Activism

Amateur writers baffled as they raise £20,000 for food banks through Amazon loophole

The story is even set to get the film treatment from a producer who describes it as “a kind of post-modern fairy tale via Ealing comedy and Monty Python”

Amazon, food bank

The TMB's Kevin Pulford and a Big Issue vendor with copies of Forgotten Yorkshire. Image: Tripe Marketing Board

Forget bake sales and sponsored skydives. A group of hobby writers from Yorkshire have figured out a way to support charities while getting one over on a mega-corporation and have now raised over £20,000 for food banks with an Amazon loophole.

The Robin Hood-esque scheme was cooked up by the Tripe Marketing Board (TMB) – no relation to the offal – after they saw their parody history book, Forgotten Yorkshire, discounted by Amazon and found an opportunity.

Not only have thousands been raised to feed the vulnerable since it was discovered in late 2022, but a film is in the early stages of development.

When Forgotten Yorkshire is discounted to 99p, Amazon pays the same royalties for every copy as they would for its full price of £9.99.

The TMB quickly decided to donate £2 per copy sold through the loophole to charities. To maximise donations, their task was then to get supporters to buy as many copies as possible before the discount expires.

Over the past few months, the writers have been keeping an eagle eye on the book’s price and mobilising a small army of supporters and acquaintances to buy it, channelling thousands of pounds to projects in London, Glasgow and Yorkshire.

Despite the loophole going viral, the discount keeps returning, much to everybody’s bafflement.

“We’ve stopped trying to understand it – is it an algorithm gone wrong, or a sympathetic (or rebellious!) Amazon employee or manager? Whatever the reason, we’ve been able to generate more cash for food banks,” Paul Etherington of the Tripe Marketing Board says.

Individual customers are limited to purchasing three copies, so friends, family, colleagues, social media followers, and random people on the street have been roped in, creating a small army of Forgotten Yorkshire hoarders.

Etherington had even taken to asking strangers in cafes if they’d order their fill of copies, offering to give them the money needed for the initial outlay.

When The Big Issue covered the story in December, it supercharged the fundraising efforts. And they’ve kept going. The book has been discounted by Amazon six times – to Etherington’s knowledge – since the start of 2023, sometimes for a day, sometimes for half a day.

“The coverage The Big Issue, in particular, gave it helped explain the situation, because it’s a complex thing to explain,” says Etherington.

It’s silly. But it’s making a real difference. Through exploiting the loophole, the group of hobby writers have raised over £20k, saving one food bank from closure and helping others support the vulnerable through the cost of living crisis.

Jen Doig is one of those along for the ride. After seeing a post on Twitter about the discount, she “thought it sounded like an easy way to help a charity while getting one over on ‘The Man’.”

Doig kept the first three copies she ordered, but has ended up having to find a home for 30 more copies.

“I’m now at the stage of looking up random charity shops around Yorkshire and sending copies to them,” she says.

If the tale sounds a bit like a classic British caper, you’re not wrong – the story is even in line for the film treatment, with a production company set to turn it into a drama for film or television.

“This is a kind of post-modern fairytale via Ealing comedy and Monty Python,” says producer Mike Chamberlain of Tearaway Films, who added it was still “early days” in terms of production with a script yet to be written.

The cast of characters has grown over the months. When Sean Gibbons got a call from Etherington in December, he needed to get his head round the unusual offer of help.

“It was just bizarre, weren’t it? I just couldn’t quite grasp. It took me a while,” Gibbons says.

Gibbons (right) with volunteers from Food Aware. Image: Food Aware

Gibbons manages Food Aware CIC, an organisation distributing surplus food around south Yorkshire. By sending food parcels to over 100 groups, Gibbons says Food Aware indirectly feeds around 4,000 people a week.

As the cost of living crisis has hit, stocks have grown thin. Food is more expensive, donations have dried up as families struggle to feed themselves, and demand is as high as it’s ever been. This is tangible when Gibbons goes into Food Aware’s warehouse. “It’s never been as empty,” he says.

Thanks to the Tripe Marketing Board, however, £3,700 has hit Food Aware’s coffers, with a further £1,500 to come in the next few weeks. It’s cash that’s had a clear impact. For example, Food Aware receives around 1,200 pounds of minced beef a week. On its own this isn’t much help for families. Donations from Forgotten Yorkshire have allowed Food Aware to buy the rest of the ingredients – tomatoes, kidney beans – to make a chilli con carne, and send out a coherent parcel rather than a collection of bits and bobs. Donations have also gone towards purchases of nappies and baby wipes to support struggling families.

Food Aware’s warehouse, where stocks have been dwindling thanks to the cost of living crisis. Image: Food Aware

For Gibbons, the escapade is a victory for the unconventional. The Tripe Marketing Board are “mad as a box of frogs, just like we are at Food Aware,” he says.

“We call ourselves the oddments of society trying to correct, the best way we can, the people that need support that shouldn’t be in the situation they are in with the cost of living crisis.”

Etherington says the writers have earned about £2,000 each from the increased book sales – more than they’ve made from the book since it was published. As hobby writers who aren’t in it for the money, it’s given them a boost to start future projects and making more books.

Alongside the (unexpectedly all-consuming) work to get copies sold, Etherington has had to analyse his own feelings about food banks.

“I hate that they have to exist, but I’ve seen the incredible work many of them do and I’ve seen the difference the money we’ve been able to generate has made. But, at the end of the day, they’re plugging holes that have been deliberately created by the government,” he says.

“It seems to me almost taken for granted that they’re there and they’ll provide that safety net. It’s not something I’m comfortable with, ultimately the state should be providing that support.”

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