Interviews, insight & analysis on Ecommerce

The ECA Interview: Nicole Vanderbilt, UK MD of Bookshop.org

Glynn Davis, our regular columnist and founder of Retail Insider sits down with Nicole Vanderbilt, UK MD of Bookshop.org.

Can you tell us about Bookshop.org and the business model?

Bookshop.org was founded with the mission to support independent bookshops. A bookshop can set up a profile on our website at no cost, in less than 30 minutes, and with about the same level of technical skill as required for social media. When they sell a book through our site, they get 30% of the cover price as commission. That order is then passed directly to our wholesale partner, Gardners, and sent directly to the customer in recycled cardboard via a carbon neutral delivery. In other words, bookshops get 30% commission with no upfront cost and none of the hassle of getting the book into the hands of the customer at home. 

What prompted the creation of the business?

Bookshop.org was created by Andy Hunter, our founder and CEO, who is based in Brooklyn. He founded the business with the deep belief that independent bookshops are vital to a healthy culture. They provide those important third spaces in our communities. They are where readers meet authors, where children fall in love with reading, where customers can browse casually in the knowledge that expert, human booksellers are there to provide recommendations.

How has it gone since you launched?

We’ve been delighted by, and grateful for, the response we’ve had from readers, the publishing industry, and bookshops in both the US and the UK. To date, we’ve generated over £1.8 million in profit for the UK bookshops on our platform.

What challenges have you faced and what elements have you had to adapt?

We launched our UK business in a matter of months and on 2 November 2020 we were doing everything here for the first time during that crucial Christmas period when demand is high and requirements for timely delivery are at their peak. The great part about that is that we got so much feedback so quickly about what needed adjustment – everything from the size of our customer service team to the language that we used on the site to describe out of stock titles.

 What have been the key lessons you’ve learned?

The response to Bookshop.org has confirmed our hope that consumers realise that where they spend their money matters. Whilst we’ve become conditioned to believe that fast and cheap will always win, we have seen on our platform that customers do care about the future of their communities and high streets, even if it means they don’t always get the lowest price.

What’s your best route for customer acquisition and how do you retain them?

The number one source of traffic for our website is people coming to us directly. This shows the power of our mission and the word-of-mouth around it. Call me old fashioned, but we have found the best way to retain our customers is to give them an excellent experience and service, remind them of the impact of their purchases, and keep telling them about titles they care about.

Can you share some numbers?

We have 500 bookshops on the platform, have sold over £10 million worth of books, and have generated over £1.8 million in profit for the independent bookshops on our platform.

What are the biggest opportunities?

While we are delighted by the support to date, we still represent less than 1% of the physical book market. We think readers should go into an independent bookshop whenever they can – there is simply nothing like it, but when they can’t there’s a better way to buy books online. There’s huge potential in simply convincing a larger group of people of this.

 How do you see the book market develop in the future?

We’d love to see the book market continue to grow and for a wide range of titles to succeed. One of the dangers of online bookselling, driven by algorithms, is that it becomes a hits business in which only a small group of titles do incredibly well and others are lost. Our support for the indies is about connecting readers with a wider range of great titles.

What are the future opportunities for Bookshop.org – could you expand into other product categories?

There’s still so much potential in books, and there’s still so much work for us to do with books, that this will remain our focus for the foreseeable future.

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