaching as a fan, and say that the author should be thanking her for such communication? With all the ways in the world to legally read for free, or at a low cost (your local library, Scribd and Kindle Unlimited, to name a few), there is no reason to make those kinds of demands.
I mean, it’s great that the reader liked that author’s works. But let’s get real for a second. If that author can’t afford to keep publishing (not even writing–publishing, which has several backend costs, like editing and cover design, at the very least), you won’t be able to continue reading her work. She won’t be able to afford to share those amazing stories in her head. When you pirate, return a book unfairly, or demand an author work for free, you are in essence cheating yourself out of continuing to have that author’s work available to you.
Don’t abuse systems that are meant to protect against mistaken purchases. It’s not really Amazon’s fault, here. But if it keeps being abused, then authors will pressure them to change, and then it will be harder for those not abusing the system to get help when they need it.