Why my books are no longer returnable through Ingram
I wrote a draft of this post back in January and then never published it because I was lacking the spoons to deal with all of this. However, some stuff has come up that made me feel it was important to finally get this out there and address this issue.
First, a disclaimer: The content of this post is entirely speculation on my part. The evidence I do have, while I consider it convincing, is ultimately circumstantial, so please bear in mind that this is just my personal theory and not any kind of official statement.
Second: A lot of this post is going to be from the context not just of me as Lyssa-the-Author, but me as Lyssa-the-Head-of-Snowy Wings Publishing. So some background on that for those of you who might be wondering what I’m talking about there or why: Snowy Wings Publishing is a co-op publisher that I founded in 2016. What this means is that we are a group of indie authors who banded together to form our own publishing house. We have a set of rules, publishing standards, etc. that dictate what we publish and ensure rigorous quality, but we remain indie authors, meaning that we are shouldering all the expenses for book production ourselves.
With those two things in mind, buckle up.
Part 1: The Facts
When SWP first got its start, we allowed our authors to choose where they had their paperbacks printed. Most of them chose to use Amazon’s print-on-demand service, which at that time was called CreateSpace, and is now KDP Print (and for the sake of clarity, I’m going to call it KDP for the rest of this article, even though the switch didn’t happen until 2018).
But in 2017, we were approached by a library distributor who was interested in distributing our books. They are a great company who has been very flexible and accommodating with us. We were able to iron out a deal with them through Ingram Book Company, who had experience working with this distributor. So, from mid-2017 on, we started requiring our authors to have their print books available through IngramSpark.
This didn’t require exclusivity, though. The authors also had the option to also make the books available through KDP with expanded distribution disabled. What this means is that the KDP editions would be available exclusively on Amazon, and sales to all other channels would be sourced by IngramSpark. While Ingram does distribute to Amazon, when a book with the same ISBN was in Amazon’s system as being able to be fulfilled by both Ingram and KDP, Amazon would show preference to their own printer. Thus, orders placed on Amazon.com would be fulfilled by KDP rather than Ingram. The advantage of doing it this way rather than only using Ingram was that, since Amazon didn’t have to split their cut with Ingram, they earned more on sales fulfilled by KDP, and the author in turn earned a higher royalty. This seemed like a win/win/win for everyone—authors, Amazon, and Ingram—and it was for several years.
Now, one thing that IngramSpark does that KDP does not is allow you to set whether you want books to be returnable. In order to best accommodate our library distributor, SWP requested that all authors make their books returnable. While this was beneficial to our distributor, it opened our authors up to the potential danger of having books returned in large quantities. Because Ingram charges a return fee that is greater than the royalties paid per book, this can be a hefty fine, and as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, since we’re all indie authors, we’re all on the hook for those return fees ourselves. So we were walking a delicate line.
To offset the risk, I encouraged our authors to avoid marketing to bookstores unless it was a bookseller they had a personal relationship with. For example, I advised authors to avoid big box stores or major chains, as these stores tended to order large quantities and then return. In the case of local indies, I recommended the authors talk to the owner about consignment instead of ordering stock through Ingram. Most of the indies we’ve done business with over the last 6 years understand the importance of ordering conservatively for their own bottom lines, so even if they weren’t doing consignment, we were all able to work together to create an ecosystem that helped bookstores carry our books without harming our authors. As a result, SWP managed to go for almost five years with virtually no returns.
This arrangement worked great for everyone involved… until 2022.
But before we jump into what happened in 2022, we need backtrack to 2020 and lay a little groundwork.
In September 2020, I published a book under my pen name. As is my usual practice, I uploaded it to Ingram first, since Ingram allows preorders and KDP Print does not. When my own author copy arrived a few weeks before release, I gave it a last cursory glance and noticed that I had misspelled someone’s name in my acknowledgments. I quickly corrected it and uploaded a new version of the book. However, Ingram alerted me that a bulk order of preorders had already been fulfilled with the original edition.
I was really baffled by this, because I had never gotten that many preorders through Ingram before, and never a bulk order. Was this book just more popular than my other books? (The answer is no. In fact, now that I’ve got two years of sales records to look at, I can tell you that it was by far my LEAST popular book, under both pen names.) I thought it was weird, but I quickly forgot about it.
Until the summer of 2021, when I was rereading the paperback and said to myself, “This font is too small. I am an old woman now and I can’t read this. I’m going to increase the font size and reupload it. Old people around the world will thank me.” So I increased the font size from 11 to 12 (old people, you’re welcome) and ordered myself a copy from KDP’s author dashboard.
This probably goes without saying, but when you order an author copy, KDP is supposed to print you up a copy of the book that, you know, you uploaded to KDP. So you can imagine my shock when my author copy showed up and it did not have size 12 font. And this wasn’t just my eyes playing tricks on me. I had proof: The misspelled name that I’d corrected before publication was right there in this “new” copy from KDP. And when I flipped to the last page? Instead of the KDP “Printed on this date at this facility” page, there was IngramSpark’s CSPIA page. KDP had fulfilled my order with an IngramSpark copy. An OLD IngramSpark copy. A copy that only existed in that bulk order that was placed prior to the book’s publication.
So I emailed KDP and I was like, “WTF?” And the rep was like, “We aren’t obligated to give you a new copy. If we have copies in our warehouse, we’ll use those to fulfill the order first.” And I thought that was pretty crap, but what was I going to do about it? Who knew how many of those original books were left in Amazon’s warehouse? I didn’t feel like ordering a dozen copies of the book to find out. So I ordered a new author copy for myself from Ingram, since they actually guarantee that they won’t fulfill new orders with old copies. (If a copy was ordered before you made the revision, they’ll fulfill that order with the old version, but if you don’t have any outstanding orders when you upload a new edition, you’re good.) And once again, I moved on and forgot about it.
Fast-forward to summer 2022. All of a sudden, I’m getting emails from SWP authors telling me they’re getting large returns from Ingram and they don’t know where they’re coming from because they haven’t been marketing to bookstores. These complaints weren’t coming from our top-selling authors, or our hybrid authors whose traditionally published books might be encouraging booksellers to stock their indie books as well. They were coming from our more modestly-selling authors. This was both a mystery and a major hardship, since these authors, many of whom come from marginalized backgrounds, couldn’t afford to offset the cost of those returns.
When the first returns began trickling in, I would tell the affected authors that they could have an exemption from our “please set books to returnable” rule. But as it started happening to more and more authors, I started getting more concerned. Who was buying all these books? Authors were getting bills from Ingram to the tune of several hundred dollars and huge boxes of books sent to their houses that they didn’t know what to do with. Where were they coming from?
It wasn’t until it happened to me that I finally understood what was going on. Because I had a paper trail of sorts. As I’m sure you can guess: The box of books I got? They were the ones with the typo in the acknowledgments. Same as the one Amazon had sent me when I ordered an author copy through my KDP dashboard.
So, thanks to that typo, we could track where the orders were coming from. Amazon was doing it. And unlike every other order that we typically receive through Ingram, which is placed by a human—be it a librarian or an indie bookstore owner—who is able to look at sales statistics and order pragmatically, based on what they assume demand is going to be, Amazon has no reason to be conservative about their ordering. Book goes up for preorder on their ecosystem? They order a big box to stock the warehouse. And, apparently, after it sits unsold for long enough, if it’s returnable, they return it.
There are some obvious questions here. For one thing, why is Amazon ordering bulk copies from a rival printer when the books are available through their own printing system? As I mentioned above, most of these books are also on KDP with the same ISBN. In my case, they were preorders, so that makes sense—since KDP doesn’t offer preorders, the book wasn’t in KDP’s ecosystem yet when Amazon ordered it. The process is almost certainly automated, so as soon as a preorder goes up, computer orders books. Mystery solved, right? Not quite. Pen name book wasn’t the only return I got. I also got a box of Fourth World paperbacks returned, with the updated 2021 content inside—and since that book had been exclusively available on KDP for a year and a half before I even added it to Ingram, Amazon should have never needed to order anything from Ingram, let alone the 2021 edition. So what’s going on here?
And, of course, Amazon isn’t the only party to blame here, which brings me to my second question: Why does Ingram allow copies to be returned years after an order is placed? Those pen name books were in Amazon’s warehouse for two years. Other SWP authors were hit with returns that they could trace back a minimum of two years as well. As things stand, there seems to be no limit to how much time can pass before a book is returned to Ingram.I should note that this is for bulk orders placed directly through Ingram’s ordering system, i.e. bookstores. Customer returns will be time-limited based on the policies of whichever retailer … Continue reading If Ingram would allow authors to customize a returnability window, that would limit most of this abuse. Our library distributor requests a 90-day return window. If we had been able to set a 90-day max return window, this would have prevented most of the SWP returns. I recognize that this narrow of a return window may not work for booksellers. But as it is, non-returnability also doesn’t work for booksellers. Unfortunately, it’s the corner that Amazon has backed us into.
Until Amazon began this practice, the arrangement we’d had was working perfectly: The booksellers we worked with were willing to order conservatively. The libraries ordering copies through our distributor did the same. As a result, we had next-to-no returns from bookstores, and zero returns from our library distributor. It was an arrangement that worked for our authors, for our libraries, and for our indie bookstores. Amazon’s sudden decision to start bulk ordering POD books indiscriminately, in a presumably automated fashion that does not take realistic sales projections into account, has ruined that arrangement for everyone.
This is why my books are no longer returnable through Ingram. Additionally, Snowy Wings Publishing has now shifted our policy away from requesting our authors make their books returnable to advising them to make their books non-returnable. The authors have freedom of choice in this matter and some of them may continue to offer returnability; if you’ve got access to Ingram’s ordering system, you’ll have to check there. To the best of my knowledge, though, most of our books (including mine) are no longer returnable. We are fortunate that our library distributor has indicated they’re willing to be flexible, and we hope that this continues and we will be able to continue our partnership with them. I am truly sorry to the few indie booksellers who were carrying our books, especially the queer-run bookstores who were stocking The Iamos Trilogy, because you’re being punished for something that’s not your fault. As I alluded to above, if you need a returnable option and want to work with me directly, please contact me. Likewise, if you’d like to work with a Snowy Wings author whose books are non-returnable on Ingram, please contact us here to ask about a consignment option, or to find out if you can order books directly from the author with a custom returnability arrangement.
Part 2: The Speculation
Okay, that was part 1 of the post: explaining the situation. Now for part 2: the theorizing.
(And, returning to my prior disclaimer: This is speculation, conjecture and pure theory. I think it’s pretty safe to assume these returns did indeed come from Amazon. We know that Amazon had that typoed version in their warehouse because they sent it to me in 2021. But there is, of course, a real possibility that maybe Ingram consolidated multiple orders into one on my sales dashboard, because they don’t show you who bought the book, just how many copies sold. So, again, this is conjecture on my part. Maybe there is some dastardly other bookstore buying SWP books in bulk and returning them. Disclaimer, disclaimer, etc.)
If we assume Amazon is indeed to blame for these returns, that brings us back to my earlier question: Why is Amazon bulk ordering copies of books that are available through KDP from a rival printer?
There is, of course, the possibility that this is some kind of accidental computer error. Maybe Amazon decided to start printing books in advance to decrease shipping delays, especially for Prime members. Maybe sometimes KDP’s infrastructure can’t handle the amount of jobs they have, so they’re using the backup method of relying on Ingram when the option is there. It’s plausible.
But there’s also the less generous possibility that they are trying to coerce authors out of using alternative printers. This is possibly supported by two other hurdles that Amazon has erected over the last couple years that disproportionately affect authors who use IngramSpark instead of KDP for either their entire print run or for expanded distribution.
The first is the seemingly weaponized use of their copyright enforcement arm. Over the course of just eight weeks in the summer of 2022, three indie authors I know personallyIntisar Khanani, who was publishing A Darkness at the Door; Mary Fan, who was publishing Flynn Nightsider and the Shards of Shadow; and D.N. Bryn, who was publishing Odder Still had their books pulled from Amazon just days after their release. In all three cases Amazon cited suspected piracy, due to the fact that their print editions were being offered by “outside publishers.” The authors explained that the print edition was uploaded via IngramSpark, which is a self-publishing platform, but they were still expected to produce contracts that showed their rights had been “reverted”—something that could not be produced as the rights had never been sold.
What ensued was a struggle with Amazon that stretched out over several days for each of the authors. Amazon refused to accept written statements from the authors affirming that they owned the rights to these books, because they required a document with at least two signatures on it—impossible to procure if an author is self-publishing 100% independently. This is an ultimate catch-22. There is nothing that can be done but continue to escalate support tickets with Amazon. All the while, the book is removed from sale, and any momentum your new release had gained is lost. Any boost the algorithm had been giving your book prior to Amazon pulling it is gone forever. As all three of my author friends learned this summer, if Amazon removes your book from sale, you have to start over from scratch. And in all three of these examples, the print edition was offered through IngramSpark. The message is clear: Using a printer other than KDP makes you a target for this.
The other recent practice Amazon has begun is refusing to link KDP ebook editions with IngramSpark print editions. Even if the metadata matches completely, when support is contacted, authors are being informed that something in the metadata is preventing automated linking of the editions. The solution? Create a KDP edition. If you don’t? Readers will be able to find your Kindle ebook edition, but the listing for the print edition will be found on a separate page. If readers find one but the other isn’t attached, they will assume there isn’t another version available.
All of these scenarios could have perfectly innocent explanations. The bulk ordering might be to decrease shipping time after an order is placed. (The returns kind of put a dent in that, though, especially since the book is still available for sale on Amazon.) Piracy is a legitimate concern on Kindle—maybe they just went a little too far in their aggressive enforcement. Maybe their system really is broken, and the support reps genuinely aren’t able to link outside print editions for… reasons? When hard pressed, I honestly can’t even say whether I truly believe this is nefariousness or just incompetence. It really could be either one, which is why I reiterate again that this post is speculation.
But the fact of the matter is:
- If an author only uses IngramSpark for their printer, Amazon gets a smaller portion of the proceeds when that print edition is sold on Amazon.com.
- If an author uses both printers, Amazon only gets a cut from sales placed on Amazon and not sales placed through other retailers.
- Meanwhile, if an author uses KDP with expanded distribution (i.e. does not use IngramSpark at all), Amazon gets a cut out of sales that take place on other marketplaces.
So in all scenarios, it’s a better deal for Amazon to discourage authors from using IngramSpark. Even if you’re using KDP for Amazon orders, there’s still money they could be earning for sales on, say, Barnes and Noble that they’re now not. And all three of these tactics—bulk returns, pulling a book from sale for copyright validation, and refusing to link Kindle and print editions—discourage authors from using IngramSpark. It could be a series of innocent coincidences. Or it could be coercion on Amazon’s part. I doubt whether we’ll know for sure. But whether by accident or design, Amazon is once again causing major headaches for indie authors.
Part 3: Why I Am Posting This Now
As previously mentioned, I wrote this post in January and then didn’t post it, but let’s call this the April Update. Yesterday (April 20), IngramSpark sent out their newsletter, and this was at the top:
In the past few months, we’ve noticed that some online retailers are reevaluating their ordering practices as they relate to non-returnable books. In order to maximize the availability of your books, we would encourage you to review the returnability status of your books. Your books that are set up as non-returnable could be at risk for decreased sales.
I replied to this email and asked them if they were able to comment on which online retailers are “reevaluating their ordering practices,” since, when I searched, I could find no info. I got a form response that did not address the question at all.
Right now, we don’t know which online retailer this is, if any. It could turn out to be any number of retailers, from Barnes and Noble to Books-a-Million to Walmart or any number of non-US-based chains.
I don’t have any indication any other major online retailer has ever bought and then returned my books. I do have the evidence above that Amazon has done so.
I do also have the circumstantial evidence outlined in Part 2 that Amazon seems to be attempting to make life difficult for indie authors who choose to use Ingram instead of/in conjunction with KDP.
And I do have to say that Amazon creating a situation where they bulk buy and return indie books from Ingram, thus causing authors to turn off returnability, and then refusing to stock non-returnable books, thereby completely cutting off any authors who use Ingram exclusively, would have the convenient side effect of discouraging authors from using Ingram altogether.
And that’s one heck of a coincidence.
Part 4: Updates and More Shenanigans
June 29, 2023: Since making this post, further shenanigans have come on my radar that further indicate Amazon deliberately meddling to make publishing books on Ingram as inconvenient as possible and discourage authors from using IngramSpark/any other printer besides KDP. None of these are new issues, they’re just things I either didn’t know about before or had not previously connected the dots on.
- “Temporarily out of stock”: I had noticed for many years now that my hardcovers would either say “temporarily out of stock” or “ships in 3-5 days.” It didn’t occur to me that this was just Amazon fudging rather than an actual delay between the two systems until I stumbled across this blog post which lays it all out.
- Covers not displaying: This seems to be a newer issue that’s been impacting author friends such as D.N. Bryn, who also was affected by Amazon’s weaponized copyright enforcement. This seems to be happening across the board, though—instead of displaying the cover image on a product listing for an Ingram-printed book, Amazon now shows a “cover image not available” placeholder. That, combined with the “temporarily out of stock,” may lead customers to believe the book is out of print or actually unavailable, thus discouraging them from purchasing it.
- The 979 ISBN issue: Per Claudie Arseneault, Draft2Digital sent this email out today (June 29). That reminded me of this blog post that went around calling out this issue with Amazon over a year ago. As I browsed down through the post, I saw that the top comment indicated that this issue is not affecting 979 books that are published through KDP… only those from external printers. While the June 4 update to that blog post states that Ingram and Amazon have worked out a solution, the email today from D2D, which uses Ingram as their printer, indicates that either that solution isn’t actually working, or else it only works for IngramSpark specifically, and not any other external service (such as D2D) that uses Ingram’s/LightningSource’s printing facilities.
|↑1||I should note that this is for bulk orders placed directly through Ingram’s ordering system, i.e. bookstores. Customer returns will be time-limited based on the policies of whichever retailer they purchased the book from, usually 90 days or less. Additionally, Ingram does not allow authors to report damaged or misprinted copies after 90 days. So the only people allowed unlimited return windows are retailers.|
|↑2||Intisar Khanani, who was publishing A Darkness at the Door; Mary Fan, who was publishing Flynn Nightsider and the Shards of Shadow; and D.N. Bryn, who was publishing Odder Still|