Audible adjusts terms after row over ‘easy exchanges’ that cut royalties

Alison Flood
·4-min read

Audible has changed, but not reversed, a controversial policy that allowed listeners to return or exchange audiobooks, with the cost deducted from writers’ royalties rather than absorbed by the Amazon-owned company, after thousands of authors protested.

A letter signed by 12,228 authors and backed by major organisations including the US’s Authors Guild and the UK’s Society of Authors, expressed concerns over Audible’s “easy exchange” policy, which allowed subscribers to return or exchange an audiobook within 365 days of purchasing it, with the money then deducted from the writers’ royalties.

The letter said that thousands of authors had seen losses to their income as a result, with writers citing “alarmingly high rates of return, from 15% to as much as 50% or more of lost sales over time”. One author estimated they had lost tens of thousands of dollars as a result of the policy. The audiobook market is currently booming, with sales up 42% to £56m in the first half of this year.

Writer Susan May, a leading campaigner against what has become known as #Audiblegate, told the Guardian that authors were unaware of the magnitude of their returns because Audible only supplies net figures without showing returns separately.

The letter alleges that some customers were using one subscription credit to listen to a whole series of books, while others were returning audiobooks they didn’t want to listen to for a second time. They described the system as not a return or exchange policy, but a rental or subscription arrangement in “disguise” – which is not what writers grant Audible when they sign up to its terms of service.

“In breach of its own non-negotiable agreement, without asking or notifying the authors, Audible has put books into a de facto subscription program that pays no royalties and thereby robs authors of the income due under the contract,” says the letter, which was sent on 20 November. “If Audible wishes to continue to permit the returns and exchanges of audiobooks after more than a reasonable time, say 48 hours, then Audible must do so at its own expense and pay authors the royalties due for the sales.”

On 24 November, Audible responded, saying the system “allow[s] listeners to discover” audiobooks and “take a chance on new content”. It said it did limit the number of exchanges and refunds allowed and claimed that “suspicious activity is extremely rare”.

Audible said it would change its policy to pay royalties to authors for any title returned more than seven days after purchase, rather than within 365 days. But writers believe the change does not go far enough.

“We believe Audible’s change in policy has been a poorly considered response to serious concerns by rights holders who collectively have lost, and continue to lose, possibly millions each month from this programme, which only benefits Audible,” May said. “Until Audible supplies returns data in a transparent and timely manner we can’t know our losses and authors have their doubts very much will change in our favour.”

The Authors Guild pointed out that for some audiobook listeners, seven days is “more than enough” time to listen to a whole audiobook. “It is not fair to deduct the author’s royalty for books that have been or could have been listened to,” said the Guild. “This practice is unparalleled in digital media retail. We think that royalties should only be deducted in cases of accidental purchase and within a much shorter period of time, such as 48 hours, and only if the audiobook hasn’t been listened to substantially.”

“It’s shocking to all of us at the Alliance of Independent Authors that Audible/ACX/Amazon feels it can cavalierly admit to dipping into creators’ wallets and hiding transactional information. This sets a precedent which is alarming to every indie author publishing on an Amazon platform,” said Orna Ross of the Alliance of Independent Authors. “It is good that the company has made a concession but authors point out that they still are not receiving transaction information, and there is still no limit on how far through a book a reader can get in those seven days and still get a refund. Depending on how the maths is done, this may cost Audible less and authors more. The point is, we don’t know because there is no transparency around how payments are calculated.”