US writers' body The Authors Guild has sent an open letter to Audible, demanding the company make changes to its policy on returns.
The letter, addressed to c.e.o. Bob Carrigan and general counsel member Stas Zakharenko, asks that Audible "immediately cease[s] the practice of deducting royalties from authors’ and narrators’ accounts when a purchased audiobook is returned or exchanged days, weeks, or even months later, regardless of whether or not they have listened to the entire book."
The authors state: "This policy is in clear breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing implied in the authors’ agreements with Audible and ACX as it allows books to be purchased and listened to without paying the authors and narrators their royalties."
The guild has also asked the Amazon audiobook subsidiary to display the total number of unit purchases and returns on the author dashboards, rather than just the “net sales” already adjusted for any returns, as is currently the case. It estimates authors could have lost 15%–50% of earnings as a result of the policy.
"We have seen alarmingly high rates of return, from 15% to 50% or more of lost sales over time. In many cases, authors may not even be aware that their royalty accounts are being debited for the returns, since Audible reports only list 'net sales' adjusted for returns," the letter states.
A number of independent authors, including pressure group Fair Deal for Rights Holders and Narrators founder Susan May, have worked on amassing the data recording income loss. May contacted the the Alliance of Independent Authors, who took the first organisational action against Audible earlier this year, downgrading its rating as a publishing service from “recommended” to “pending." Last week it was categorised under "caution".
The Society of Authors (SoA) is among the UK signatories who have pledged support to the Authors Guild over the issue.
Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the SoA, said: "We fully support and have signed the letter to Audible. Audible does not have the rights to allow subscribers to 'return' or 'exchange' audiobooks within 365 days of their purchase, for no payment to the author. That is not a returns policy but a subscriptions service in disguise. Further, we are alarmed at Audible’s lack of transparency: it refuses to tell authors when their books have been 'returned' or 'exchanged', so we cannot assess the scale of losses.
"When we contacted Audible direct in the UK, Laurence Howell [vice-president, content for Audible] said 'Obviously I can’t comment about any particular publisher arrangements, but overall we do know it increases the consumption of audio, which benefits everyone.' That is palpable nonsense. There is no benefit to authors in their works being used but in them not being paid. These practices would be in direct violation of the author protection provisions of the Copyright Directive and our own Creator principles, which state that authors should be fully informed and adequately remunerated for all uses of their work.
"We call on Audible to reverse this policy, to send authors proper accounts of all uses of their work, and to pay authors in full for each individual sale."
In response to a letter sent by the Romance Writers of America addressing the issue, Audible said: "The intent of the programme is to allow Audible members to discover new content that they enjoy. While suspicious activity is rare, we actively monitor for abuse of this policy and take action against it. We limit the number of exchanges and refunds allowed by a member, and can (and do) remove a member’s ability to return additional books if the policy is abused. Additionally, we do not send emails around returns to all listeners; we only message select members who meet certain standards of engagement.
"We take any manipulation of the programme very seriously and work hard to protect the revenues of our creators. So as not to reveal anything to facilitate potential misuse, we don’t discuss the specifics of the tools that we use to monitor and prevent abuse, and we are constantly working to improve them."
"We are aware that some creators are disappointed with the return policy and want more detailed reporting on it, and we value this feedback. We are working internally to improve our policies and features for both creators and listeners, and we will consider the concerns that [the Authors Guild] have shared as we prioritise improvements." The response was sent on 13th November.
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