I am developing a retail service platform for ebook authors and am at the point of asking myself whether or not to allow returns.

Back when all books were print, returns were relatively simple. A store clerk could examine the product to determine whether or not the intended use of the book (to entertain or educate the reader) had been accomplished. Though meticulous people could fool the clerks (or a clerk might simply be lazy), it's fairly straightforward to determine that the physical object had been used for its expected intent.

Ebooks don't have that convenience. There is no physical object to be damaged during the reading process. There is, in fact, nothing at all to tell the retailer that the book has or has not been read. I'm sure the issue has been discussed many times by many people.

But this begs the question, is it time to do away with returns? If a reasonable sample of an ebook is available on a website, along with the traditional marketing collateral, what justification is there to permit a return? (I am assuming that even in the case of a gift purchase, the reader can evaluate the book before using the gift code, and therefore choose to redeem the code for credit rather than an unwanted book.)

Should I permit returns, or should I not permit returns?

  • An ebook is a file, not a physical object; what exactly do you mean by "returning" it?
    – Sekhemty
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 7:00
  • @Sekhemty The practice of getting one's money back for an unwanted purchase.
    – JBH
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 15:49
  • I think that the best option is to offer a limited preview sample before the purchase, like all the major stores do (amazon, kobo, google play, etc.). Once someone has acquired the full file, how can you be sure that he will delete it after you send back his money? The whole thing is highly exploitable, unless you find some way to directly manage files in one's device without letting him do the same, but in this scenario, who would be willing to buy anything from you, knowing that you can arbitrarily tamper in his devices?
    – Sekhemty
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 9:35

2 Answers 2


This is probably not the best kind of question for SE because it asks for an opinion, and your needs may vary.

Also, there are technical issues and business issues involved.

Also, I'm guessing that you are talking about non-DRM files. If you had DRM in your reading system, it would probably be trivial to revoke the license for a piece of content.

I start with the assumption that most people are honest and that returns happen rarely in ebook sales. I also start with the assumption that piracy is not a significant problem for most ebooks.

It would be good customer service to allow returns. It defies expectations when you say that all sales are final -- especially if the customer made a mistake.

A more common issue is that the user purchases something and then discovers that the ebook has significant formatting issues or doesn't render well on the device he or she is using.

My approach would be to allow the return, but set limits on how often a customer can do it. Also, I would limit the window of time which customers can return things.

Purely from a business perspective, book purchasers are a rare enough species that I wouldn't do anything to alienate them. Also, aside from time and inconvenience, the ebook seller doesn't really lose the good because it is not a physical object. (That's why when I publish things, I am liberal about sending out review copies -- it costs me literally nothing).

  • From a seller and entrepreneur point of view, it should also be assumed that if you set up an exploitable system, it will be exploited. Setting up a system that allows refunds without resorting on just the good will of purchasers means also putting in place a strong DRM policy, which is bad. It is possible to get preview samples, to read online reviews, when you buy it is assumed that you are well informed.
    – Sekhemty
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 9:43
  • All true, but I don't think the O'Reilly books have been significantly hurt by selling DRM-free ebooks. Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 20:43

From a technical point of view I know two reasons why you shouldn't deny returns.

  1. program errors: if the ePub has programmable issues and throws an error in the file or doesn't load, such as unescaped HTML. Some retail channels dont implement an ePub check process so if you plan for your site to sell ebooks and you're on a grand scale like Amazon, Apple or Google unless you plan to QC every title, which is a huge task, that runs through your site to test for errors then there is no way you can justify a non-return policy.
  2. plagiarism: I bought a technical book a few years back that was an out-right copy of open-source material word-for-word and I asked for a refund on Amazon and citied every chapter's content pull on the topic. Unless you plan to only sell content that you're familiar with then you shouldn't deny returns.

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