Literary larceny is a new ‘trend’ that is normalizing stealing from authors. Stealing from authors—or anyone for that matter—is NOT okay. I know, I know. Some topics I shouldn’t even have to blog about. I mean what’s next for blog topics? “The Great Wonders of Using Toilet Paper,” “Why Kicking Puppies is Wrong” “Top Five Reasons Not to Eat Tide Pods.”
Yet, here we are. I know I just posted, but this couldn’t wait. It’s…it’s a problem.
Some people—not all people—should be deeply ashamed that I even have to post on this.
What is literary larceny? Other than a clever use of alliteration? This is when people believe, for some odd reason, that it is perfectly okay to buy an ebook, read it in full then return it…and just keep doing this repeatedly without ever actually paying for a book.
According to the article Writers riled by Amazon offering refunds — after readers finish ebooks 4/3/22 by Rosamund Erwin and Liam Kelly:
The trend appears to be driven by users of TikTok, the video-sharing platform that has engaged many young readers through the hashtag #booktok. Videos about returning ebooks have been viewed more than 17 million times. Some users provide tutorials on how to return books after reading them.The Sunday Times
I wish I were making this up.
It is bad enough some people are stealing, but then they go make How-To videos to help train NEW thieves?
Did Kindergarten teach y’all nothing?
Literary Larceny & Lending Libraries
Before we go any further, I’m no stranger to this topic. My blog ‘Pay the Writer’ went viral in 2015. I wrote the blog in response to an article claiming that buying used books supported writers.
Eh. Not really. It was part of the whole ‘exposure’ schtick. I asserted that if readers actually wanted to support their favorite authors, to try and buy something NEW because used books didn’t pay any royalties.
If writers don’t make any money, we cannot afford to keep ‘working’ as a writer. When I wrote that article, Huffington Post had all but single-handedly demolished most freelance work that once paid really, really well.
Just go open up your copy of Stephen King’s On Writing where he talks about how much he was making on magazine pieces while he was building his career.
In the 1980s and 1990s, magazines were paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars for well-crafted articles. But, by 2015, major sites like Huffington Post expected writers to work for ‘exposure dollars’ (as in FOR FREE) and be grateful anyone would deign to read our content.
***Meanwhile, Arianna Huffington cashed out to the tune of over $300 million in real dollars.
Why do I bring this up?
First, many of my critics blasted me claiming that, if I didn’t support used bookstores (patently false) then clearly I must also hate LIBRARIES since people didn’t pay money to borrow a book.
So we don’t do this dance again, let’s check out how lending libraries work (pardon the pun).
Buying and returning ebooks nonstop is NOT even CLOSE to the same thing as going to a library.
Libraries can actually be VERY lucrative for authors. Contractually, libraries BUY the rights to the copies of the books on their shelves. The library can only loan out those books so many times before, BY CONTRACT, they must remove the book and BUY RIGHTS TO/COPIES OF A NEW ONE.
Yes, this was why the library charged you $75 to replace the $5 paperback you lost. They had to recoup what they had to pay the author.
The same goes for libraries who lend out ebooks. The library can only loan out that ebook a set number of times. Once they pass this number, the library has to renew this process if they want to keep loaning out the ebook.
Lending libraries are awesome. Writers make money. When writers make money, we can write MORE books.
Literary larceny is not the same as a lending library.
One is supporting authors and the other is a level of entitlement I cannot wrap my head around. Oh, and it’s stealing. There are massive short and long-term consequences for this.
My second reason I bring up this old post?
Normalizing Literary Larceny Bad
Expecting writers to write for free is not new. Like many other creative professions, we’ve been fighting this battle for a long time. But I addressed this entitlement back in 2015. Why? Because I spotted a pattern of behavior we needed to stop.
If people bought used copies and LOVED the book? AWESOME. All I asked was that they then please buy something NEW so the writer could pay her bills. No big deal.
Oh, but it WAS.
The sheer level of entitlement I encountered with that post absolutely FLOORED me. Apparently, I had some nerve. If I wasn’t making any money, then maybe I was a crap writer and needed to get another job. Writers were a bunch of whiny babies who needed a real career.
Sadly, I lost count of all the justifications for why it was totally appropriate to expect writers to work for free.
Far too many people utterly missed the point. Readers DID value what the writers created. They valued those books enough to buy them…used. My contention was simply that writers had to make money if readers wanted them to write more books. If readers wanted more books, then please buy something new.
Not rocket science. And not unreasonable.
***Creative professionals already give a ton of stuff for free (YouTube videos, memes, images on places like Pexels, blogs like MINE).
The problem, however, was this. The Internet had already started normalizing FREE and had unwittingly cultivated a culture of entitlement. I saw the writing on the wall. If we didn’t educate readers and allowed the entitlement to thrive, eventually it would be a monster raging out of control.
And here we are.
Btw, please don’t eat Tide Pods.
Don’t believe me? What IS stealing?
If I walk into one of the few remaining Barnes & Nobles and put a stack of books into three giant tote bags and walk out, that is STEALING. Oddly, if I walk into a used bookstore, load up a pushcart full of books, then walk out without paying, guess what that would be called? Again. STEALING.
In fact, I’m pretty sure if I strode into a library and loaded up bags full of books and just left? Probably considered stealing as well.
But, if I buy and return ebooks to my heart’s content and never actually pay to read any of those books. This is, oddly…NOT STEALING?
That’s bull sprinkles! Where did we get this math?
For people who are on a budget, check out books from a library. Sign up for Kindle Unlimited where you can read or listen to thousands of titles for a small fee paid monthly. Writers might not make as much but at least they’re not being flat out ripped off.
Look for titles the authors are willingly and knowingly offering for FREE. Writers are some of the kindest, most amazing people in the world. Generous to a fault. Ask me how I know.
Amazon, Step Up on the Stealing Stuff
Jeff Bezos all but declared open war on NYC Big Six publishing (Re: Amazon Publishing: The Road to Conquest & How Bezos Razed New York). Sure, Bezos began Amazon selling everything online but books, but he always had his sights on taking over big publishing.
Which, you know what? Fine.
As far as I can recall, he wanted publishing to be more egalitarian. He dreamed of a system where authors could be paid fairly. Those writers who produced a lot of content the public loved would be rewarded accodingly.
I’m all for that.
Amazon has done some great things. Not denying that. On this book stealing stuff though? Uncool. Seriously uncool.
Great, Amazon dismantled Big Publishing and crippled Barnes & Noble. That was part of the plan. But, after single-handedly burning our industry to the ground, I feel Amazon has a responsibility to all the authors they’ve displaced.
You don’t get to overthrow the literary leaders and take over the pack, only then to throw the pack under a bus.
Amazon wanted to remove a system with agents, editors and publishing houses—institutions that had traditionally fought for author rights—and that’s all well and good.
Now step up.
Amazon, I am NOT totally hating on y’all because that is just low-hanging fruit, not to mention largely erroneous.
I get it has not been easy. I’ve been here for the entire rodeo. I understand how much fraud y’all have had to discover and disrupt. From bots ‘fake reading’ KU books to bait-and-switch scams, to locating Chinese counterfeit books, y’all have done a lot.
But that’s the price of admission into the digital world.
Literary larceny is NOT okay.
Protect Your Writers from Book Theft
Yes, there are still publishers around and a smattering of bookstores. This said, by and large, most everything else book-wise has to be run through Amazon. This is why I feel this company has a moral obligation to protect their authors.
I get it. Bezos didn’t like Big Six publishers.
Amazon’s core arguments for bulldozing traditional publishing was because the Big Six were so ridiculously bad at business. Granted, that is a sound argument. But fast forward to now—where authors really have no other viable option where to sell their books—and Amazon’s brilliant plan is to enable people so blindly entitled they actually believe stealing is a friggin’ ‘life hack’?
Under the current guidelines, readers can return an ebook within 14 days even if they have read the entire book. Then, Amazon deducts the royalty from the author.
Granted, I like a solid return policy. I’ve been with Audible for almost four years and I’ve returned books. That is a privilege that comes with my membership, but one I rarely use. I’ve completed almost 340 titles since joining. Trust me. Writers are making a LOT of money from me.
Stealing is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
I like companies with liberal return policies. It makes life easy when I don’t have to fill out a stack of paperwork, submit a DNA sample, a horoscope and three letters of reference just to get my money back.
Amazon, you have been too nice. Walmart, Target, Sam’s and Costco all went through this, too. You give a generous return policy, but then there are those people. Those people are why we can’t have nice things.
Eventually these companies started taking down people’s driver’s license numbers. Return too much and too often? Banned from returning stuff….cuz it is a form of stealing.
Why am I calling out Amazon? Because this is a problem of SYSTEMIC PROPORTIONS and changing the return policy is a stopgap measure (until these @$$hats find a new way to steal books).
In 2015 I wrote post after post after post trying to make people wake up to the growing sense of entitlement in our world. We have entire generations who’ve grown up on memberships and streaming services and being entertained 24/7 via the internet and social media. I don’t know if the people on TikTok even understand what they are doing.
I mean, in 2015 Salon dot com did a hit piece on me in response to ‘Pay the Writer.’ Used bookstores around the world vowed to ban my books. Readers vowed to never buy my books from used bookstores.
Um…huh? Wait no. Um never mind. *throws up hands*
People failed to grasp that writers didn’t make money off used books. Maybe the folks on TikTok don’t realize that returning ebooks is seriously hurting writers. I like to give the benefit of the doubt.
I believe in education.
For those who didn’t know any better before now? Please stop. For those who now know better and don’t care? Shame on you. Don’t complain when your favorite authors stop writing because they couldn’t afford to work for free anymore.
And, FYI, karma’s a doozy.
If anyone reading this is active on TikTok and sees these videos? Speak out. Report them. Let them know that literary larceny is NOT cool.
Know Your Worth
This is a conversation I have had many times on this blog. This starts with us…with writers. We have got to start valuing what we do and what we contribute. If we don’t value our books, who will?
This is why I have a very specific way of teaching how to build an author brand. Ideally, we want to use social media and blogging to cultivate an audience of fans. I teach HOW to do this in my book.
Fans would never even think of stealing from their favorite authors. In fact, fans will shut down stealing from their beloved scriveners. I know, because many of you guys have messaged me over the years to tell me when my books were being pirated.
Just know that it is okay to ask for the sale.
FREE is a legitimate marketing strategy. It is why I encourage writers to write series. Offer the first book (the loss leader) for free and, if you’ve written a good book, odds are good that people will then feel much more confident buying the rest of your books.
This is how authors make so much off me on Audible. I’ll listen to an audiobook, find out it is part of a series, then be willing to donate blood to buy credits to finish out the entire series.
All in all, just know you deserve respect. The world is NOT entitled to take all they want at no cost. You matter. Your work matters.
Literary Larceny & the High Cost of FREE
Returning ebooks might not seem like a big deal, but with most bookstores now shuttered, this is it. The end of the line. If we (fans, readers) fail to support the books and authors we love, they will go extinct.
Right now it seems there are so many writers and so many books. It seemed that way to sailors and Dutch settlers who wiped out the Dodo bird. At one time, hunters thought buffalo were as numerous as the stars, until they nearly obliterated them. Same with the whales, the wolves, the rhinos…and now the writers.
We should all be careful what we take for granted. It would be a sad day to wake up and there are no teachers, no dreamers, no thought leaders. All are like the Dodo bird, relics of a bygone era.
The future is now. Which way this goes is up to all of us.
To Do More About Literary Larceny
If you’d like to do more, please sign this petition to get Amazon to change their return policies. I know this is a MUCH larger problem, but right now we have to stop the bleed.
Literary larceny hurts everyone. In fact, creatives as a whole are really struggling. Some things I do to help support creatives? Pexels allows you to donate to photographers. I also support some of my favorite content creators by donating to their Patreon and I buy downloads of favorite songs.
If you do read a book (free or not) leave a review. Even if your review is short this jukes the algorithms and helps our sales.
And, because Harlan Ellison is AMAZING and this never gets old, you’re welcome (FYI there is language in this, as is to be expected)…
I am glad you enlightened me about Literary Larceny. I never knew this existed. I will share your post with other writers and I hope everyone will do what is needed to convince Amazon to stop this stealing. I was amazed to see that when the e-book is returned, the author takes a hit! You are write. Most of us in the arts make little to no money on our craft and we need to protect ourselves if possible.
Well, I made up the term ‘literary larceny.’ I never miss an opportunity to be clever and I figured that would stick and cover more than just stealing ebooks. Yes, writing is often a labor of love and we need to do all we can to educate people HOW we are paid. They might not know that what they are doing is even hurting us.
Thanks for commenting and for the share.
Amazon requires all book returns to be within 7 days and that has always been their policy. If a customer returns too many books, they block that buyer’s account. So I think this literary larceny is short lived and a very small group of thieves. Returned books have been common in this industry for years. https://the-digital-reader.com/2013/04/03/theres-no-need-to-change-amazons-kindle-ebook-return-policy/
Well, apparently it is all the rage on TikTock so maybe they aren’t enforcing it? I know a lot of authors who are taking a much bigger hit lately.
It is always some new way of stealing books, isn’t it? Gets old after a while. Even 7 days is too long. I can’t buy a book at Target, read the whole book and return it within 7 days.
Hi, Kirsten… All is not entirely a picture of efficiency at Amazon. Let me draw your attention to the blog post in this link (from my publisher’s website) – http://selfishgenie.com/blog.html?fbclid=IwAR3XELg6k7J4Zh2sV6dRYXWgHNaLqOiXUrqVuH8eGLfnOIJDX6P_8nKlYDo – scroll down to the ‘Alice in Amazonland (with apologies to Lewis Carroll)’ piece, posted a couple of weeks ago… Yes, I’m one of the authors affected, who had to buy a copy of my own book in its unrevised form… so be aware, particularly if your previous paperback editions were printed and distributed by an outside company, as most POD paperbacks are.
Feel free to publicise the blog, sharing as far and wide as you want to both warn others, and hopefully get noticed by someone at Amazon who can do something (it appears we’ve only got hold of their bots, and their (almost) human equivalents.
For simplicity, I’ve copied and pasted the text for you here (share it as you see fit, as its author has requested) –
Alice in Amazonland (with apologies to Lewis Carroll)
A cautionary tale for anyone who uses Amazon to publish their titles in paperback, whether independently or through a publisher. If you have only ever used KDP then there shouldn’t be any problem, but for anyone who uses, or has used, a third-party printing service, this could be a bear trap waiting for you.
If you are a small publisher, then this is definitely something of which you should be aware.
Now, as we know, Amazon are a huge global internet supplier, not just of books but for pretty much anything. If they were a High Street (or Main Street if you prefer) outlet they would be present not just in very High Street in Europe and North American, they would be present in villages in the middle of Borneo that no outsider has ever seen. That’s how big they are.
So, you would think that they would have simple processes in place for the resolution of issues. You would be wrong to think that.
Several of the authors we represent used to publish through another small publisher. I’ll call them Fabulous Publishing for the sake of anonymity. A couple of years ago the owner of Fabulous Publishing decided he didn’t want to be a publisher anymore and closed his company down. As part of the close-down, Fabulous Publishing unpublished all the titles they had listed on Amazon (and on other etail sites).
Fabulous Publishing also returned the publishing rights for the titles to the authors, so they could go elsewhere to be published, if they wished.
Some of those authors went to a publisher we’ll call Selfishgenie Publishing, because we don’t require anonymity. Yes, we signed them and published their books, both as ebooks and as paperbacks.
But Fabulous Publishing used a third-party printer to print their paperbacks. We’ll call them Wonderful Printing. They are a big company; they know what they are doing. When Fabulous Publishing closed down, Wonderful Printing contacted Amazon and told them that the relevant titles were no longer available as paperbacks through them and asked Amazon to “de-list” them.
You would think that would be the end of the matter – but if it was, you wouldn’t be reading this blog because I would have no story to tell.
“And that is where we hit our first speed bump.”
?You will be familiar with Amazon Marketplace. This is where small traders sell goods using Amazon’s platform as their sales channel, for which Amazon receives a slice of the action. There’s nothing wrong with that, it makes good sense to “sweat the assets” as it’s known in business.
But one of the things those small traders sometimes sell is second-hand books. And that is where we hit our first speed bump.
Because a trader was selling one copy of a title by one of our authors, we couldn’t sell any of the paperback of the same title that we had published. Until that second-hand copy was sold, the listing showed the paperback as being the one published by Fabulous Publishing. But you couldn’t actually buy a brand new copy of Fabulous Publishing’s product because it was no longer being printed by Wonderful Printing.
We submitted a complaint and were told by Amazon that the trader selling his second-hand copy was entitled to do so and until that copy had been sold, all the publishing details for the paperback version of the title had to remain as “Fabulous Publishing” and our brand-new paperbacks couldn’t be displayed.
That was it – we couldn’t sell any of this title as a paperback until Joe Shmo from Nowheresville had sold his second-hand copy.
The only way out of this was for our author to buy the second-hand copy so that the listing could be changed.
So, problem solved.
“So, we went back to Amazon and asked them to fix it.”
?No it wasn’t. The listing for the paperback was still showing as the one for Fabulous Publishing which, as already established, isn’t available. While our edition was available but couldn’t be purchased because of this ridiculous “through the looking glass” situation.
So, we went back to Amazon and asked them to fix it.
Their reply was that they couldn’t take instructions to fix it from us. It had to come from Fabulous Publishing who, of course, no longer exist. Fortunately, the former owner of Fabulous Publishing is a personal friend and was happy to help. He contacted Amazon with details of not just that title, but all the other titles that he had published as paperbacks and asked for them to be de-listed. ?(But imagine if there was no way of contacting Fabulous Publishing anymore? We definitely dodged a bullet there).
The reply he got surprised him. Because the sales channel for the paperbacks had been set up by Wonderful Printing, on behalf of Fabulous Publishing, they couldn’t take instructions from Fabulous Publishing either. Only Wonderful Printing could make the request.
“This time we really were in a dead end.”
So, (the former) Fabulous Publishing contacted Wonderful Printing, who contacted Amazon. Amazon told them how to delist the titles.
But when Wonderful Printing tried to follow the instructions, Wonderful Printing were told they weren’t authorised to do so. This time we really were in a dead end.
So, we here at Selfishgenie Publishing still can’t publish those paperback titles formerly published by Fabulous Printing.
“So Amazon are lying to their customers.”
And Amazon’s response? Basically they are saying that Wonderful Printing are the problem, even though I have seen the emails that show clearly that Wonderful Printing have done everything asked of them.
If you go onto Amazon to try to buy a copy of the paperback book, it shows that there is one in stock. This is normal for “Print on Demand” (POD) books. But if you click to buy it and put it in your basket, you are then told it is “temporarily out of stock”.
No it isn’t temporarily out of stock. The product sold by that publisher is permanently out of stock. So Amazon are lying to their customers.
Meanwhile, Selfishgenie publishing, who would gladly sell you a copy of the book, is unable to do so. This is the Alice in Wonderland world of Amazon for you.
“But we need your help.”
?The biggest irony of all, and the one that Amazon fails to see, is that while we are down this rabbit hole where neither we nor our authors can make any money by selling the paperbacks – neither can Amazon! Yes, we are using Jeff Bezos’s resources and he is getting nothing out of it.
Is it case closed? Not quite, we hope. But we need your help.
If you think that Amazon are behaving like a bunch of clowns, then please help by sending this blog viral, so that the whole world can understand what an intransigent bunch of idiots actually manage Amazon.
My thanks to the real people behind both Fabulous Publishing and Wonderful Printing for their help in trying to resolve this issue. You know who you are and I owe you a drink.
And if anyone with half a brain at Amazon is reading this and can get us out of this mess, you’ll find our email address on our “Contacts” page. I’ll be happy to provide you with copies of all the correspondence.
But do not despair. You can still get most of our other books in paperback versions if you want them. To find out how, click on the “Books” tab at the top of the page.
SORTED ! … At last.
Like the waters of its mighty namesake, the machinations of Amazon move slowly… but they get there in the end.
As reported earlier, there have been problems with Amazon over the change in my publisher, and the re-launch of the re-written edition of my novel, ‘Transactions’.
It seems that the message got through, whether from my publishers, old or new; the printer/distributors; or someone at Amazon reading the widely shared blog post outlining the fiasco, I couldn’t say, but we’ve got there in the end, and the book is available in both Kindle form, and paperback.
Ugh. Respecting the difference between “legal” and “illegal” is great and all, but what happened to respecting the difference between “right” and “wrong”?
When authors stop writing, you’ll be left with Jeff Bezos regaling stories of how he got rich and didn’t give a rip about books. I’ve already been fleeced by Amazon for a cookbook I wrote years ago. No matter how many times I emailed/called them they found a different way to wriggle out of their obligation.
Great post, Kristen, and thanks for looking out for us writers. I loved the video clip on Harlan Ellison and I’ll be sure to sign your petition. The stealing and entitlement has to stop!
When I looked at the sales figures for my “Live Fast, Love Hard: The Faron Young Story” audiobook, I noticed two “Qualified Return Units.” I didn’t know what that meant because I didn’t understand how someone could return a downloaded audiobook. Now I know. Thanks for the education.
I gave you some of my thoughts about all of this on FB yesterday. Was it yesterday? Time is so discombobulated lately. My husband needs to take his new knee back to work! I want to add however that TikTok is a total cesspool. A complete and total waste of human waste that should be banned from the interwebs with no hope of ever returning for exactly this type of reason. This is the crap that is grown and passed and it’s the young, entitled, we’re-owed-everything-and-by-God-we’ll-get-it-however-we-can-with-zero-repercussions people who use it. One person, just one, pushes something like this and millions jump on the bandwagon and their entitlement goes through the roof.
Sorry, huge thorn in my side here.
I have never returned a book. Ever. I might have set it aside, or taken it to the used bookstore, or deleted it from my Kindle, but I have never returned a book. Whether I like it or not is not on the author and the author should not be punished by my returning it because I didn’t care for it. That’s what reviews are for. But reading and returning and being happy with yourself for ‘putting one over the on the company’ you bought it from? That’s abominable because that’s what they’re thinking. They’re not thinking about the author or the fact that that return comes out of the author’s pocket. They just think they’re sticking it to the company. They really don’t care what happens to the author.
Sorry, I could go on and on but I won’t. It just infuriates me. I wish I owned a dragon. I know exactly what he’d be doing right now…
I’ve never asked for my money back on any e-book, and trust me, I’ve read a lot of garbage out there. To me returning a book is like going to a restaurant, eating the chicken, but not the broccoli (which I hate), then not paying the bill. If you don’t like a book enough to read the entire thing, then don’t order any more books from that author again. That is how I do it. I don’t return books for any reason. And I feel that’s the way it should be with all books, whether ebooks or audio (unless there is something wrong with the book so you can’t read it – i.e. missing pages, bad formatting, etc).
I’ve never returned an ebook. I have returned audio books but often there was a technical consideration or audio was just not the best way to absorb the information. For instance, I was reading a lot on Kali Linux and pentesting in Cyber Security. I listened to 2 or 3 books on coding and they were great, but then I got one that was just essentially reading me lines of code. It really was something I needed to SEE. And the sample I listened to did not indicate that most of the book would be someone reading lines of code. Long way to say that the author usually will still get a sale, just in another format.
I see so many tools esp lawn mowers and chain saws that have been purchased and then returned after the person complete the job at Home Depot.
Excellent post! Thank you for taking the time to address this very serious issue.
Amazon is not allowing unlimited returns.
Recently, I went on a free book binge in certain sociological areas of the Kindle store. As I was happily “buying” everything that looked good, I somehow missed that there were books that were NOT free mixed in. When I went to return those, I was only able to return about 5 of them before Amazon cut me off. (For the record, I had not downloaded a single one of those, and had not read a single word of them.)
So anyway, there’s hope.
Well that is good news. I only blogged on this because all the sudden there were a flurry of articles about authors suddenly hemorrhaging royalties. Since Amazon has a reputation for constantly moving the digital furniture, better safe than sorry. Thanks for the heads up. I know this post garnered about 100 signatures on the petition so….who knows?
It’s likely that certain audiences are doing it more, and therefore certain authors are hurting more because of it.
It’s still sad that this behavior is running rampant in our culture.
Amazon is CONSTANTLY battling fraud. It was why I didn’t lay into them too much. It’s been a problem since the beginning and I don’t see it going away any time soon.