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How Might Amazon's Warehouse "Rightsizing" Reshape Canada and the Global Publishing Economy?

By Terry Trowbridge

Terry Trowbridge reading in a tree
Photo: Terry Trowbridge

Did Amazon Manufacture a Supply Chain Crisis?

Can Amazon’s North American warehouse policies change the entire world’s knowledge production industries? Probably. And if so, then should Canadian teaching institutions and literary presses take notice of those changes, or even consider responding to Amazon through some kind of formal, transnational trade organization? Maybe.

In August of 2022, Publisher’s Weekly reported that publisher orders were “down as much as 80% over the last four weeks for no apparent reason and with little explanation from Amazon”. Publisher’s Weekly provided an economic narrative contrary to downsizing: that since the pandemic began, book sales were strong and publishers, both indie and big houses, were growing profits. Then, inexplicably, Amazon reduced the number of books in their warehouses.

Amazon offered no explanation. “[T]he automated Amazon Vendor Central response it received said the lack of new orders was based on Amazon’s forecast and needs. A person at another company said he heard orders would return to a more normal pattern in September” Publisher’s Weekly offered, in a sceptical tone.

Amazon’s artificially lowered revenue and earnings have not been reversed. By November, even big publishers like HarperCollins were affected, which suddenly had revenue drop 11% and earnings plunge by 54%. 2023 has also been perilous.

Publishers will have a difficult time interpreting the sudden plunge in supply. There was no clear reduction in revenue until after Amazon reduced stock. Contracts are instruments of trust. Can anyone who deals with Amazon, publisher or otherwise, trust them to maintain warehouse stock that meets market demand, or does every company need to wonder?

Potential International Law and Labour Question

Writing books, publishing books, and selling books, do not exist in a jurisdictional vacuum. Editing, proofreading, indexing, and even ghostwriting, are globalized, transnational economies based on platform capitalism (Nick Sricek, 2016): website systems that create and organize reputations (Frank Pasquale, 2016), ostensibly for accurate or speedy project completion; but in reality the jobs and contracts are structured through the synergies between labour markets and national or transnational law (Tarleton Gillespie, 2021). Territorial boundaries have been eroded, and so human resources are globalized.

That erosion might be a liability to the humans who do the work. If the whole world is interconnected, then wherever publishing undergoes a bottlenecked, centralized schema like Amazon warehouses, at the same time that online companies that run contract brokerages for publishing jobs, the entire system can be compromised at the bottlenecked supply point.

An interesting example is the questions that affect the Canadian publishing industry. Over time, is Amazon’s warehouse rightsizing going to block Canadian workers from multiple labour markets? Canadian writers, especially small press writers, also have incomes from proofreading, editing, copy writing, and even occasional ghostwriting. The industry for those contracts operates largely through online contract clearinghouses like Reedsy. Reedsy requires that workers have 5 books for sale on Amazon, Goodreads, Google Books, or Apple books.

At the time of writing this editorial, Reedsy’s requirements are:

  • Have at least 3+ years of experience in your profession (editing, ghostwriting, marketing, publicity, translating, or web development);

  • Demonstrate experience on at least 5 published books that are well-reviewed on Amazon, Goodreads, Google Books, or Apple Books.

Reedsy sets up a model that consolidates the job market based on Amazon distribution websites and, ultimately, warehouse supply. Is somebody consolidating the international culture industry under Amazon’s exclusive purview?

Effectively, yes. Canada has some of the highest education rates in the world. Therefore, Canadian writers of fiction and nonfiction are highly competitive for the world’s proofreading, editing, marketing and web development contracts. Canada’s multiculturalism and highly-educated immigration incentives mean that Canada has some of the world’s best opportunities for translation and intercultural marketing. But maybe not anymore. By reducing the stock of Canadian small press books, Amazon could delay the Canadian workforce’s entry into Reedsy (and contract brokerages with similar contract rubrics).

Canada’s federal, provincial, and municipal governments make deep investments in education, with long-term and short-term expectations for returns. Companies like Reedsy are clearinghouses for educated gig economy workers. Canada’s expertise and educational investments are at risk of being devalued. Canadian incomes could depend on taking action, maybe eventually even legal action, to stop or slow Amazon from reducing published Canadian work in their warehouses.

Literary publishers, and the institutions that graduate academic writers and researchers, should investigate this problem. EU, UK, and other globally influential publishing economies are not immune to domino effects. Many more jobs than just small press publishers depend on Amazon’s Automated Vendor Central, and their shelf space. The demands of today’s post-secondary students and their future employment rest on access to transnational legal systems like trade organizations and regulators. The choices made by Amazon indicate why this is so.

The academic publishing economy is a diverse ecosystem, and can be changed by far more than simple supply-and-demand logic; a fact demonstrated by Amazon’s abandonment of that logic in 2022. The global market and Canadian publishing initiatives should decide Canadian access to those international publishing jobs, and not Amazon’s unpredictable “forecasting.” All contract workers in a globalized economy must prevent Amazon from setting a precedent for faithless supply chain contracts at the business level. Amazon promulgated data for their business clients to use, while subverting all the plans of their business clients made based on that data. The resultant chaotic scramble has implications for all contracts with all supply chain bottlenecks in all industries.

Canadian publishing and Canadian education industries are only the most obvious victims because of the contract clearinghouses like Reedsy. Canadian taxpayers and Canadian workers ought to at least explore their legal options. They can choose to focus on Amazon to remediate the unstable rightsizing of publishing and distribution; or Canadians can focus on Reedsy’s anti-Canadian/pro-American limits on access to contract marketplaces.


About the Writer:

Terry Trowbridge is a Canadian living on Lake Ontario, a plum farmer, a sociolegal researcher, and a book reviewer. His poetry and essays have appeared in something like 100 different journals, zines, and chapbooks. His Erdős number is 5.

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