‘… on the shores of darkness…’ | Martin Toseland

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‘… on the shores of darkness…’

Only four days in and November really hasn’t been the best, has it? Without repeating every line of the list of rubbish things that have happened and those that are, as I write, ‘rubbish-in-progress’, the first week of November 2020 is fast becoming the very model of Rubbish First Weeks.

One item on that list which has really got to me is that, as a consequence of England’s second lockdown, bookshops will close along with pubs, restaurants, gyms and all other ‘non-essential’ businesses. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the decision, the prospect of the potentially terminal damage to those independent, bricks-and-mortar bookshops which have taken such huge pains to keep going during and after the first lockdown is heartbreaking.  

So it was out of keeping with the rest of the news that I spotted an announcement on Monday about the launch of Bookshop https://uk.bookshop.org/ in the UK. It’s a new website with a simple mission: to provide a platform for independent booksellers to operate online. While some independents manage to attract a modest amount of online sales, most lack any presence at all and rely fully on hand-selling. And of course, absolutely none of them has a chance against the competition-crushing might of Amazon. 

As one bookseller put it:  

‘Being an independent bookseller has for so many years been such a David v Goliath battle that it feels slightly disconcerting when someone at last hands you a bazooka instead of you peppering away with your slingshot.’

Or to adapt John Keats (with profound apologies),

‘…on the shores of darkness there is (a tiny) light…’

Bookshop is very easy to use: customers order via the site from any ‘partner’ local bookstore, and that store gets the full profit from the order. Partner shops will also earn 30% commission on any sales they generate. A further percentage of each order goes into a pool that is distributed to independent bookshops throughout the country. Authors, bloggers and book promoters are encouraged to become affiliates and earn fees from recommendations – much as they can on Amazon. 

Bookshop offers 1-2 day delivery and a small – but by no means Amazon-level – discount. (For what it’s worth, I am happy to pay the right price for books in the knowledge that author, publisher and bookseller get a decent reward for their creativity and hard work.)

In the US, it has been up and running since April with over 900 partner stores nationwide and, in that time, has generated $1million for those shops. As of the launch date in the UK (2 November), 160 shops had signed up and, from a brief check this morning (4 November), it had already generated £35,000 for those independents. 

Small sums, but if the site grows in the UK then we can hope that a viable, ethical alternative to Amazon will become sustainable. And with that independent booksellers – the people who contribute so much not only to the vibrancy and creativity of the publishing industry but also who, perhaps more than anyone else, help grow relationships between authors and readers – might be able to look forward to life after lockdown with a bit more optimism.

A tiny light on an otherwise very dark shore.

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