• The Publishing Post

Publishing News (21.12.2020)

New criticism directed at Bookshop.org: Is the new online indie retailer as ethical as it seems?

Bookshop.org has come under criticism since its launch last month. It began with Bookseller Tamsin Rosewell’s letter to BA managing director Meryl Halls, which was subsequently leaked to the press. Accordingly, a number of high street booksellers and independent publishers have become increasingly sceptical of the online e-commerce platform, questioning whether the new online indie retailer is as ethical as it purports to be.


One major concern is how much revenue indie bookshops actually receive from the site. According to Bookshop.org, bookshops receive 30% of a book’s cover price for each sale made through their shopfront.


However, if a customer buys a book without going through a specific shop, then bookshops do not profit directly. Instead 10% of that book’s cover price is put into a central pot split among all participating shops.


While most customers are perhaps not aware of this detail, it could have a devastating effect on bookshops, indie publishers and authors.


And the criticism doesn't stop there. Others have pointed out how indies are required to be members of the Bookseller Association and have their books distributed by Gardeners. These measures seem to exclude smaller indie presses who may not qualify or cannot afford to meet these requirements.


In light of this, Bookshop.org did respond to the recent criticism by saying that their model is the same one used in the US, one which ensures that "only genuine, bricks and mortar indie bookshops would benefit.”


Bookshop.org positions itself as an alternative to Amazon, one that diverts online sales from the global giant. That, in itself, ought to be celebrated and it seems like the online retailer has achieved this success. According to the site, they have already raised over £503,000 for local bookshops.


In spite of that fact, it's worth noting that we are currently living in abnormal circumstances. With lockdowns and social distancing, we are seeing fewer and fewer people buying from brick-and-mortar bookshops. This means that an increasingly larger number of sales are happening online.


Some argue that Bookshop.org are not only diverting online Amazon sales, but physical ones from bookshops too.


So, is Bookshop.org a good way to support indie bookshops?


Yes and no.


It can be a great source of exposure and for some shops, it remains the only way for them to attract online purchases. But as always, the best way you can support an independent bookshop is to buy from them directly – whether that's online or at a physical store.


Still, it's admirable how in just over a month, Bookshop.org has managed to shake things up in the book community. It's also very early days for the online retailer. We hope that the years will bring them growth and improvement in their bookselling model.



BookExpo retires its current format: Is the future of events digital?


The news that BookExpo won’t be going ahead in its traditional form next year shows that we are still far away from a return to normal for industry events. And this change will persist beyond 2021: it was announced that the old format will be retired, and that a new mix of digital and physical events is to be introduced at a later stage. The takeaway is that the pandemic has had a severe impact on the events industry, and we won’t be gathering together to celebrate books in the same way we used to.


ReedPop stated “that the best way forward is to retire the current iteration of events as they explore new ways to meet the community’s needs through a fusion of in-person and virtual events.” They are, in fact, currently in consultation with publishers and booksellers over the way forward, displaying an awareness of how this news might impact the industry. The BookExpo website’s landing page has been replaced with a message stating that they’re working on the next chapter. According to Events Director Jennifer Martin, they were already considering introducing a new format and Covid has simply catalysed those plans


This news should not, however, be considered disappointing: physical events will go ahead as soon as it’s feasible. Instead, continuing to explore digital options makes it possible for larger numbers of people to participate in BookCon and BookExpo. Big book events and festivals have long faced criticism for being elitist. The cost of events priced many people out, especially when travel and accommodation are taken into consideration. This new format offers an opportunity to make events more inclusive for all book lovers. Indeed, BookExpo’s statement promised that the new structure would deliver better value for customers.


Twitter reactions to the news were mixed. @tudorscribe felt it would be bad news for the book industry, but @Libbie Hawker thought it was the result of an inevitable shift in the market. Others were shocked and saddened by the news. For one, @Aiman Ghnai called it a “horrible decision as festivals are an important source of revenue for authors.”


While the BookExpo events usually held in May were postponed until July, it was quickly realised it would not be feasible to hold them at all this year. They were replaced with a six day virtual programme, the success of which showed that we can still enjoy a great experience online (even if it’s not quite the same as the atmosphere created by a venue). 2020 has seen all major book events cancelled. Book retailers are still not able to run events in stores, nor have publishers been able to use book signings as an avenue for promoting new releases. Whilst it feels like the end of an era, embracing digital innovation can be the start of a new one.



New data released on Libraries


The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) revealed that total spending on libraries in Great Britain dropped by nearly £20 million over the last financial year; a drop of 2.6%.


The biggest take away from the findings is on staffing and digital services.


The amount of paid staff has fallen 2.4%, meaning that libraries are more reliant on volunteer hours. This comes from a fall in visits to libraries which fell by 5%. As with much else in 2020, digital has grown. Web visits have increased by 25.8% since 2015/16.

There has been a 7% increase in spending on digital materials, such as ebooks.


Rob Whiteman, CIPFA CEO has said that ‘[the drop in spending] is further evidence of the fact that local authorities continue to have to do more with less’.


The full report can be found here: Spend on British libraries drops by nearly £20m | CIPFA.


In the Libraries Connected statement, concerns have been expressed for even larger cuts coming in, with an average drop of 14%. They are concerned about the reliance they have on volunteers, as well as the digital services shift. Libraries Connected have estimated a funding gap of £4million in England to meet the increased demand for eBooks and to create a new hybrid model - something that the lockdown period has shown a real need for.


Libraries Connected published a research document entitled: Libraries in the Pandemic: Evolving Services to Meet Local Need, which reveals that libraries and their staff were the unsung heroes of the pandemic, with 60% of services continuing their Home Library Service. This provided vital comfort and books to vulnerable users. 63% of people surveyed said that this library service helped them to feel more connected to their community and 64% had their wellbeing improved by the library service.


The report shows that libraries go much further than providing books, but also providing support and care. One quote reads: “My life became even more difficult when I had a stroke which badly affected my eyesight. Thanks to your audiobook service, I was able to distract myself from the worry and stress and keep myself on an even keel”.


Libraries also supported early years development, STEM learning and literacy as well as helping schools and parents with home-schooling. And some services helped to combat digital exclusion with tablet lending schemes. One service delivered 14,000 chromebooks to vulnerable families who still wanted to learn!


The report concludes with a declaration of the need for libraries. Libraries have been proven to be a hub for the community, a source of empathy and care that goes beyond providing books - and only costs an average of 0.6% of council spending. They are where many of us developed a love for reading, nurtured childhood reading habits, and supported the vulnerable in a tough time; they are a service that should be protected, and receive funding that equates to their value.



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