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4 December 2020

Why Bookshop.org is not the saviour the book world needs

The “ethical” alternative to Amazon was lauded when it arrived in the UK in November. But a number of high street booksellers and independent publishers are sceptical.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When Bookshop.org arrived in the UK on 2 November, the announcement was met by a huge amount of public enthusiasm from bookshops, publishers, authors, literary critics and readers alike. “This is revolutionary”, read a Guardian headline, while authors including Margaret Atwood, Richard Osman and Caitlin Moran directed their Twitter followers to purchase their latest books from the site. For many, it was a welcome initiative – finally, it seemed, here was an efficient, competitively priced platform dedicated to supporting independent bookshops.

But a number of high street booksellers and independent publishers are increasingly sceptical of Bookshop.org. “What sticks in the throat is that it seems not remotely to be what it purports to be,” said James Daunt, founder of the independent book chain Daunt Books and managing director of high street bookseller Waterstones. “But they do just enough for it to appear credible and it’s a really nice story: who doesn’t love an anti-Amazon story?”

Tamsin Rosewell, a bookseller at Kenilworth Books, Warwickshire, said Bookshop.org “crashed in like a juggernaut, and seems to be attempting to homogenise all indie bookshops into one online presence”. Its launch, she said, was “arrogant and clumsy”. 

Bookshop.org, which launched in the US in early 2020, is “an online bookshop with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops”, its website states. It aims to rival Amazon, a corporation that last year paid just £293m in UK tax, despite having sales of £13.73bn, which has been accused of having unsafe working conditions and putting independent bookshops out of business

Bookshop.org works by enabling independent bookshops to create their own virtual shopfronts on their site. Bookshops receive 30 per cent of a book’s cover price for each sale made through their shopfront. If a customer buys a book without going through a specific shop, 10 per cent of that book’s cover price is put into a central pot split among all participating shops. The books are sourced and shipped by Gardners, the UK’s largest book wholesaler. Titles are offered at a small discount – 7 per cent, typically still more expensive than Amazon – and are delivered within two to three days.

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The site launched at a prime time for online sales: days before England’s second lockdown, just as people were beginning to start their Christmas shopping. In its first week it sold £415,000 worth of books to more than 20,000 customers. A month since its launch, it now has 350 bookshops across the platform, and has sold £2.2m worth of books. £400,000 of that total will go to independent bookshops. “Our sales have so far exceeded our expectations,” said Bookshop.org’s UK managing director, Nicole Vanderbilt, who explained that the UK launch was brought forward to November to cater to the busy Christmas season and a likely impending second lockdown.

But Bookshop.org’s arrival has caused great unease in parts of the book trade. After a difficult year for the industry, with many small presses and independent shops at risk of closure due to the pressures of the pandemic, many told me Bookshop.org is far from the saviour they need. Bookshops earn less through sales on Bookshop.org than they would from selling their books direct to customers, and booksellers fear the site, rather than competing with Amazon, is diverting shoppers away from the high street.

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First, the finances. One independent bookseller, who asked not to be named, told me: “We’re losing out substantially.” For every book sold via Bookshop.org, they explained, their shop makes 13-20 per cent less than if the customer had bought the same book, at the same cover price directly from the shop. “Bookshops would usually take between 43 and 50 per cent on a book,” they said. The 30 per cent an independent shop receives from each Bookshop.org sale has been described widely as a “full profit margin”. This, the website’s CEO, Andy Hunter, explained, is the money left after the 7 per cent customer discount, payments to the publisher, wholesaler and payment processor, and the 4 per cent Bookshop.org takes. But the anonymous bookseller claimed the phrase is “misleading”.

Jules Button, owner of Woodbridge Emporium bookshop in Suffolk, agrees. She said customers had ordered books from Bookshop.org thinking they were buying direct from her, unknowingly leaving Woodbridge Emporium to miss out on 13-20 per cent of the takings. “The general public genuinely think they are helping independent bookshops,” said Button. “I don’t think a lot of them realise it’s just another big warehouse and it’s a fulfilment service.”

The numbers don’t work in favour of publishers either. The publishing director of a small independent press, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that when Bookshop.org launched, they felt under pressure from the wider industry to open a page on the site because it seemed every other shop and publisher was – they didn’t want to be left behind. Amazon buys the publisher’s books at 40 per cent of the cover price. But to sell books via Bookshop.org the publisher must go via wholesaler Gardners, with which it already has an agreement of a 55 per cent discount, alongside extra costs like commissions to sales representatives and distribution fees. The director said that, with all these costs included, they sell books to Bookshop.org at around 35 per cent of the cover price: for every book sold on Bookshop.org, they earn 5 per cent less than if they had sold that book on Amazon, the very company Bookshop.org claims to be “fairer” than.

These concerns are keenly felt in a letter sent by a bookseller, drawing on “messages from fellow booksellers”, to industry trade group the Booksellers Association (BA). The letter, seen by the New Statesman, calls Bookshop.org’s launch marketing “aggressive”, describes the “discontent” among booksellers and publishers as growing “increasingly bitter”, and outlines a list of queries about the running of Bookshop.org, questioning the BA’s “very fast” and “forceful” endorsement of the site.

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The biggest fear among those I spoke to is that Bookshop.org is not denting Amazon’s sales, but that it is instead attracting customers who usually shop on the high street – whether at a chain such as Waterstones, Blackwells or Foyles, or at an independent. 

“My feeling is they’re preaching to the converted,” said author and artist Karin Celestine. She said that when she posted news of her latest book on social media, encouraging potential readers to buy it via their local bookshop, she was met with a flurry of support instead for Bookshop.org – from “people who were already shopping at their local bookshops”.

“To be comfortable about what Bookshop.org is doing,” Tamsin Rosewell said, “and the way it is marketing itself as an ethical alternative to Amazon, I’d like to see detailed, unambiguous data that shows it creating a movement of sales away from Amazon. If it can’t show that data, then in effect all it is doing is driving online many of the sales that would have come to the high street, to indies and to Waterstones, at a time when the high street economy most needs that trade.”

Amazon, when asked whether its UK book sales had been at all impacted by the arrival of Bookshop.org, declined to comment. Bookshop.org was unable to provide data to show its launch had so far affected Amazon’s book sales either in the UK or the US, but both Vanderbilt and Hunter directed me to figures showing US e-commerce sales at independent bookshops (not those via Bookshop.org) are up 1,000 per cent this year.

Hunter said this suggests that Bookshop.org, which launched in the US in late March, has “expanded the size of the pie” – which he believes will combat Amazon sales rather than eat directly into independent shops’ profits. “I think that’s the most compelling evidence that what we’re pushing for and what we’re seeing is an overall shift in consumer behaviour,” Hunter said. “That isn’t to say there isn’t more we can do.”

A spokesperson for Nielsen BookScan, a data provider for the publishing industry, pointed out that it is difficult to draw conclusions about Bookshop.org’s impact on the market, since the effects of the pandemic have heavily skewed this year’s data. Of course online book sales would be up this year – shops were closed for much of it – and Amazon, too, tripled its profits in the third quarter. Without a similar pandemic year with which to compare the numbers, the lift cannot be attributed to Bookshop.org.

Stephen Sparks, co-owner of Point Reyes Books, an independent bookshop in California, is doubtful Bookshop.org has boosted his customer base. “I have never had a customer tell us they found us through Bookshop.org” he said. “I live about 20 miles from my bookstore and when I use Bookshop.org’s ‘find a bookstore’ search function, my (rural) bookstore does not show up in the results.”

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Bookshop.org is in the process of applying for B corporation certification in the UK, for businesses that meet the “highest standards” of “transparency” and social and environmental “purpose”. The site’s supposed transparency seems to set it apart from Amazon, but booksellers have told me they find Bookshop.org’s financial system incredibly “complex” and do not fully understand how it works – arguing that it is, for the businesses trying to operate within it, not at all transparent. 

Hunter emphasised that although transparency is at the heart of the Bookshop.org business model, the sped-up launch in the UK has meant that not everything is as smooth as he’d like. “This is the best we’ve been able to do in the short time we’ve been around,” he said.

“We really are what we say we are,” he added. “We’re a mission-based organisation, we’re very scrappy, we’re a small team, we’re all working from home and we’re doing the best we can with our resources to push for a sea-change in consumer behaviour that protects independent bookstores.”

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Kieron Smith, digital director at Blackwell’s (though an independent bookshop, with 22 shops it is unable to open a storefront on Bookshop.org) said the platform “removes the agency” of independents. Over the course of the pandemic, he has watched indies find creative new ways of interacting with their customer bases, through social media and mail orders. “I don’t have any doubt that there are best intentions behind Bookshop.org,” Smith said. “People legitimately want to see something as an Amazon alternative. But don’t create another behemoth.”

Rosewell agrees: “They’ve introduced competition and tension between components of this industry that were previously allies.” She argues that Bookshop.org “pits indie book-buying against Waterstones as the other high street presence – which seems counterproductive if the intention really is to make a dent in Amazon sales. We believe there is room for both of us in the market and have no desire to see our fellow booksellers further damaged in an already extremely tough economic situation.”

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Vanderbilt said that Bookshop.org has not spent any money on marketing. Word of its launch travelled far on social media, encouraged by numerous positive articles and the endorsement of major publishing houses. Yet this culture of unanimous, uncritical celebration – Rosewell called it “evangelical” – has left some booksellers nervous about questioning Bookshop.org.

After doing some research, Jules Button of Woodbridge Emporium decided not to use Bookshop.org, but she didn’t feel able to publicly express her criticisms. “It’s difficult when you’ve got people in prominent positions in the book industry who are really, really behind this,” she said. “It’s scary. I don’t want to upset them.” Rosewell agreed: “The booksellers who have doubts are somehow made to feel like heretics.”

It is understandable that book lovers, eager to find an “ethical alternative” to Amazon, were quick to publicly celebrate the arrival of Bookshop.org. But in doing so, many forgot to ask the independent bookshops how they feel they can best be supported. “I really want people to buy from their local bookshop,” said Celestine. “They get more money that way.”

“Direct is best,” said Smith. “Then customers can benefit from a conversation with a bookseller. We go one step beyond a search engine and put a human bookseller there – that’s pretty important.”

After this piece was published, Nicole Vanderbilt, UK MD of Bookshop.org, said:

“In our communications, we try to emphasize that buying directly from your favourite local bookshop is the best way to support them; for many of our shops, Bookshop.org is their preferred way to support them if you’re buying books online. We started this platform to support independent bookshops financially to ensure that going to them directly will be possible for many years to come.

On Bookshop.org, independent bookshops make 30% of the cover price of the books sold. This is pure profit without any of the associated costs of carrying inventory, fulfilling orders, customer service, and the cost of setting up and maintaining an ecommerce website. We have heard from several shops on our platform they believe their take on Bookshop.org comparable to selling directly. More importantly, for the many stores that did not previously have online storefronts, Bookshop.org has been essential.

Bookshop.org does not buy books from publishers or set terms with them. We source books through the wholesaler Gardners; publishers receive the same terms through any of the thousands of shops that are also supplied by Gardners; while we don’t know the terms Gardners has with individual publishers, we believe that in most cases they are competitive with Amazon. Bookshops receive, for all those customer who have opted in in accordance with GDPR, all the customer information associated with their sales on Bookshop.org.”

An earlier version of this article described a letter to the Booksellers Association as being from “a group of booksellers”. The letter was authored a by a single bookseller drawing on “messages from fellow booksellers”. The article has been updated to reflect this. 

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