As was the case when it launched in the US earlier this year, the arrival of the UK branch of Bookshop.org is timely. Founded by indie publisher Andy Hunter the site carries a simple message for book buyers: “Support Local Bookstores.” There is also a ticker that shows the amount so far earned by local bookshops. In the US currently this is $6.5m.
Bookshop.org sells books on behalf of indie booksellers, based on their recommendations. The trick is that it does all the heavy lifting. It handles the customer experience, Gardners will do the posting and packaging (in the US, this is done by Ingram). Surprisingly, this is not a crowded market. Bookshop.org’s main competition (apart from the obvious one) is the Hive, run—as it happens—by Gardners.
Bookshop.org sets itself apart in a couple of ways. First, the money—independent bookshops receive 30% based on the recommended retail price of the books sold, compared with 10% of the net sale through the Hive. While Bookshop.org does discount (by about 10%), bookshops do not carry the cost. Second, the mission, as Hunter says is about “building a machine that works” for shoppers and indies alike, and one that privileges recommendation over algorithm—this is less about everything, more about everyone. Here the appointments of former Etsy executive Nicole Vanderbilt as UK m.d. and former indie booksellers Mark Thornton and Jasper Sutcliffe are key: all value uniqueness. As Thornton writes: “The inconvenient truth about books is that they require effort in a way that music, films and television do not.” Within that effort lies the bookseller’s opportunity.
Covid-19 has provided impetus. The site went from selling $50,000 worth of books in February to $5m in May. The crisis has too part-protected it from accusations of undermining the high street, or taking sales away from indies’ own websites. In the US, indies have questioned Bookshop.org’s affiliates programme (allowing anyone to compete with indies by selling books off the site, including publishers and authors) and also its discounts. Hunter points out that 10% of all revenue from regular sales are also reserved for indies (and shared equally).
Here the backing of the Booksellers Association is crucial, particularly if, as m.d. Meryl Halls suggests, Bookshop.org can act as a counterpoint to Amazon. In the US, it has too been supported by the indie-focused American Booksellers Association, which invested $100,000 early on and took a small stake in the not-for-profit business.
For high street booksellers this autumn could be make or break—a national lockdown without renewed government support would be devastating. In the UK many indies simply do not have websites capable of emulating what they do in store, online. It is little wonder that Bookshop.org has been pressed into UK service ahead of Christmas. Unlike many tech start-ups the site solves a problem that actually exists: it need not be the only solution, but it is the one we have today that may see us through to tomorrow.