For those of you unaware, over the past few days there have been rumblings (at least in authors’ circles) of something coming to be known as AudibleGate. Audible is the dominant player in audiobook industry, as I’m sure most of you know, accounting for 90% of audiobook purchases. They have been ALLEGEDLY (take that allegedly as a blanket statement over the entirety of this blog post) engaging in a shady practice of allowing their customers endless returns, for any reason, within 365 days of purchase, and then hiding that return information from the authors by merely subtracting it from their sales totals.
It doesn’t matter if someone has listened to the entire book and liked it. It doesn’t matter if they’ve returned ten books that month and kept recycling their credit. It sounds like great deal, right?
It’s not, because those returns come out of the pockets of hard-working authors and producers – many of whom have seen a 50% decline in sales because of it. Because when an audio-book is returned, it’s deducted from an author’s sales as if that sale never happened. From these numbers, many audible listeners engage in this practice, probably unaware of just how much it is hurting the creators.
Worse, Amazon makes it easy and makes it sound like it is a feature, and even promotes it. So, the reader may even be unaware that it hurts to return an audiobook. It’s out there in the open, so it has to be legit, right? This is made more apparent by the fact that the language used to promote it says something along the lines of return any book for any time, any reason, no questions asked. That last bit is particularly damning.
The cherry on top of this sundae? Audible does not report returns at all, but merely subtracts them from total sales. That makes it impossible for authors to determine the sheer scale of the returns, and audible refuses to provide that information despite MANY authors asking them. Authors were only made aware of this shenanigans quite recently, when a glitch cause a huge chunk of returns to happen all at once, leading authors to discover their sales substantially decreasing overnight.
How is this possible? Mainly, Amazon has been really pushing returns on audiobooks for any reason as a “benefit” of joining. The only problem is, authors and producers never agreed to these terms. The reader gets free books, Amazon gets the monthly sub, and the creators – who go through thousands of dollars of expenses just to produce these audiobooks – get completely shafted.
I don’t really even see it as the readers’ fault. I mean, Amazon puts the return button right there in plain sight. Some authors are reporting they are seeing as much as 50% decline in overall sales, since Audible themselves have started actively promoting returns as a benefit of joining, making it super easy for customers to do it.
All I can say is … this makes me incredibly sad. Especially as the readers may be unaware that they are hurting the authors and narrators by taking money from the their pocket, mistakenly concluding they are sticking it to the man and stealing from Amazon, not us. This is not true, since Amazon gets the money anyway in the monthly sub.
What’s the point of writing all this? Awareness mainly, I guess. Many of you may have done such a thing, mistakenly thinking that Amazon was paying us anyway when you returned an audiobook (or even an e-book). Nope. We don’t get a penny of that. And the sheer amount of returns actually occurring behind the scenes is probably intentionally being hidden from us, evidenced by a lack of returns info being provided to the author. (Amazon is the biggest company in the world, and our Kindle dashboard has shown returns for pretty much as long as it has existed. To say it can’t be done is disingenuous.)
Never mind the fact that audible takes anywhere from a 60-75% cut of list price of the audiobook anyway. Yeah. It’s pretty insane. And they can do that because they are basically a monopoly that has 90% market share.
All this to say, all of this coming to light is highly disturbing. It makes me question EVER producing audiobooks on my own, something I was very excited to do. When Audible is 90% of the market, I basically would have to distribute to them to make it worth it. And it rankles, knowing that half of my sales are not even being counted because of customers returning an infinite amount of audiobooks.
So, what would be a good solution? Well, let’s give authors a return column for one. We need transparency going forward. There’s really no exucse for not having one unless Amazon is trying to hide something.
Second, on the returns themselves. Most authors understand returning something when you don’t like it. But returning a book after an hour of listening because it’s not your cup of tea, versus listening to an author’s entire series and returning each book in succession … those two things are night and day. What we’re saying is that there are loads of people doing the latter. Enough for authors to be noting a 50% decline in sales. Some authors’ dashboards are even showing negative numbers!
The point is, it’s not fair. And ultimately, it’s bad for the reader in the long run. The longer this goes on, it becomes more financially untenable for authors and narrators to make audio-books. I’m sure the big guys will still make money, but the little guys like me will find it very hard to do it in a way that makes us a profit. This isn’t just my passion, it is my business. And if a business venture can’t make me money, well .. . it’s simply not possible. I don’t make much as it is.
The question is, what is a fair solution? For a start, maybe returns cannot be allowed after a 50% listen, which gives the reader plenty of chances to decide whether the story is for them.
I usually don’t write posts like this, but I think it’s a good thing that all this is coming to light, and I truly hope something is being done about it. Though I’m highly doubtful, since Amazon has no incentive to change a system that’s working for them, nor do readers want to give up infinite books, even if it means the authors are hurt.
I’m not a soap box type of person, and I still want to provide audiobooks for all my future works. I just don’t know if it will be possible, especially as the problem of returns grows more rampant.
I just beg of you, as an author and an advocate for the narrators who spend their blood, sweat, and tears to bring these awesome stories to life for you … please don’t return the audiobooks if you truly want to support the authors and make producing audiobooks a financially tenable proposition. We understand if you listen to part of a book and realize it’s not for you. What we’re talking about is listening to a book, liking it, and returning it anyway. It costs thousands of dollars to produce them, and MANY authors can’t make their costs back, and many COULD have done so already had Amazon not misled consumers into thinking it wasn’t hurting us.
It is hurting us. So I humbly ask that you readers to support us, the authors, the publishers, the narrators, by being aware of what happens when you click that return button. Every time you do that, it’s money out of the pocket of the people who produced it. Amazon is not paying us when you do that. Support us, because Amazon will not.