Why asking for a refund on a book is an affront to art

 

I’ve thought long and hard about whether or not to write this post. I frequently find myself in conflict over whether or not the best way to deal with something sketchy or unkind is to address it head-on, or to refuse to dignify it with a response. 

On one hand, calling out injustices is a little self-gratifying and pointless—I mean, am I really going to change anyone’s mind, or am I just up on my soapbox? Plus, I occasionally see authors with their fists up, ready to fight other authors, readers, a mean tweeter, someone who disagrees with them politically, etc, and I always cringe, thinking their stance would be so much stronger if they simply “rose above” and ignored.

And yet. On the other hand, if nobody spoke up ever, if nobody took the time to explain their perspective, we’d all live in little silos of ignorance.

Ultimately, I try to take the Nora Roberts approach, where generally speaking, she seems to be over there living her life, writing bestseller after bestseller, rolling her eyes at the noise. And yet, she has, on many occasions, taken people to task.

So here we go. I’m likely about to ruffle all sorts of feathers, I probably won’t change anyone’s mind, but I feel too strongly about the sanctity of the written word to hold my tongue any longer.


A couple months ago, I went to Amazon to purchase the most recent release written by an author friend. I’d already hit “one-click,” when a 1-star review of the book caught my eye.

Now, generally, I don’t pay much attention to the reviews of books, positive or negative, on my own books, or books I’m considering buying. The consumption of a story is a fiercely personal experience, so whether or not someone in Boston, Bozeman, or Bakersfield liked a particular book has very little to do with my reading experience. Thus, I mostly just ignore reviews, both positive and negative. 

But this review made my jaw drop open in shock. Literally.

The rating: 1 star

The review title: Waste of money. I asked for a refund, and you should too.

Um. What?

Now, I’m not going to copy/paste the exact text of the review itself, mostly because I don’t want to lead anyone to that particular review and call negative attention to this author's book.

But the gist of the review is that the reader was a longtime fan of this particular author. The reader had pre-ordered the Kindle version of the book in question. She read the ebook. But she didn’t enjoy it as much as the first book in the series. So she asked Amazon for a refund.

Even as I type that last sentence, I feel vaguely queasy, truly, knot-in-the-stomach sick.

This reader asked for her money back, not because it had missing pages, a bent cover, or a faulty spine (again, it was an ebook). She read the entire book, but didn't think she should have to pay for the reading experience, or the author's work on that book, because she didn’t personally enjoy the story.

This offended me to my very core. I dwelled on this review for weeks, then finally decided to chalk it up to some misguided person whose dodgy behavior wasn’t worth another moment of my time or emotional energy.

But whether it be because my eyes were opened to this phenomenon, or because it’s a new trend that’s picking up speed, I've started to see it everywhere. Over and over, I keep coming across 1 and 2 star reviews on Amazon, even alongside books and authors who I consider to be the best in their genre, with the following sentiments:

“Not that good. Returned it.”
“Boring. Got my money back.”
“Didn’t love the story, asked for a refund.”

To say that this "refund" trend bothers me is an understatement. 

To those of you thinking, “But I didn’t like it, so therefore, I didn't get my money’s worth …” 

DISAGREE.

Books are not commodities in the way that many other Amazon items are. 

They’re not batteries that arrive as duds. They’re not Barbies that arrive with loose heads, they’re not a printer that arrives without the USB cord as indicated on the box, that thus didn’t work as expected.

The above examples are defective goods that don’t deliver as promised. So, sure. Absolutely, get your money back.

Books are different. Books are art.

Things can be defective. Art cannot be.

(To be clear,  I’m not talking about the state of the physical book itself. If you receive a paperback or hardcover with a damaged spine, cover, or missing pages, by all means, ask for a refund.)

I’m talking about the story within that book.

Put ten people in a room, show them a backpack has both straps sliced through, and is thus unusable as a backpack, and all 10 people are going to think, “Sure. That’s a faulty backpack.”

But have those same 10 people read the same story, and you’re going to get 10 different opinions, because again,

Books are art, and art is subjective. It can't be inherently good or bad.

You not liking a book does not mean that the book was bad or defective. It simply means that you didn't like the book. 

And that's fine. It's part of what it means to be a reader and a consumer of art.

Now, I’m not saying that we, as authors, don’t hope that most people enjoy our books. Of course we do. But we also know that never, ever will we write a story that will please everyone. Even Steinbeck, Rowling, King, Dickens, Austen {insert your can-do-no-wrong author here} have their fair share of negative reviews.

Asking for your money back because you didn’t enjoy it is akin to asking a museum to refund your ticket price because you've decided that you don't really like Impressionism. It’s like asking the movie theater to refund your ticket because you didn’t like the latest Thor movie as well as the previous. It’s asking Netflix to refund your monthly subscription because you binge watched Lost, but thought the ending was lame. Or asking iTunes to pay you back for the Taylor Swift album because you’ve listened to her newest release, and decided you don’t love it. Or going to the ticket counter at the end of the Broadway show you just watched, and asking for a refund because you thought Hamilton was overhyped and didn't live up to your expectations.

The above are intentionally hyperbolic examples, as I genuinely hope to goodness that there aren’t people out there who’ve actually done any of those things.

And yet. We do have people who read a book, then ask for their money back because they didn’t love the story.

If you’ve done this, please, please re-think your stance.

There are no guarantees that you will love every single book/painting/movie/song/TV show that’s put in front of you, and there shouldn’t be. What makes art unique, what makes it so damned special, is that it’s something different to everyone. The definition of art, as defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary: 

The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.

That is what you’re paying for when you buy a book or a movie. Not a guarantee that you’ll get a piece of entertainment that you personally love, but a chance to participate in the dialog of human creation.

You are absolutely allowed to dislike a particular piece of art (remember, I’m counting books as art for the purpose of this discussion). You’re allowed to state your dislike of a book, to shout it from the freaking rooftops, to 1-star it up all you want on Amazon.

But by asking for a refund on a piece of art you don’t enjoy, you're assuming that a a piece of art’s inherent value of a book depends on your opinion of it.

What happens if you and your neighbor don’t agree? What if your neighbor loved the exact same book that you hate? Does that mean your neighbor got her money worth, and you didn’t? What about a different book that you loved, but your neighbor hated. Should she get her money back on that one, while you pay full price for it because you like it?

Does that seem right to you?

Does it seem right that a story’s value is subjective, based on the opinion of the reader?

Do you really think that a reader who read a book, and hated it should get to pay zero dollars for it, and a reader who read that same book, and loved it, should have to pay $6.99?

You see the problem here, right? Please say yes.

And if I’m getting too woo-woo and romantic on the definition of art and books, then consider it this way:

Asking for your money back on a book you’ve already read, simply because you didn’t enjoy it is sketchy because you’ve already consumed it.

Imagine going to a restaurant. You order the Fettuccini Alfredo. You start eating it. Maybe somewhere along the way, you realize it’s not the best fettuccini Alfredo you’ve ever had, but you eat it anyway. You eat the whole thing. Then, after the last bite's been shoveled away, you think, “Nah, I didn’t really like that, I like my Alfredo with less pepper,” so then you go to the server, point to your empty plate and say, “It wasn’t my favorite Alfredo I’ve ever had, please reimburse me.” 

You wouldn’t do that. Would you? (Would you?!?!)

Your chance to decide if a book is worth your time and money is before you buy, and certainly before you read it. And yes, I know, books can be expensive, and the cost can add up, especially if you’re an avid reader.

But you know, there are actually some pretty awesome failsafes for readers.

They’re called libraries.

If you’re a reader who only thinks you should have to pay for books that you know you love, I doubt I'm going to change your mind here on the nature of art.

I ask only that you try your books at the library first. If you hate it, you didn’t spend a dime. But at least when you get it from the library, the author gets compensated in some way for his/her hard work, and the number of “free” books is controlled by the library’s distribution system.

Because you know what buying a book, reading a book, and then returning a book for full refund is called?

It’s called reading for free. 

Which isn’t all that different from reading illegal, pirated e-books off the internet, ladies and gentlemen (don't even get me started on piracy).

I don’t ask you to work with zero compensation. So please don’t ask me, Lisa Kleypas, Emily Giffin, Eloisa James, Sarah Maclean, RS Grey, Lauren Blakely, Nora Roberts, Rachel Van Dyken, Tessa Bailey, Jennifer Probst, Kendall Ryan, Stephanie Meyer, and so on to pour our hearts and souls into books, and then not get paid for it.

Which is exactly what you're doing when you ask for that refund on the book you didn’t like.

Please stop. For the love of books. Please. Stop.

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