‘A town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.’
– Neil Gaiman, American Gods
For most booklovers, bookshops – especially independent bookshops, that care about their books and their readers, stock just what you didn’t know you wanted, and provide recommendations for your Next Big Read – are places of pilgrimage. Yet they’re under threat like never before, closed in the face of COVID and battling the might of Amazon, with its staggering inventory, low prices and seductively easy ordering.
Faced with the bleak vision of the end of bookshops on the high street, publisher Andy Hunter and the American Booksellers Association decided to put up a fight. They created bookshop.org, a B-Corp dedicated to matching Amazon’s logistical might but with a key difference: their profits would go not into one man’s already over-full pockets but be shared with the wider book ecosystem, and especially independent bookstores.
Bookshop.org is now in the UK, and in this conversation I talk to Jasper Sutcliffe (formerly at Foyles) about how it works, why it matters, and how to make the most of it as an author as well as a reader.
Bookshop.org in the UK: uk.bookshop.org
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks
UK.Bookshop.org on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookshop_org_UK
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2021: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=proposal-challenge-jan-21
My K-day countdown for the National Literacy Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/alison-jones1000
Alison Jones: I’m here today with Jasper Sutcliffe, who has over 20 years of book selling and book buying experience, most recently as Head of Buying at Foyles, but he’s now the UK Publisher and Affiliates manager for bookshop.org, a public benefit corporation dedicated to the public good of supporting bookshops, which launched in the US in January, 2020 and in the UK in November, 2020. In fact, a couple of days ago from when we’re speaking now. So welcome to the show Jasper.
Jasper Sutcliffe: Hi Alison, thanks for having me.
Alison Jones: It’s great to have you. I imagine you’re feeling a bit shell-shocked, it’s been quite the week, hasn’t it?
Jasper Sutcliffe: It’s been extraordinary and there has been such an outpouring and engagement with the site, from across the publishing ecosystem, bookshops in particular. And that’s what we’re set up to do, is to give a platform to indie bookshops primarily, to help them generally in the kind of online atmosphere, in the online environment to compete with Amazon in particular.
But obviously with COVID and the restrictions that are taking place our launch is now more pertinent than ever.
Alison Jones: Absolutely, so you launched just really as it was announced that the UK is going into another four weeks of lockdown with bookshops bizarrely classed as non-essential and having to close, but it does mean that they will be getting revenue from the sale on you. So just talk us through the basics of why you are different from other online booksellers that are available.
Jasper Sutcliffe: Okay. So the basic premise of Bookshop is that we are there to support indie bookshops. And so we give over most of our profits to the publishing ecosystem. So, indie bookshops, they set up a page on bookshop.org and any title that is sold through their page they receive 30% sales commission of the RRP.
And the difference here is that Amazon and most of the other online players, pay an affiliate fee of between one and four and a half percent. So you can see that that’s quite a dramatic improvement on the affiliate fee in one case. Also, the other thing is that we take care of all the logistics so that the indies can concentrate basically on selling books or doing interesting, talking to customers when they have them there or looking after their social coms. And we use Gardner’s books as our logistics partner, and we have our own customer service team who will service any issues that come through from the delivery.
Alison Jones: And the logistics is often the biggest challenge, isn’t it? And I know during the first lockdown, an awful lot of indie bookstore owners were spending their days just stuffing Jiffy bags. And it was a grind.
Jasper Sutcliffe: Absolutely. And I think that logistics, as I’m sure most of your listeners will agree, it’s one of those undervalued elements. And it’s one of the things that has made Amazon so strong is that their logistics chain is second to none. And actually, what we’ve managed to do with working with Gardeners is create a delivery schedule that is for the most part, two to three days, but you can get it within 24 hours.
And that’s a range of up to 3 million titles that we have on list, which is a huge inventory, and, a speed that customers have now become accustomed to, and that is one of my, the founder of bookshop.org in the States, Andy Hunter.
He was very clear that having a logistics, a very strong logistics partner, is key to moving into any territory to offer an alternative to what Amazon has led people to believe is the way it should be. So yeah, I think logistics is underplayed often, but it’s crucial to the success of any online business.
Alison Jones: Yes, absolutely. It’s invisible, but it’s like plumbing, isn’t it? If it’s not working right you know all about it.
Jasper Sutcliffe: Yes, absolutely.
Alison Jones: And another big difference which I love between bookshop.org and the other players out there is the emphasis on curation. So just tell us a little bit about how that works.
Jasper Sutcliffe: Yes. So the idea also is that as much as possible bookshop.org bottles the atmosphere or the feeling of serendipity and discovery that you get when you walk into an independent bookshop, essentially. And what we do is the pages have built up on lists that are curated by bookshops and affiliates.
And these are usually titles that aren’t necessarily in the top 100, but the ones that you go in that you didn’t know that you wanted, but then you see them and you get the recommendation and you pick them up and take them off. And that’s also what we offer is a very democratic site.
And so quite often going into bookshops they talk to a certain audience, whereas bookshop.org is open to anyone. And so I think at the beginning I pointed out that indie bookshops get 30%, but you can also sign up as a non-bookshop affiliate and you can set up a page where you, as an affiliate, you can create your own list.
So a non-bookshop affiliate can be anyone. An author, publisher, you, me,
Alison Jones: I was going to say, podcaster.
Jasper Sutcliffe: Podcasters.
Alison Jones: There is an Extraordinary Business Book Club page up there and I’ve got one list up at the moment and there will be more and more to come. Yep.
Jasper Sutcliffe: Yep. And you get 10% from any sale of a book through your page and they don’t have to be your books, but what’s really nice here is that 10% of the sale goes into a profit pool, which is shared out amongst all the independent bookshops that are affiliated to bookshop.org, which is an incredibly powerful tool for benefiting the high street.
So we launched on Monday, we’ve sold over a hundred thousand pounds worth of books and I think we’re up to 25,000 books have now been earned and donated to bookshops, which in two days is not bad going. I think.
Alison Jones: And for some bookshops that is genuinely going to make the difference between coming out of this or not coming out of it. Isn’t it?
Jasper Sutcliffe: Yes, because this is pure profit to them and so it’s worth twice the value that actually comes through, if that makes sense.
Alison Jones: They don’t actually have to buy the stock or send them out.
Jasper Sutcliffe: Exactly, and there’s no postage and packing. Time is freed up to do all the other kind of things that they enjoy doing, selling books, recommending books. And Bookshop’s not supposed to be in competition with any sites or any bookshops that have already set up their own proprietary site, we are there just to help with that gaining of audience, essentially.
And spreading the word about book shops. I think one of the things that we like to think of bookshop.org as is a bustling high street, but just virtually and that you’ve got all these shop windows and you’ve got an audience that are walking up and down having a look at pages and lists that are curated and talking about a kind of, that poachers become gamekeepers and gamekeepers would come poachers.
And we’re all talking to each other about how to sell more books and we’re all benefiting from the sale of those books. So it’s kind of a virtuous circle, hopefully. We’ve had quite a lot of a reaction with people kind of looking when you present the idea and they’re looking at you and they are saying: ‘So where’s the catch? This is too good to be true. Why hasn’t this has been done before?’ And I think there have been many attempts to do something similar, but the conditions haven’t quite been right. The logistics haven’t been quite right. And the desire not to create huge amounts of profit for single shareholders is also something that’s new here.
Alison Jones: Well, and that’s what I think makes the difference. Absolutely. Because you know, if you’re a B Corp, you play by different rules. Tell us a little bit, I mean, I’ve heard Andy speak and he’s very passionate about this, it’s a real sort of passion project, isn’t it, in a sense, just tell us a little bit about the philosophy and why he feels, and you feel, that this is an important intervention in a really difficult marketplace.
Jasper Sutcliffe: Yes. So Andy Hunter, well Bookshop is born as the brain child of Andy Hunter and the ABA, which is the American Booksellers Association. And they, about five years ago, at their conference, at the ABA conference, they were looking at the projections of where Amazon and internet sales would be in the future, in the next 10 years.
And it became very obvious that indie book shops, the vast majority of indie book shops would disappear and Andy being an independent publisher saw that pragmatically, that would be disastrous for sales for his two physical imprints. The other thing is that Andy is also very tech savvy, and he wanted to use, he believed that technology could be used for good, to benefit business rather than just suck out all kind of profit for one or just a very few people.
And so he started looking at ways of working across the ecosystem to benefit all elements of it. Primarily looking at indie bookshops because he saw them, not just as commercial outlets to sell his book, but also as anchors to communities. And that places, these would draw people in and other businesses would survive around it because the audiences that are bought in, but they needed to be online as well.
And so he was looking at technical platforms and working with a development team to come up with solutions to all these ideas, but from an ethos that the vast majority of the profits are turned back into the business and into the ecosystem that we work in.
Alison Jones: I mean, philosophically, I think it’s exciting because we have seen such a gap opening up, as you say, the appropriation of profits into a very small number of hands over the last 10 years, really, since the crash and obviously with the growth of the tech giants has been astonishing and it is really heartening, I think, to see the growth of B Corps and other models of business for good and that sense of sustainability and actually dispersing profits.
Jasper Sutcliffe: I have been in books for 20 years and being invited to join bookshop.org and the ethos that Andy had come up with, was so exciting. And it has a kind of reenergizing feeling about, it is extraordinary.
Alison Jones: Yeah, it really is. Let’s talk about the patterns in books and trends and what’s happening generally, because I mean, I was Digital Director at Macmillan, I predicted that we’d be all switching to eBooks. I was so wrong because books have proved so much more resilient, print books have proved so much more resilient.
So just, I mean, particularly in the context of a pandemic, what have you seen happening across the book buying space? What are the trends that you see emerging? And if you’re feeling brave, what are your predictions for the future?
Jasper Sutcliffe: So it’s a dangerous thing, isn’t it to predict the future?
Alison Jones: Especially this year.
Jasper Sutcliffe: Especially this year yeah, I think this year is an extraordinary year for a number of obvious reasons and that has challenged book sales in a way that no one could have predicted and it’s very difficult with shifting pub dates, publication dates, sorry.
To pick out a particular trend as such, obviously Black Lives Matter and that’s not a trend, it’s an issue and it’s something that we all need to engage with, has obviously sparked a huge amount of interest and learning. So self-growth, there has been, we saw at the beginning of COVID obviously lots of children’s books being sold and education was huge because of homeschooling and practical side, but also games.
So non-book product and this self-learning idea and actually, we saw a lot of sales of books, kind of that people wouldn’t normally the kind of long form book that…
Alison Jones: ‘This is my time to read Proust.’
Jasper Sutcliffe: Exactly.
And rather than people doing that for summer holidays that they actually found that they did have time to read some of the classics that they hadn’t got round to in the past. And I know I include myself in this, James Baldwin, I read through all his back list, which was, had so many parallels to the situation in America at this point, but also in the UK. But yes, I think that those would be the trends looking into the future.
I think we will see a huge amount of… COVID, like the music industry, everyone was writing an album in the music industry and everyone was writing a book during lockdown. So I’m slightly scared of what we might, the deluge of COVID-related titles, but there will be some fantastic ones. I think diversity and inclusivity and the different stories that we’ll be reading is a positive that will come out of this.
And I think that there is an appetite amongst the book buying audience to look at different stories and for different audiences. And I think I’ve talked a bit about bookshop being as democratic as possible because anybody can set up on bookshop.org. And one of our desires is that someone sets up as a non bookshop affiliate and gains an audience.
And then by the end of COVID restrictions or sometime in the future 18 months that someone is able to set up a shop, pop-up shop or something like that. And you can actually see business generating in that way and speaking to perhaps an audience that hasn’t been spoken to before or had a place to congregate.
Alison Jones: Yes, that’s a really exciting thought, isn’t it? That you can harness communities and then when the world returns to something more approaching normal, we can have more of that online/offline intersection.
So let’s talk about business books as well, Jasper. So what have you seen with business books particularly?
I mean, non-fiction as a whole has done really well over the last few years, but what are you seeing with business and professional self-development.
Jasper Sutcliffe: Yes. I think that for business we had probably the heyday and I remember at Foyles in the business section, more of the kind of populist sides, like towards the end of last year, it’s cyclical and what you usually find is a trend that comes through and then publishers will jump in on that trend and start commissioning titles to come through.
I think again self-development and lot of what, obviously around the issues around COVID, about being made redundant about looking at how you retrain. I, myself was made redundant at the end of July. I was lucky enough to get a job within a month and I count myself unbelievably lucky there, but I did look into you know, the ideas of changing up the way that you work. And I think that will be something that will be necessary, but will be also actually very profitable for publishers to get into that area. And that’s what I’m expecting to see is that kind of retraining and self-development and also looking at doing it kind of on your own rather than waiting for somebody else to do it. So proactive.
Alison Jones: Yes, that was already a trend, wasn’t it? That, you know, the sense of you taking control of your career and something, but it has massively escalated as people feel so much more insecure in a corporate environment and have been pushed rather than jumping.
But it’s interesting as well. I think for corporates, for leaders, the whole kind of future-of-work debate has been completely shaken up and advanced a couple of decades really in the last few months, hasn’t it?
Jasper Sutcliffe: Absolutely. And, you know, working from home, where you work from, do you need an office? How do people communicate with each other whilst over Zoom or just on phone calls? I know, again, personal experience going, you know, the etiquette of zoom calls, the how do you present? Very little training that’s taken place in that environment, people have muddled through and they’ve done incredibly well.
I think, obviously there are certain industries and places that that can’t work so I think that yes, , as we were saying, the kind of the idea around self-development and how work spaces are, how do you manage teams when they are disparate? And I’m sure lots of your listeners will already manage, will be doing that where they have teams across the world, and looking at those different environments, but sharing that information with perhaps businesses that have been office bound previously, tips and techniques there.
Alison Jones: Yes. There’s so, so much that we’re going to see, well, we’re already seeing it emerging, actually. Yes. And I always ask my guests for their best tip for a first time business book author. Now, clearly you’re not doing this from a writer’s perspective, but I think it’s really invaluable to get a sense of how it plays out at the sharp end, you know, with, with actually selling books through to people who aren’t your mum, who don’t already know you and love you.
So what should a business book writer keep in mind to actually be seen, be visible in the very busy online space in the business genre?
Jasper Sutcliffe: Yes. So my key piece of advice is to do research and that’s research across: what market are you looking to get into? What does that market look like? So, is it saturated? What are you bringing to the conversation? You need to be thinking about how original your idea is, and essentially just making sure that the title that you’re choosing actually makes sense within that environment. So research research research is my recommendation.
Alison Jones: Absolutely, couldn’t agree more. And actually it really does come down to putting your proposal together, doesn’t it? It comes down to doing that competitor analysis, articulating your distinctive angle or pitch, and also being really, really clear about your target reader. Those are all kind of core elements of that proposal.
You need to know it as much as the publisher does.
Jasper Sutcliffe: Absolutely. And remember that the publisher, the buyer will be seeing hundreds and hundreds of books in that subject area. And you need to be making some kind of difference there, particularly if you’re a first-time author, because quite often it’s an educated gamble on how something’s going to survive or how it’s going to perform rather.
So yes, make sure that you’ve got something interesting to say and just make sure you do the research.
Alison Jones: And your point about the title as well, I think. Is well made because I find an awful lot of people fall in love with a title that’s very personally meaningful to them or has a kind of real backstory, but actually for somebody just glancing over it, as you say, in that noise of hundreds of titles in front of them, it means nothing at all.
Jasper Sutcliffe: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Alison Jones: Yes, brilliant. And also this is going to be interesting, your recommendation for a business book that has particularly caught your mind that you think everybody listening should read immediately.
Jasper Sutcliffe: So my recommendation is Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. It is extraordinary and it does all the things that I’ve just explained. It rewrote the rules, it made you think in a different way, it disrupted, it got onto everybody’s lips. She was, she is, iconoclastic, she’s challenging, but also absolutely, absolutely amazing.
And it makes you look at the world, I am the personification of what the world, the Western world, has been designed for: I am a middle-aged, white man and, you know, I happily go along in the world with everything fitting properly and doorframes are right for me, mobiles are designed for my hands and all those things, and how different that is if you’re 51% of the population and it was a true eye-opener. And what I also loved about the book is that it reached areas that I didn’t expect a business book to reach. I’m an avid cyclist and it was on a, they were talking about the book on a technical podcast about bike design and about how women’s bike design has been neglected because it’s all about men.
And so I thought it was absolutely extraordinary and changed my view on the world. Pretty extraordinary really.
Alison Jones: It is an extraordinary book. It’s hugely heartening to hear a man recommend it as well, I have to say, because I know a lot of women who’ve read it. I know relatively few men who have, which is the whole problem, isn’t it? But that’s really heartening Jasper, I couldn’t endorse that choice more. Great choice.
And so if people want to find out more about bookshop.org. I mean, this is kind of a stupid question because the clue is in the name, but you know, where did they go and what should they look out for?
Jasper Sutcliffe: Yeah, well, we’d love, bookshop.org is open for everyone. So it would be not only to buy books, which is obviously important and support indie bookshops, but also to set up a page of your own and to talk. One of the things that we want to do is to break down the barriers between the various different elements within the ecosystem of book selling and buying, and to create a conversation about how books can be promoted and essentially this kind of conversation about all different aspects of the publishing world and business world.
If you come along to a uk.bookshop.org, then you can sign up as an affiliate or you can buy a book or you can choose to find your local bookshop, and you can support them directly. Or as I say, you can sign up as an affiliate on your own, and any sales that come through your affiliate page you’ll be benefiting indie bookshops shops with 10% for every sale that goes through, which again is hugely beneficial.
Alison Jones: Yes, brilliant. And I can’t tell you how long we’ve waited as an industry for the Amazon competitor and how often I’ve longed to be able to put those affiliate links up. So I’m particularly delighted that, yes, that we’ll be using that as a really core resource within the Extraordinary Business Book Club community as well, and hopefully really pushing the cause of business books for businesses, for entrepreneurs and so on. Because, you know, I’m all about that as well. So, yes, look out for more of that kind of stuff. Brilliant
Jasper, fantastic to talk to you today. Thank you for sharing a bit of the story behind it and I just wish you every success with it.
Jasper Sutcliffe: Thanks so much Alison.