With the arrival – to the trade at least – of the US-owned Bookshop.org, this is potentially a momentous week for UK independent booksellers. The company’s USP is the help it offers indie booksellers. It allows booksellers to create their own pages on the site and gives them 30% of the cover price on any sale that comes through their links. Bookshop.org will also pay affiliates 10%, with a further 10% of sales revenue going into a payment pool distributed every six months to independent bookshops that have opted in.
The crucial time will come in November when the site launches to consumers. As with any other product or service, consumer awareness is key. How will anyone know about Bookshop.org? Those indies who sign up will promote it, so their customers will be aware, but what about the wider book-buying public? They know three names: Amazon, Waterstones and WHSmith. Bookbuyers who feel that Amazon is too dominant may already shift to Waterstones, to ‘spread their money around’; WHSmith is not really a contender.
Bookshop.org says it has ‘a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops’, adding: ‘We believe that bookshops are essential to a healthy culture. They’re where authors can connect with readers, where we discover new writers, where children get hooked on the thrill of reading that can last a lifetime. They’re also anchors for our town centres and communities.’
It bills itself as a B corporation, with an awareness of its environmental and societal impact. But does the public look at the community benefits of physical bookshops? Or do they look at price, convenience and Amazon’s excellent delivery times? And will Bookshop.org be able to equal Amazon’s excellent bibliographic data?
Fortunately, the news from the US is good so far, partly – though it feels strange to say it – because of Covid-19. This led to a huge increase in stores registering with the site and sales rose from $50,000 worth of books in February to $5m in May. The profit pool for signed up indies was $985,000, distributed in July. They need the help. According to a survey of 400 stores by the American Booksellers Association, a quarter reported 2020 sales 21 to 40% down on last year. So UK indies await November’s consumer launch of Bookshop.org with a degree of optimism in this nervous run-up to the first Covid Christmas.
If this initiative is the US helping out the UK, then James Daunt is repaying the favour. He has just outlined some of his plans for Barnes & Noble which had good and bad news for publishers. He has said there will be fewer returns but smaller upfront orders. He also said that B&N’s replenishment systems would be looked at. Currently it is using an algorithm “last reviewed” in 2008. He talked about “different algorithms” now available that would “prompt” booksellers to use their “human brains” to make decisions. And in an echo of the change he introduced at Waterstones, he said the chain had already stopped publishers paying for promotions.
One UNESCO World Book Capital (WBC) is now helping out another. Sharjah in the UAE, which has just come to the end of its tenure as WBC, is supporting the renovation of three libraries in Beirut damaged by the explosion on 4 August. Beirut was UNESCO World Book Capital in 2009. Sheikha Bodour al Qasimi, vice-president of the International Publishers Assocation and head of Sharjah’s World Book Capital office, said: “Restoring libraries and cultural centres is as important as supplying humanitarian aid. As we stand by people who lost their homes and businesses, we should not forget how vital the cultural role played by Beirut’s libraries, art galleries and institutions, has been — not only for Lebanon but the entire Arab region and the world.”
Carolyn Reidy, the late president and CEO of Simon & Schuster, who died on 12 May, will receive the 2020 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, given by the National Book Foundation to honour a “lifetime of achievement in expanding the audience for books and reading”. The posthumous award will be given on 18 November at the 71st National Book Awards Ceremony which will be a virtual event this year. Her husband Stephen will accept the award on her behalf and has said he will donate the $10,000 prize money to Carolyn Reidy’s favourite charity, Worldreader, the non-profit organization that provides people in the developing world with free access to a library of digital books via e-readers and mobile phones.
Finally, kudos to James Daunt again. Not only does he run the biggest booksellers on both sides of the Atlantic, he gets his name on the Man Booker list too with Brandon Taylor’s Real Life (Daunt Books Publishing).
Roger Tagholm writes our Snapshot of the Week.