British branch of Bookshop.org aims to challenge Amazon as COVID-19 and e-commerce push many independent booksellers to the brink
An online British bookshop aiming to take on Amazon in the battle for Christmas sales opened its virtual doors on Monday, bringing together more than 150 independent book stores hard hit by coronavirus lockdowns.
Bookshop.org, a social enterprise, will pass on the full profit of all book sales - 30% of the cover price - to the independent stores. In the first day of operations, the platform generated 11,000 pounds ($14,000) in profit for the retailers.
"We scrambled to get (the website) up and running in time for Christmas in the UK because we know how important the holidays are for these stores," Andy Hunter, founder and CEO of Bookshop.org, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Books sold on the site will be delivered within two to three days, similar to the timeframe for Amazon orders, he said.
"It's very hard for (independent bookstores) to survive because Amazon has taken over 50% of the market share for books in the U.S. and I think the numbers are similar in the UK," added Hunter, a New York-based writer, editor and publisher.
"Some of these bookshops in the UK are over 100 years old and they're hanging on by their fingernails," he said adding they would be further affected by new COVID-19 curbs coming into force on Thursday when all non-essential retail shops will shut.
The coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout threaten the survival of independent bookstores, many of whom were already struggling from falling profits, including famous stores such as Shakespeare and Company in Paris and The Strand in New York.
But Bookshop.org said its U.S. arm, launched in January, has already generated $7.6 million for American stores, and booksellers in Britain are hoping for a similar result.
"We've seen Bookshop.org emerge as an innovative partner for U.S. indie booksellers," said Meryl Halls, managing director of the Booksellers Association trade body.
Hunter said independent bookshops have been forced to become more adept at selling books on the internet as lockdown restrictions further boost Amazon's dominance.
"When the pandemic is over, if bookstores remain better at selling books online, if their customers continue to buy from them online, then I think they will be in a better place," he added.
Hunter said Bookshop.org - a B Corporation that aims to balance profit with purpose - is planning to launch in Spain and Portugal early next year and will continue to grow "everywhere that bookstores want us to come".
The company makes money from advertising, direct sales and through affiliates such as media organisations and book clubs - the last accounts for about 35% of U.S. sales, according to Hunter, though he said the "goal is not profit".
"Our goal is to create a lifeline for independent bookstores and to strengthen their businesses and keep them an important part of our culture for the next hundred years."