Bookshop.org UK – Who Are They, How Does It Work and Is It Really An Ethical Amazon Alternative?

bookshop.org uk who are they are they ethical

Since opening for UK business in November 2020, Bookshop’s launch has certainly caused a few waves in the online bookselling world.

Many independent bookshop owners, authors, publishers and book buyers have welcomed Bookshop.org with enthusiasm and excitement, touting the website as the ethical and sustainable saviour to challenge the Amazon behemoth.

Whilst others have been more sceptical and said Bookshop.org will end up causing more damage to independent, high street booksellers and publishers. 

A socially conscious alternative to Amazon? Is this true?

To help you make up your own minds, let’s take a look the details surrounding Bookshop.org, how exactly they operate and if they really are an ethical alternative.

What is Bookshop.org?

Bookshop.org is an online bookshop with the primary purpose of promoting local, independent booksellers.

They see their mission as helping independent bookshops by allowing readers to buy books from their affiliate-based and profit-sharing platform.

Bookshop.org want to back up their big visions and statements as an ethical and sustainable company and are in the midst of gaining B Corporation Certification.

Bookshop.org are certainly not against physical, high street bookshops. They recognise their essential place in communities as a public good, want to help them thrive and have described them as the ‘physical roots’ and ‘anchors’ of book culture.

What Bookshop wants to do is capture people who are already intent on buying books online and divert them away from Amazon, giving the independent bookshops a slice of the online pie (how will be explained shortly).

We all know the problem with Amazon – paying very little tax (just £6.3 million in corporation tax in 2019 from almost £14 billion in sales), bad working conditions for employees and selling items, including books, almost at a loss. These are probably just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the negatives.  

The sustainable platform of Bookshop.org will provide three main features:

  1. A universal site to support independent booksellers
  2. A strong affiliate programme for the benefit of booksellers
  3. A simple solution to allow indie bookstores to build an online shop at no cost

More people are buying online, including books. This can’t exactly be stopped.

What Bookshop.org aims to create is an easy and convenient way of buying books online whilst putting the independent bookseller at the heart of things.

By signing up to Bookshop, independent booksellers can create their own virtual shopfronts on the platform, in essence their own mini website, for free. If someone buys a book via the virtual shop, the bookseller will receive 30% of the cover price from each sale.

All customer service, handling, shipping and stock management is done by Bookshop and its UK distribution partner, Gardners Books.

When was Bookshop.org founded and who owns it?

Bookshop.org is a new company, founded in 2019 by US publisher Andy Hunter.

It launched in the US in February 2020 and was quickly thrown into the deep-end when the global pandemic hit a month later.

This also fast-tracked the UK website version, which went live in November 2020 to high acclaim.

Andy Hunter is the CEO of Bookshop and Nicole Vanderbilt is the Managing Director of the UK operations.

Since the arrival of the UK website, it’s already been used by over 200,000 customers and generated £1 million in profit for independent UK bookshops. You can see an update profit counter on the Bookshop.org homepage.

Bookshop.org is the trading name of Bookshoppe Limited, who are located and have registered offices at Canary Wharf in London.

Bookshoppe Ltd is 100% owned by Bookshop Holdings Limited, an American company headquarted in New York.

Mr Andy Hunter owns 75% or more of the shares in Bookshop Holdings Ltd, which means there are no big corporate backers and no venture capitalists, just ‘individuals who appreciate the necessary function that bookstores serve in our society and culture’.

It’s actually written in Bookshop’s corporate documents that the company will never be sold to Amazon or any major US retailer.

Good news for the independents.

How does Bookshop.org work with independent bookshops?

chorlton bookshop virtual storefront on bookshop.org
The virtual storefront of Chorlton Bookshop, the closest independent to me on Bookshop.org

There are now over 400 independent UK bookshops signed up to the Bookshop platform. This is almost half of the 870 said to exist in the UK.

In simple terms here’s how Bookshop.org works with independent bookshops.

An independent bookstore signs up to Bookshop.org for free. Independent bookshops have the option to open a digital store front where they, rather than computer algorithms, curate what the user sees just like they would in a real bookshop.

When someone buys a book from the website, Bookshop takes the order, handles the customer service and ships the order via their third-party distribution partner Gardners Books, who are the leading wholesaler of books in the UK. They also take care of any returns.

This is great for those independent bookstores who just don’t have the means or resource to start their own ecommerce website, let alone deal with the selling, delivery and returns.

This means that Bookshop.org are the middleman, providing the platform to make things happen.

On to the financial details, there are two main ways the Bookshop platform can support indie booksellers:

  1. Bookshops who sell books using Bookshop.org will earn a 30% commission on every sale. They can do this by their shop front and by sharing links on their social media channels, emails and other websites.
  2. If a person goes directly to the Bookshop.org website and buys a book that isn’t directly associated with a specific bookseller, 10% of the sale goes straight into a mutual pot. Every six months this pot is evenly split between all the independent booksellers on the site.

Even more, is a Bookshop customer selects a bookseller and opts in during the purchase, that independent bookshop will be given the email address for any follow ups. For those customers that don’t select a local bookshop, Bookshop.org will inform them about the bookshops near them and any event listings for those stores on every receipt they email.

Online publishers and websites, such this website, can also sign up for the affiliate programme and create lists on a shop. Affiliates will earn 10% of any sales with another 10% going into the independent bookshop pot.

For example, I’ve created a TinyEcoHomeLife bookshop and have a book list with my recommended reads on sustainability, the environment and ethical living.

Bookshop.org doesn’t allow chains to sign up. For example, Blackwells are independently owned but have 22 bookshops in the UK, so are not allowed to a virtual store front.

How much money does Bookshop.org take?

Bookshop.org have stated that they are not in it for the financial gain, rather to fully support independent booksellers.

By letting indies create their own storefronts, confined in design terms by Bookshop.org’s very user friendly website, they want to create a universal thriving communities for book-lovers. The lack of algorithms and emphasis on shop owner curation gives it a nice sense of personality and human touch.

If a bookshop partners makes 30% profit from a sale, what about the remaining 70%?

  • Around 50% of a book’s sale price goes to the publisher (who pays the author)
  • Roughly 20% goes towards fulfilment, operating costs of the website, payment processing and discounts
  • Bookshop.org takes a small percentage, around 4%, of all other (non-partner) sales

Is Bookshop.org ethical?

By the very design and operations of the company, Bookshop.org give away over 75% of profit margins to independent stores, publications, authors and the other key parts of the book ecosystem.

It is safe to say that Bookshop.org are a legitimate company who do care about the whole book community and are striving to make the online world a better place for independent booksellers.

Adding to their ethical claims is a pending B Corporation Certification.

For those who are not sure, a B Corp is a business that has been certified to meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit with purpose. They define companies that genuinely care and are committed to a more sustainable future for all. In short, the use business as a force for good.

Bookshop.org do state on their website – ‘Bookshop is a B-Corp, a corporation dedicated to the public good’ – but I can’t see anything yet on the B-Corp website directory. Perhaps this in the process of going on.

According to the Ethical Consumer website, Bookshop.org are rated as 11.5 out of 20.

This rating is based on performance in categories including environmental and social. Bookshop lost marks due to its lack of environmental policy and reporting. As this is early days for the company, I’m sure this can be worked on and improved.

To give some context, a score of 11.5 out of 20 is one of the highest ethical scores of all booksellers and is the same rating that Oxfam Books received.

In terms of ethics, it’s slightly better than Better World Books (10.5/20) and Hive (10/20) but behind fellow B Corp World of Books who scored 14/20.

How can you help local bookstores?

Bookshop.org says it themselves that the best way to support independent bookshops is to buy from directly.

You can’t get much clearer than that.

As you know many people like buying books online, mainly for the pure convenience. I think we can all agree that there’s nothing like being in an indie bookshop browsing around.

However, you can’t always get to a physical bookshop and instead choose to purchase online.

Although there are many places to buy books including second hand books online, people usually head to one website. No prizes for which one.

But no more! This is where the Bookshop.org comes in to help indie shops gain customers and also benefit from sales. 

The UK managing director Nicole Vanderbilt summed it up nicely by saying:

“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.”

Some independent bookshops aren’t too happy with creating another one-stop shop for books and state that they will earn less on a book sold through bookshop.org rather than one physical sold in a shop. According to a source in the rather slating article on the Newstatesman, indie bookshops will make 13-20% less.

I don’t think this is very surprising and is almost to be expected when you add up all the things the booksellers are getting for free on the platform.

In essence a physical bookshop who either don’t want to run an ecommerce business or don’t have the means to, can outsource all of this to Bookshop and receive 30% of associated sales.

In my personal opinion, I don’t think it will divert people away from high street bookshops any more than they already are. Bookshop.org is providing an alternative service for people who are already intent on shopping online and probably heading to Amazon.

The past year has provided exceptional circumstances for the book market with people readily buying books online (I know I have) with no other alternative. I would like to see some stats and data a little further down the line when the physical world is up and running again.

I think it’s fair to say that Bookshop.org is a good addition to the book world. They have set their stall out to heavily support independent bookshops and use their business as a force for public good. I hope they do succeed and benefit indie booksellers across the UK.


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