Bookshop.org raises £1m for UK's indie booksellers amid lockdown

Alison Flood
·4 min read

Four months since it launched, Bookshop.org – billed as an alternative to Amazon – has generated £1m in profit for independent bookshops in the UK, the website announced on Monday.

Set up by Andy Hunter, the writer and co-founder of Literary Hub, Bookshop.org was launched in the US a year ago and in the UK in November. Pitching itself as a socially conscious way to buy books online, it allows booksellers to create a virtual shop front, receiving 30% of the cover price from each sale without having to handle customer service or shipping. When a sale is made and not attributed to a specific bookseller, 10% of the cover price goes into a pot that is split between all of the shops.

Bookshop.org announced on Monday that more than 200,000 UK customers have used it since its November launch, generating sales of more than £5m and profit of £1m for the 410 independent bookshops signed up to it. The platform said that £633,000 of the total profit has been distributed to bookshops in customer-designated commissions, while the remaining £367,000 is shared equally among all participating bookshops.

The Booksellers Association’s managing director Meryl Halls called it “a remarkable moment for indie bookselling, and in the fight against Amazon’s dominance in the book market over the last 10 months”.

The platform was launched as England went into a second national lockdown in November, and Halls said it had been a lifeline for shops who were “forced to close and otherwise struggling to provide an e-commerce offer to their loyal customers”.

Some had argued that Bookshop.org would just be yet another competitor for physical bookshops. The company believes that the best way to support independent bookshops is to shop from them directly, and claims it will only help small shops to gain customers who are used to the ease of buying from bigger online retailers such as Amazon.

On Monday, many booksellers who used the platform told the Guardian they did not have the resources to run their own website. Victoria Johnson from Chorlton Bookshop in Manchester said commissions from the platform had funded her daily living expenses, food and fuel bills through January and February. Nicci Rosengarten, of Moon Lane Children’s Toys and Books in Ramsgate, said she signed up to Bookshop.org after realising it would have been “unfeasible” and “unsustainable” for her to set up and maintain her own website or posting books out to customers herself.

Rosengarten estimated that her virtual shopfront has generated “about two or three months’ worth of takings”. “Without the income from Bookshop.org, staff would have to be furloughed or work voluntarily as they did during the first lockdown. Being able to work during lockdowns has ensured that Moon Lane has been able to continue its outreach work,” she said.

Nigel Jones opened the East Gate Bookshop in Totnes in December, 12 days before it was forced to close due to lockdown. “Bookshop.org arrived in the nick of time for us. I honestly don’t think we could have managed financially and emotionally without it,” said Jones. “I’ve got three children under 12. My wife is a midwife. I’m running this shop, and I’ve got a part-time job as well – spending all my evenings packing up things for an online shop would kill us. So Bookshop.org does that, and gives us a pretty good kickback of 30%.”

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Authors including Malorie Blackman, Elena Ferrante and Marian Keyes have curated reading lists on the platform, boosting sales for the books they chose. Keyes provided a list of the “ultimate comfort reads for hard times”, while Blackman has tipped a handful of graphic novels including Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper and Garth Ennis’s Preacher.

Bookshop.org said that 82% of its sales were generated by titles selling fewer than four copies each, and 54% from titles selling just one copy. This, it said, demonstrates how it “helps draw attention to books beyond bestseller lists”.

“Our mission is to support indie bookshops precisely so that as many people as possible can continue to shop directly from them,” said UK managing director Nicole Vanderbilt. “We are in this to ensure that indie bookshops continue to exist and thrive in a world where consumers are increasingly buying online. There is simply nothing like the experience of shopping at an independent bookshop.”