Online Bookseller ‘Bookshop’ Isn’t the Saviour We’ve Been Waiting For

Bookshop launched in the UK on Monday 2 November, taking the media by storm. Promising a way for customers to easily and conveniently buy books online whilst supporting independent bookshops, it seems like a dream come true to many readers and those of us trying to shop more ethically. Best of all, the platform is trying to support independent shops against the tyranny of Amazon. 

But Bookshop just isn’t going to become the competitor to Amazon that we need. The initiative is relying on customers’ ethical values to win against the low prices and speed of delivery Amazon provides, which, whilst laudable in theory, is unlikely to happen in reality. 

When Bookshop.org launched in the UK, media outlets were quick to describe the initiative as “revolutionary”, (The Guardian), and the “socially conscious alternative” to Amazon (iNews). Bookshop describes itself as “an easy, convenient way for you to get your books and support bookshops at the same time.” 

On Bookshop you can search for books, add them to your basket, and check out as you would on any retailer’s website. What makes Bookshop particularly novel is the independent bookshop map, which you can search for local bookshops in a certain area. Each of these independent bookshops has been given their own Bookshop.org page, where you can buy books directly from that independent bookshop. 

According to Bookshop’s ‘About’ page, if customers specify a bookshop to order from, that bookshop will receive the full profit from that order. If the customer doesn’t select a specific bookshop, the order will contribute to an earnings pool evenly distributed amongst the independent bookshops on the site. The platform says they will be giving away over 75% of their profit margin to stores, publications, authors, and other actors involved. 

This all sounds well and good, and an initiative I’d love to support as a booklover myself. But the cynic in me believes this new platform is only a tiny plaster trying to fix a huge wound. It is trying to fight a deeply flawed neoliberal, capitalist system through the system itself, which will never work. 

According to Bezonomics, a 2019 book examining Amazon, controls (as of 2019) nearly 40 percent of all online retailing in the US, and is one of the largest e-tailers in Europe. Zephyr Teachout, US law professor, in her 2020 book Break ‘Em Up, sees Amazon as having an obvious monopoly over both its market sellers (on Amazon Marketplace), and over its physical competitors, both large and small. 

This makes it seem like the case for a new retailer, supporting and promoting independent competitors to Amazon, is a great thing and to be celebrated. But I just can’t picture Bookshop succeeding in this mission: Amazon is simply too financially powerful, too diverse in its offerings, and too brutal in its tax evasion, low staff wages and treatment, and willingness to undercut its own products for any other platform to be able to compete. 

Amazon’s prices are notoriously low, which is why we like and return to the site so often. E-books, which you can read on your Kindle, tablet, or phone, are often sold for £0.99; many popular new hardback releases are given a 50 percent discount. As Jeff Bezos (founder and CEO of Amazon) once said: “It’s impossible to imagine a future ten years from now where a customer comes up and says, “Jeff, I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher.’”

Bookshop acknowledges our desire for the cheapest option. On the website’s FAQ section, it acknowledges the sensitivity and complexity around discounts: “Online shoppers are conditioned to expect discounts: if they arrive at Bookshop and see no discounts, this may be offputting. On the other hand, Bookshop is committed to supporting prices that reflect a fair price for publishers, authors, and do not undercut independent bookshops own offerings.”  

Bookshop’s solution offers a straight 7 percent (or less) discount across all standard titles. Buying Barack Obama’s new presidential memoir, retailing at £35, bought from Bookshop will cost you £32.55; from Amazon, it’s £24.75. The 24 percent discount from Amazon wins every time. 

This is why Bookshop can’t compete with Amazon long-term. Good initial sales from the new platform demonstrate the reach and influence of the media spotlight. But will Bookshop remain in the public eye? I don’t think so. It will go the same way as Hive.co.uk, a previous attempt at an online bookselling platform supporting independent bookshops, which is now barely heard of, even within the literary world. 

Reporting their third-quarter results at the end of October, Amazon announced profits had tripled and had achieved a 37 percent increase in earnings. Whilst stuck at home, people leaned into online shopping, and they have shopped at Amazon. Why? Because you can get everything there, from books to toilet roll to a new tablet, and you can get it delivered to your home in 24 hours. And most importantly, you know you can get whatever it is you want more cheaply at Amazon than anywhere else. 

Words by Anna Willis

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