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UK launch of Bookshop.org marks new chapter for independent bookshops

Gay's the Word, 66 Marchmont St, Saint Pancras, London WC1N 1AB

Taking on Amazon but on its own terms, Bookshop.org is on a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops while providing them with the tools they need to trade online. We catch up with Nicole Vanderbilt who has been leading its lockdown-accelerated expansion into the UK.

Having only launched in the US at the start of the year, Bookshop.org is already being hailed as a revolutionary moment in the history of bookselling as it offers a viable alternative to giants like Amazon. The platform allows readers to search for and shop a vast range of books online while at the same time, crucially, helping them support their local, independent bookshops.

The business model is simple. “Any bookshop can set up a page, and it takes about as long as it takes to set up a Twitter account,” says UK managing director Nicole Vanderbilt, who until February was the international vice-president at Etsy and previously held roles at Bebo, Google and American Express.

“Once they do that, any time a bookshop brings a customer to our platform, or a customer finds that bookshop on our map, the bookshop gets that customer’s sales credited to them for up to 180 days. So during that time, anything the customer buys on Bookshop.org, the shop gets a 30% commission.”

As orders made on the site are passed straight on to Bookshop’s UK wholesaler Gardners to fulfil, small, niche bookshops that might only carry a limited number of titles in-store now have a huge back-list available to them and will receive that 30% commission regardless.

For the many independent bookshops forced to shut due to lockdown restrictions, this has been a lifeline.

Jim McSweeney is the manager of Gay’s the Word, the oldest LGBT bookshop in the UK. He calls Bookshop.org “very good for us and very good for anyone who just wants to support the nice bookshop down the road“.

“You can buy whatever book you want on the platform and even if we wouldn’t normally have it in stock we still get our 30%. So even though we are a lesbian and gay bookshop, people can order whatever book they want – the latest Nigella for their granny’s Christmas or whatever – and put it through our shop window. It’s a win-win.”

It also means that indies that had been unable to set up an online shop in time for lockdown, whether due to lack of know-how or resources, are now able to continue trading through the platform.

“There are so many bookshops that are so thoughtful in how they curate their shops, but don’t necessarily have the skills to set up an online platform or create a social media presence,” says Vanderbilt.

“We hope that our platform can provide them with the tools, as well as the confidence to shift online.”

Notwithstanding its initial success, Bookshop wasn’t supposed to launch in the UK until early 2021, but the decision was made to accelerate in order to help bookshops make the move online in the face of a second lockdown.

Despite this, Bookshop has had incredible early results having already raised over £200,000 to be distributed among indies across the country.

This is likely because the demand for a new place to shop for books online, and for a more socially conscious alternative to Amazon, has been there for some time. “It’s been the case for a long time, even before the pandemic, that people are buying more online,” says Vanderbilt. ”So it’s not just because they can’t go out, but because it’s what they are used to.

“Time and again, however, you’ll see companies try to compete with Amazon on its terms. Companies want to be as fast and as cheap. What we say is that you will get your book, you will get it pretty quickly, but while it might not be as cheap as it is on Amazon, you pay that little bit extra in the knowledge that you are supporting an independent business.

“What we’ve learned from our bookshops is that they’re delighted to now be multi-channel. They want to meet their customers where they are, and preferably that’s in person, but sometimes it’s on the bus on the way home from work, and people want to make an order while it’s front of mind.

“We want to give indies a fair shot at that share of the market.”

Vanderbilt is unwavering that the support of independent bookshops will always be the priority for Bookshop.org, and that the platform will continue to do all it can to support them – even after lockdown is over.

“We believe that bookshops are vital to a healthy culture because they play such important roles as physical spaces within communities. They are where authors can connect with readers and where children learn how to read. They contribute to a diversity of voices getting discovered by readers.

“We see our service as entirely complementary to the existence of physical bookshops. What you will see in all of our comms is a reminder that if you can go in person to visit your local bookshop, then you should absolutely do that.”

“But for those times when you can’t get to your local bookshop, such as now, then you are able to buy books that support those businesses whenever you want.”

Looking to the future, Vanderbilt says the hope is to foster an environment in which physical bookshops can thrive.

“We hope our platform can act as an on-ramp for the development of new bookshops for the 21st century. We believe it can start with an affiliate link on Bookshop.org that builds an audience and confidence, and then maybe even the financial history to then take to a bank or a landlord in order to open a physical shop.

“We hope that it can make for a more diverse landscape of bookshops in the future.”

Despite being deemed non-essential by the UK government, books have been a lifeline for many throughout fluctuating lockdown restrictions, and the publishing industry has reported record sales this year as a result. Yet the implementation of a second lockdown has left the future uncertain for many local indie bookshops.

And with Christmas always a crucial time for the book industry, Bookshop’s UK launch is not only timely but likely necessary if independent bookshops are to survive.

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