Imagine for a moment that you’re a renowned chef at a decent restaurant. One day you have a patron, who let’s say had eaten the entire meal, took a week to write a review on Yelp about your restaurant and what they thought of the food, and then this patron calls the restaurant and asks for a full refund of that meal because they didn’t like it.
The meal that they ate over a week ago.
To make things more relevant to the analogy I’m going with (which I got from a fellow narrator named Dan Lewis), let’s also pretend that this restaurant you work for as a chef was bought out in recent years by a much larger company and this company promotes a policy to their patrons that if they don’t like the meal, they can get a refund or be compensated for it, no questions asked, even if it’s weeks after they have already eaten it.
Not only can patrons get a refund for a meal, even if they’ve already eaten it, but the policy is that you, the chef are required to pay for it out of YOUR salary, each and every time a patron does this.
You’d be none too pleased, you say? Good! That’s the appropriate thought process to this analogy. But yet it’s exactly what Amazon/Audible does to the content creators who provide the books produced for the big company to sell and make money from on their platform and marketplace.
The Viral Article Making The Rounds on How to Game the Audible System
There’s an article whose link is getting shared and making the rounds in various narrator and audiobook groups I’m a part of on Facebook that I wanted to make a blog post of my own to address.
The title is How to Rent Books with Audible, and the article’s blog header actually says “Free Audiobooks”, like in this image below:
The post evidently was published in April 2020, although in a screenshot I’ve seen from an email he wrote another narrator acquaintance he claims to have originally written it 5 years prior. I’m including as much detail from it as necessary just in case he’s now getting a lot of haranguing emails from narrators and decides to take this post down (Oct 27th edit: it appears the author has taken the post down since I published this article, but either way, a simple Google search turns up results just like this article or this one). It appears to only lately have been getting under the noses of many of the narrators I rub shoulders within certain groups on Facebook.
The article’s author, Alex Shapovalov, founder of a software development company in Mississauga, Ontario, begins his article with the following observation:
As many of you know, you can buy audiobooks from Audible, but not all of you know then you can also rent books from Audible, although Audible does not call it “renting” and does not advertise anywhere on their website renting option. The service called Great Listen Guarantee and what it is doing, is allowing you to return any book back to Audible if for some reasons you did not like the book, and get your credit back (also you get credit each month with your subscription) and use this credit to buy a new book.
Though Audible may not “advertise renting” or even call it that, it’s evident users are using the service in precisely this way. And being encouraged to do so.
I don’t judge Shapovalov’s motives or reasons for sharing these findings with his readers, because I’m sure they were and are well-intended. But let’s look at this “Great Listen Guarantee”, which according to the author, “is allowing you to return any book and get your credit back.” It should be noted, a quick search of Audible didn’t yield a Great Listener Guarantee result at the time of this writing, so perhaps they don’t guarantee this anymore or call it something else since the publication of the original article.
Shapovalov then goes on to show in detailed instructions along with screenshots just how to go about returning a book, and follows that up with the following:
I know that a lot of people has concerns if returning books too often can flag their account or even block it. I also had the same concerns, so I contacted the support team and asked a direct question if I can return books because I just want to read another book. The answer was YES, and I was assured that there are no consequences to such behavior.
So the preoccupation Mr. Shapovalov may have had when he wrote this is not about any of the consequences this has for those of us — authors, narrators, publishers, and audio producers who create the content which Audible sells and makes a profit on, and how we are the ones who get charged with paying out-of-pocket for returned audiobooks. Instead, the worry is whether it will get the consumer’s Audible account flagged!
I wonder if Shapovalov would feel the same way about his software being pirated and users online being encouraged by employees at his company to go illegally download and pirate his software free of charge?
Following these comments, he shows a transcript of his conversation with someone from Audible, basically encouraging this use of the exchange system. It should be noted, though, if you go to Audible’s site for yourself, they claim:
Our exchange policy allows active Audible Premium Plus members to take a chance on a new narrator or story without losing a credit. Our ability to continue to offer this benefit is dependent on our members using it for this purpose only.
In instances where we find the benefit is being overused, Audible reserves the right in its sole discretion to limit the number of exchanges and refunds allowed by each member, including, but not limited to, the loss of this benefit where Audible suspects abuse of the spirit of the program. Eligibility for this program ends immediately if a customer cancels or fails to maintain his or her membership in good standing.
Well, that would be all well and good, if not for how widespread the expectation seems to have become among readers and listeners that this is an effective way to get free audiobooks. Shapovalov shares the transcripts between himself and an Audible rep who encourages this practice. Screenshots and captures like this below demonstrate some readers/listener’s view of the exchange program is that it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread:
Audible Even Encourages Exchanges
Now, I don’t blame most readers and listeners for not being aware of what this is doing to audiobook narrators and their authors. Everywhere you look, Audible not only encourages it but makes it easy. Take a look at these images:
Readers and Listeners, Here’s What You Might Not Realize
More and more, Amazon/Audible is positioning itself as a subscription service without having to pay royalties for its content. Many authors and narrators put a LOT of work into our books, and when you return an audiobook to Audible to re-use the credit on another book, they take it out of our pockets. We do not get paid for returns even if the entire book was listened to. The multi-billion-dollar Amazon subsidiary company is not really affected by returns but the indie authors creating those books are.
It’s the narrators and authors who spend thousands of dollars of our own money to create these titles, with every recorded hour of an audiobook easily representing 6-8 hours of time spent by professionals to produce it.
We submit an audiobook to ACX who distributes it to Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. And ACX keeps 60% of all sales on that project, and give only 40% to the rights-holder (usually the author or publisher). And that’s ONLY if we’re selling it exclusively with them. If we do a non-exclusive deal so we can sell our audiobook elsewhere (like Kobo, Google Play or subscription sites like Scribd, to name but a few), ACX only pays 25% per copy sold on their marketplace.
So we’re already getting a crappy deal in terms of how Amazon by comparison gives its self-published authors 70% royalties on ebooks sold on their platform, but its subsidiary is actively encouraging customers to return books for another one, screwing us over.
As a reader, I appreciate and am grateful for the option I can get a refund for any accidental purchases and can count on one hand how many times I’ve availed myself of this feature. But even in that case, you have to do it within 7 days of the purchase.
Audible, not to be outdone, gives people 365 days, AND with “no questions asked, any reason”. If that weren’t bad enough, it’s been brought to my attention many times this month that Audible is apparently ENCOURAGING listeners to use this feature. I’ve even seen blog posts teaching readers and listeners how to keep getting returns on Audible with one credit being used repeatedly. In fact, just do a search on Google for “Audible exchange” or similar wording, and you get a lot of tutorials from even popular websites.
Why is This Such a Big Deal?
Susan May, a fellow author and founder of a group on Facebook currently named, Fair Deal for Rights Holders & Narrators points out in one of her posts I share a portion of below with her permission, the issues with the way Audible is marketing their Guarantee is that:
- There’s a growing awareness and perception that this is an acceptable practice as it is featured in advertising and spread through word of mouth and groups;
- There’s no mechanism to stop those misusing the “easy exchange” system;
- It’s implemented as a way of keeping members since when members attempt to cancel, they are taken to a page that suggests they simply return books, to gain greater use of the service. If you’re not a member you can’t return books.
- Anecdotal evidence suggests whole series and back catalogs are being consumed with one credit, despite Audible claiming you can only re-use a credit on one more book or reuse a credit only once.
- There’s a perception that Audible/Amazon is rich and they can afford to do this or that it’s not a big loss to their bottom line. Readers and listeners are rarely aware it is affecting the content creators.
- Audible/Amazon are teaching readers that authors’ and narrators’ work should be free and assigning no value. This is probably a consequence of the increasing “Netflix’ model of paying a monthly membership fee for “unlimited” content where consumers now expect access to a catalog of such content for a small monthly fee.
I would just like to appeal to you that if you want to listen to unlimited audiobooks, there are other services you can do that with who at least compensate the authors and narrators to some degree. And, Audible now has “Audible Plus“, which is a monthly membership like Kindle Unlimited or Netflix where you can get unlimited listens for a monthly fee which includes a large selection of books, including classics. (Link on Audible here for more info).
Most indie authors are not listed in this Audible Plus program, but the selection of available titles is large enough that if you’re on that tight of a budget that you can’t afford a new audiobook each month with one of your Audible credits, then I’m sure you can still find plenty of original and exclusive content to enjoy.
So if you want your favorite narrators and authors to continue to produce audiobooks, please spread the word to be ethical audiobook consumers. The only direction this can go in is either enough authors get so frustrated they boycott Audible and make their work available elsewhere, and leave you, the listener less selection in Audible than you’d otherwise get. OR, your favorite narrators and authors give up on producing such audiobooks due to the high cost of producing them, not to mention the unfair return rate eating into whatever profits would have offset their production cost.
Simply put, everybody but Amazon/Audible are hurt by this in the long run.