The Booksellers Association and Bookshop.org have responded to criticism following the launch of the online website in the UK in November. The criticism, which is focused on how effective the website will be at supporting independent bookshops and the BA's role in facilitating the launch, came in the form of a letter from bookseller Tamsin Rosewell to BA m.d. Meryl Halls following a social media discussion about the website. The letter was subsequently leaked to the press.
The letter, seen by The Bookseller, states that there is "discontent" among booksellers and publishers that is growing and "increasingly bitter". Rosewell wrote that she had had numerous questions over how the affiliates scheme would work for indies, publishers, and authors, and described the launch marketing as "far more aggressive than is appropriate". She also raised concerns over the BA's own role in bringing Bookshop.org to the UK, as well as the requirement that participating bookshops should be members of the BA. Rosewell also queried what the impact would be on established bookshop websites such as those operated by Waterstones and Blackwell's. "This general lack of transparency and accountability raises more complex questions."
When approached by The Bookseller, Rosewell declined to comment further, and denied being the source of the leak. The letter is wide-ranging and contains a number of criticisms, some of which have been repeated in a New Statesman article. Speaking to The Bookseller, Meryl Halls, m.d. of the Booksellers Association, said the exchange of letters had been with Rosewell, and not with a number of booksellers as was being implied by the New Statesman.
In response to the letter from Rosewell, Halls wrote: "I understand that you remain unconvinced about Bookshop.org – plenty of booksellers remain unconvinced, I know – we have a pluralist membership and they will all have a different view. There is nothing compulsory about any of this; on the contrary, it is all optional." On the question of the BA's links to Bookshop.org–Halls sits on the board of the UK company—she said that the BA has no financial interest in Bookshop.org, and received no income from sales made. "We have made no investment, we have given them no funding, there is no introducer fee coming to the BA from Bookshop.org, or anything of the sort. We have no financial arrangement with Bookshop.org."
On the criticism that indies had to be members of the BA, Halls responded that it was the same model as used in the US where indies must be part of the American Booksellers Association, and that its intention was to make sure that "only genuine, bricks and mortar indie bookshops would benefit".
On the BA's involvement with Bookshop.org, she added: "Our role has been to facilitate an option for booksellers who needed it, some desperately, and to ensure that its mission continues to be the benefit of indie booksellers. Generally, our role as a trade body has always been more to the practical advantage of independent bookshops, and the chains have always been immensely supportive of that approach; we are a broad church, but a very collegiate one. Our facilitation of Bookshop.org is entirely consistent with this approach of targeting member benefits to our membership sectors in a tailored way."
Nicole Vanderbilt, m.d. of the UK iteration of Bookshop.org, said: “Bookshop was founded with the sole purpose of supporting indie bookshops. We understand that some may have questions, and we welcome any feedback from independent booksellers on how best to fulfil our mission and support them. We are an open company and eager to hear new ideas, address concerns, and collaborate. We hope anyone with concerns will reach out to us directly.
"Since we launched, we have always maintained the single best way to support an independent bookshop is to buy from them directly. Bookshop.org is meant to be a simple, free platform for shops to capture online sales and counter Amazon. Many stores will have their own e-commerce solutions and we respect that Bookshop.org won't be right for everyone. We still encourage them to sign up for our profit-sharing pool; we want to financially support all shops, regardless of whether they use our platform. We know we won't be the right fit for every bookseller, but we hope we can all work together to help build a strong, sustainable future for independent bookselling."
Although Rosewell's letter contains a number of allegations The Bookseller was unable to substantiate, she is not alone in some of her concerns. James Daunt, m.d. of Waterstones, who also runs the independent book chain Daunt Books, has told The Bookseller that he was disinclined to put Daunt Books into the affiliates programme, and has previously said he was worried over Bookshop.org's capture of customer data, as well as a lack of transparency around its model. Kieron Smith, digital director of Blackwell's, has also written about the company: "The excitement about its proposition concerns me. I do not think that Bookshop.org is the answer. I understand the attraction, especially at these turbulent times, but I do not think it is good for customers and it is not especially good for the industry." In the New Statesman, Daunt says the site is not what it purports to be. “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?"
Jules Button, owner of Woodbridge Emporium, said she decided not to take out a page with the organisation, after reading the terms and conditions. "I don't like the fact you only get two payouts a year, so anything you're taking now you're not going to get until May," she told The Bookseller. Bookshop.org said this was untrue, and that booksellers were able to draw down commissions any time their balance is over £20. It is the profit pool that is paid out every six months.
Button continued: "The other thing I don't like about it is when you sign up and write the blurb about your bookshop, [the webpage] says 'click here to order from this shops website'—60% of customers then think they're ordering from that shop's website. It shouldn't state that, it should state 'ordering from this person's webpage', because people are ordering and then phoning up the bookshops complaining if things are delayed - it's a huge misinterpretation. The customer thinks they are ordering direct with a [specific] bookshop, and doesn't list it fully that they [aren't] and so the customers are getting upset because they think they are supporting the bookshop directly and they are not."
However other booksellers have said it is up to the individual vendor to be clear about what works for them. "Kieron Smith has said it is encumbent for booksellers to tell the customers what works for them—and often direct is the very best method, in terms of [shopping] virtually, but Bookshop.org is hell of a second best, compared to Amazon," said Nic Bottomley, bookseller and owner of Mr B's Emporium.
"We've got such a busy website that it would make no sense personally for me to direct my customers first and foremost to Bookshop.org, but what I do say to customers is if you want another option, and you go to our website and we don't have every singe title on there, then for sure choose Bookshop.org, and I'm going to get a big benefit. Of course it isn't for everyone —we're participating, but it's not the top of our marketing strategy because it wouldn't make sense for us. There are so many bookshops [in America] that basically owe their survival to Bookshop.org. The bookshops where it can make a huge difference are where there is no online shop at all."