I was recently given Amazon credit as payment for peer-reviewing a monograph. While this was a nice perk for doing something I probably would have done for free, it is striking to see just how much Amazon impacts on the publishing industry in often unexpected ways. The influence of Amazon on open access — from the big commercials and open science startups to not-for-profit university and scholar-led presses — is at least as pernicious as the predatory practices of large commercial publishers.

As is well known, Amazon has completely altered the bookselling landscape, boasting almost 5o% of the total US print sales in 2017. For open access book publishers, for whom print sales are a vital source of income, it is important to tap into this source of revenue. In the case of small OA publishers, this is primarily achieved through print-on-demand publishing through Lightning Source (owned by Ingram) who are able to list books on Amazon. It is simply an easy way for small presses to sell their print books without buying into expensive distribution networks or having to process payments themselves directly.

What’s more, Amazon controls huge swathes of the web (more than its four closest competitors combined) through Amazon Web Services, which is relied upon by publishers large and small for cloud computing web services. A cursory search of developer jobs at university presses reveals a number of hits for jobs requiring experience with Amazon Web Services. Amazon’s influence on the digital infrastructure of open access was also noteworthy in the report on the new university press and scholar-led publishing landscape by Adema, Keene and Stone. I am even aware of some publishers using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform for one-off or repetitive tasks provided by sub-minimum wage online workers.

The unethical practices and huge market share of Amazon are well known. This blogpost from the ethical unicorn summarises Amazon’s tax avoidance, exploitation of workers (both online and offline), toxic workplace culture, and its many other ethical failings. Though publishing ‘open access’ does not itself confer any particular ethical behaviour (remember that Elsevier touts itself as one of the largest open access publishers), one would like to think that OA can be a more responsible form of publishing that does not rely on exploited labour or data centers running on dirty energy. So how can we resist the influence of Amazon on open access publishing?

Although this post is not intended to chide those publishers who choose to use Amazon, particularly small, DIY, scholar-led publishers who rely on the convenience of its scale for their operations, I do think that advocates for open and experimental forms of publishing should bear in mind just how beholden publishing is to Bezos and his gang. Nor am I interested in a hierarchy of who deserves the most ire from OA advocates (“Why are you moaning about big publishers? What about Amazon?” etc.). Instead, Amazon’s influence on the publishing supply chain poses important questions concerning platformisation and scale, particularly the homogenising effects of platforms and the unethical practices this often entails.

Projects like the Radical Open Access Collective seek to create new forms of scale, or what Gary Hall and his colleagues (following Anna Tsing) refer to as a process of ‘non-scaling’ that works by:

‘developing relationships with a diversity of others in different parts of the world through collaboration; and by allowing our content and infrastructure to be openly copied, shared and reiterated, free of charge.’


So, while they may be troubled by their own reliance on Amazon, many scholar-led publishers are also interested in thinking about ways of building different publishing networks through non-centralised, diverse and collaborative approaches to infrastructure. Such non-scaling seeks to utilise the benefits of working together without the homogenisation and centralisation that platforms entail. A process of non-scaling may be one way of resisting the influence that Amazon has on open access publishing.

It is therefore difficult as a publisher to stick to the principle that one should never use the services of Amazon (bearing in mind my previous remarks about statements of principle). Ethics is simply about making decisions in certain situations; no one can maintain absolute ethical purity in the world we live in. Using Amazon is a decision: sometimes it is a justifiable decision that can afford radical projects the space to experiment in other areas. But if ethics and politics are about anything at all, they are about decisions.

This blogpost seems to have turned into an episode of The Good Place, so I’ll stop there.