Issue 19

The Forces Behind Amazon’s Decision to Shut-Shop on Westland

When Amazon Inc, the global e-commerce behemoth which also owns a book-publishing arm named Amazon Publishing announced on February 1, 2022, it was closing down Westland Books in India, a company it had acquired fully in 2016, there was a concerted wail of despair across the English language publishing industry in general and among many of the authors published by Westland. 

Two weeks later, author Sharanya Mannivannan, whose graphic novels have been published by Westland tweeted: ‘Exactly 2 weeks ago today, everyone at Westland found out the company was being shut down & our books would go out of print. Too soon, the date for distributors to place their last orders for most of the catalogue has come. From now, our books will begin to disappear from the market.’ 

Almost immediately, the publishers wrote to all those who have published with it, promising to return their rights—acquired over the preceding five years—on April 1, 2022, if Westland were not acquired by then. This, of course, begged the question of why Amazon had chosen to close down the company instead of selling it in the first place?

There was also the additional question of whether, for a company the size of Amazon, the losses of a small company it owned in India could really prompt such a drastic measure. According to a report in Mint, Westland ran up losses of Rs 46.3 crore, Rs 33.8 crore, and Rs 19.2 crore, respectively, in 2019, 2020, and 2021. While these figures are not small, they also showed a trajectory of narrowing losses, which is perhaps even more noteworthy, considering most of 2020 and all of 2021 were pandemic years. 

According to the same report, the Indian operations of the multinationals HarperCollins and Penguin Random House also posted losses in 2021—of Rs 36.2 crore and Rs 4.6 crore, respectively. Westland, HarperCollins and Penguin Random House—possibly following an industry-wide trend in the face of many bookshops shutting down and book distributors shrinking their operations—saw their revenues slip in 2021. Westland went from Rs 31.2 crore in 2020 to Rs 25.1 crore in 2021; HarperCollins, from Rs 139.9 crore to Rs 137.5 crore; and Penguin Random House, from Rs 260.6 crore to Rs 245.6 crore.

So, it wasn’t as though Westland was doing particularly badly while the rest of the English language trade publishing (non-textbook) industry was thriving. Moreover, for multinationals HarperCollins and Penguin Random House, the lion’s share of sales comes from imported books—from their British and American lists. In contrast, Westland’s entire list was homegrown, which would, by industry estimates, not put it very far behind the Indian lists of other companies in terms of sales.

There was also speculation that Amazon had decided to close down the firm under pressure from the Indian government, for publishing books that speak up against the current dispensation. While it is true that Westland has published books critical of the Narendra Modi administration, the BJP and the RSS, by writers like Aporvaanand, Aakar Patel, Christophe Jaffrelot, Dhirendra K Jha, Sanjay Jha, K.S. Komireddi and Saba Naqvi, among others, it has also published narratives supporting the right-wing in India, by Ram Madhav and Sanjeev Sanyal, for instance, besides Nalin Mehta’s sympathetic account of the BJP’s growth. 

But this is extremely unlikely, given that English language books barely move the needle on public opinion. They only serve to consolidate currently held views by providing evidence. Moreover, the Indian government has so far shown no inclination to catalyse such extreme steps as closing down a company because of the books it publishes.

That leaves financial performance as the key factor. And while Amazon itself is perhaps too big to be dented by Westland’s losses, its publishing arm is a much smaller business, which needs to be successful in every market it operates in. Five years ago, there were expectations of quick expansion in the publishing market in India—this has not materialised. And the decision may be on those grounds alone. However, Amazon officials familiar with the matter have not commented on the subject.

But why did Westland run into financial trouble despite having two of India’s top-selling authors—Chetan Bhagat and Amish—on its list? Back in 2018, Bhagat signed a six-book deal—not with Westland but with Amazon—for, reportedly, a combined advance of Rs 36 crore. Of course, such advances are never paid out entirely upfront, they are calibrated with the delivery of manuscripts and the publication of the books. At that time, Amazon must have bet on the success of these authors, which Westland would benefit from. Those expectations have probably not been met by the sales of works by these authors. Nor has Westland’s considerable depth in categories like spirituality and self-help—which usually rack up large numbers in terms of sales in India—helped its financial performance sufficiently. All of which points to the problems of the industry as a whole.

What lies ahead for Westland and its list of published books and authors? On the one hand, after the news broke of the closure, several companies directly or indirectly connected with publishers are believed to be considering purchasing the company. On the other hand, rival publishers have already begun making informal offers to some of the writers to acquire their titles, if rights are given back to the authors and translators. 

What will a potential purchaser be buying, though? If it is a company already in publishing and wants to expand both its list of books and its distribution and marketing network, the acquisition will offer a quick route to expansion. However, for a multinational, this would mean adding redundant capacities. All it might be interested in are the books themselves, and, perhaps, the editors. It can easily hire the latter, and pick up the former once the rights go back to the respective authors.

For the Westland list to go out of print would be a tragic outcome. But, equally—or more—important, this episode points to the structural problems in the English language trade publishing business in India. The number of readers isn’t growing, streaming platforms are a huge challenge to books, bookshops are dwindling, distributors have cash flow problems. Unless the sector is reinvented with new technology, new financial structures, and new ways to get books into the hands of a much larger number of people than at present, these problems will only get worse.

Arunava Sinha is a translator, a professor of Creative Writing at Ashoka University, Sonipat, and co-director of the Ashoka Centre for Translation.  

Picture Credits

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 11

Issue XI: Editors’ Note

The past year saw COVID-19 and lockdowns as the only issues one extensively engaged with, both in their personal and professional lives. The question, “how has the pandemic been treating you?” slipped into every catch-up conversation with peers, friends, family and colleagues. With the current surge of cases in India once again, it is safe to say that even with the vaccine, the pandemic still continues to dominate a major part of our lives. We are constantly reminded of it every time we have to step outside our homes or log in to an online meeting or a Zoom birthday call. 

With this issue, we aim to provide our readers with a ‘pandemic-break’ and delve into stories that are equally important but may have been sidelined with constant COVID updates from newsrooms. 

To begin with, Madhulika Agarwal addresses an essential question revolving around what makes an event ‘newsworthy’ in the first place? And who has the authority on prioritising which news is worth the consumers’ attention? With Amazon’s Twitter antics having grabbed the attention of the media, Samyukta Prabhu and Rohan Pai use this opportunity to highlight the gig workers’ rights that have been sidelined by tech giants such as Amazon, specifically during the course of the pandemic. 

Akanksha Mishra covers the consequences of the Afghanistan peace deal on the country’s population, revealing a critical understanding of the negotiations between three stakeholders – the Taliban, the Afghan government and the United States. Speaking of the United States, Karantaj Singh analyses 100 days of Biden administration by critiquing as well as applauding his contribution towards restoring America’s identity in the global community. With New Zealand’s recently passed miscarriages bereavement leave law, Advaita Singh captures the reader’s attention by examining the relationship between workplaces, the economy and personal grief.

Closer to home, Saaransh Mishra confronts the structure of quasi-federalism in India and its exploitation by the ruling central government in implementing controversial laws such as the recent GNCTD Bill. Furthermore, Muskaan Kanodia explores the vote-bank anxieties behind the intense dedication of political parties towards temple beautification, which appears to complement the rise of religious politics in the country. Ridhima Manocha analyses the ruling government’s contradictory campaign attitudes towards CAA-NRC when contesting the current Assam Assembly elections. Meanwhile, Vaibhav Parik questions India’s Election Commission’s decision to hold the ongoing Assembly elections in multiple phases in the state of West Bengal.

Aarohi Sharma brings back the essential climate change debate and delves into why individuals continue to deny its existence and widespread impact. For our sports enthusiasts, Kavya Satish explores the possible reasons for the increasing loss of viewership and sponsorship in F1 and what it means for the future of the sport. 

To emphasise the immense strain that Coivd-19 has placed on our global healthcare systems, Saman Fatima explores how this has resulted in the marginalisation of treatments of other prevalent diseases among several populations. 

While other stories may continue to struggle to win the fight for our attention with the intensity of the pandemic, we hope our readers are able to take a step back and keep themselves updated with events beyond rising Covid-19 cases and vaccinations. 

-Ariba, Ashana Mathur, Harshita Bedi, Rujuta Singh

Picture Credits: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Issue 11

E-commerce Platforms and The Continued Mistreatment of Delivery Personnel

With tech giant Amazon being involved in a slew of Twitter battles over the past week, it has unravelled multiple issues which demand immediate attention. In a bitter response to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s tweet that accused Amazon of using “armies of lawyers and lobbyists” to evade taxes, the Amazon News account was quick to respond with jabs at the senator. 

Dave Clark, CEO of Amazon’s consumer operations, responded in a similar fashion to Bernie Sanders’ visit to Bessemer to support the workers’ union drive. Sanders didn’t reply to the tweets directed at him, but Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, responded by charging Amazon with union-busting and worker mistreatment. Pocan pointed out reports that workers had to pee in bottles to keep up with their workloads.

While the battle ended in an apology from Amazon, the fashion in which the corporation took digs at these politicians was “uncharacteristically spiteful and petty”. This raises questions about how powerful these big corporations are, and their ability to openly suppress looming complications surrounding workers’ mistreatment and tax evasion.

However, workers and unions across the world are protesting relentlessly for their rights, leaving Amazon no choice but to shift priorities from winning Twitter battles to taking serious action on the ground. Whether it is workers in the USA, Italy, Germany or India, they have all demanded better working conditions, which they claimed have worsened over the course of the pandemic.

Indian Federation of App-based Transport (IFAT) workers said in a press note released on Wednesday that delivery staff of Amazon were making around INR 20,000 a month before the national lockdown last year, but that earning has now dropped to INR 10,000 following updated payment structures, which pay them INR 15 per delivery as opposed to the previous commission of INR 35.

In Bengaluru, a few delivery partners reported that they were not given protective equipment like masks, during the pandemic. Balaji (name changed), a 26-year-old delivery partner for Amazon, says “Amazon has not given me a single mask or sanitiser this year. I had to buy the mask myself. Doing work for them is very risky.” Meanwhile, Amazon continued to express how they “prioritise the health and safety of [their] delivery partners.”

However, these issues regarding workers’ mistreatment are affecting delivery personnel across firms. As acknowledged by Amazon in their recent blog post which was a response to Rep. Pocan, they mentioned how poor working conditions are “a long-standing, industry-wide issue” which are “not specific to Amazon”.

“Before the lockdown, I would earn around Rs 900 a day, by delivering about 60 parcels. During the lockdown, I earned nothing,” said Ramesh (name changed), a 40-year-old ‘delivery partner’ for Myntra. Unfortunately, Ramesh reflects the story of several delivery workers across India, who have faced severe income losses after the COVID-19 lockdown in March of 2020.

Since most of these delivery workers are ‘independent contractors’ who work for digital platforms like Amazon, Myntra and Swiggy, they are legally not considered as employees of the firms. They are not entitled to minimum wages and other benefits like insurance and pension which are offered to workers within the firms. Over these stated concerns, delivery workers like Ramesh have to pay for fuel and bike repair costs out of their own pockets, pulling down their actual incomes below minimum wage. According to a recent study by the National Law School of India University, this figure stands at Rs 65.80 per hour in Karnataka.

Bhavani Seetharaman, a policy researcher studying labour and technology, explains how the protests by Zomato workers in Bengaluru, in September 2019, successfully brought this issue to the state’s notice. “These protests specifically led to the labour department in Karnataka attempting to create legislation for gig workers in the state.” The issues covered under the legislation include health insurance in the event of accidents and fair wages. 

Seetharaman continues, “While this was the start of a much-needed legislation, post the pandemic these dialogues have stopped.” 

Needless to say, post the pandemic is when this legislation was needed the most. 

Ajit (name changed), a 36-year-old delivery partner for Swiggy, points out how Swiggy has reduced the per-delivery rate since March. “Earlier, I used to get Rs 15 per delivery, and now I get paid Rs 12.” He explains how this change has immensely impacted his finances. “I can’t afford to pay for my children’s school fees this year. It doesn’t make sense to pay Rs 3000 for 4 hours of online class a month, when we need that money for food and rent.”

When workers try and speak up about such issues, they face harsh consequences from their employers. Ramesh explains, “Myntra has cut the per-delivery rate from Rs 15 to Rs 11 this year. When some workers tried to complain about this [to their managers], they were assigned fewer deliveries in a day. Few others were even fired.” This points towards a larger issue of lack of agency, that most gig workers are subjected to. 

While the platforms tout delivery work as ‘flexible’, implying that their ‘delivery partners’ can choose the number of hours they work, this is often not the case. Ramesh continues, “The per-delivery rates are so low, we are forced to accept any and all orders that we are assigned, at any time of the day.” Despite this, Ramesh still falls short of the income needed to pay rent and other utilities. This has led him to take up a second job as a delivery partner for Amazon.

The platforms also deny their delivery partners other benefits like health insurance and pension. While Swiggy has promised insurance to its workers in case they test positive for COVID-19, Ramesh seems sceptical. “We did not sign any contract for this, nor were we told about how much money we would get [in the event of testing positive for COVID-19.]” 

To address these issues, Seetharaman says that the way forward is “To define gig workers as workers of the formal economy.” This would give them the same protections as workers in other sectors, such as minimum wages and health insurance.

She points out that the recent Code on Social Security is a starting point for such legislation. This is because it has at least begun to define gig workers, and discuss their need for social securities. However, the Code does not make it compulsory for platforms to provide these social securities to their workers.

As the size of the gig economy (delivery services) continues to increase during the pandemic, and cases of wage slashing continue, there is an imminent need for stronger labour legislation. As Ramesh puts it, “Without us [delivery workers], these companies cannot continue to function. How is it fair that they get richer this year, while we struggle to survive?”

Image credits: Forbes

Samyukta is a student of Economics, Finance and Media Studies at Ashoka University. In her free time, she enjoys discovering interesting long-form reads and exploring new board games.

Rohan Pai is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In his free time, you’ll find him singing for a band, producing music and video content.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).