This Startup Wants to Help Indie Booksellers Take on Amazon

More often than not, when people buy books online, they do so by clicking little thumbnails of novels and essay collections on Amazon’s website. Those thumbnails then materialize as physical copies on their doorsteps in a matter of days. Easy-peasy. The online retailer is the most dominant force in American bookselling today, accounting for over 90 percent of ebooks and audiobooks, and around 42-45 percent of print sales, according to BookStat. Into this fray jumps a new online retailer, Bookshop, which is betting that people will see the value in choosing to buy somewhere else—at a business meant to give independent booksellers a chance to grab back some of the market share. “It’s not really about disrupting an industry,” CEO Andy Hunter says. “It’s about reinforcing an industry. Bookshop is about pulling back from the disruptive influence of Amazon.”

Anti-disrupting (reverse-disrupting?) will prove challenging. For starters, Amazon’s grip on consumer habits. Despite recent movements advocating pushback against Amazon, most people in the United States maintain a favorable view of Jeff Bezos’ “everything store.” Peter Hildick-Smith, the president of book audience research firm Codex, says that this includes most people who frequent independent shops; just over three-fourths of that cohort also use Amazon, at an average of five times a month according to a 2019 survey. Even among bibliophiles, Hildick-Smith says, “it’s not as if everybody’s saying, ‘Gosh, I really don’t like Amazon. I don’t shop there.’” The result? “A very skewed market.”

At least it’s a market Hunter knows well. He is also the founder of publishing nonprofit Electric Literature, a founding partner and the publisher of the website LitHub, and the co-founder and publisher of Catapult, so he has watched the bookselling industry grapple with the rise of ecommerce. It’s also a long-marinating idea. In 2010, he began pitching a version of Bookshop to an organization of independent literary publishers. At the time, most people still bought books in person, but Hunter saw the coming change. “Even then I was really concerned with Amazon’s rapid ascendance and what it would do to book culture,” he says. After finally selling the American Booksellers Association on the concept for Bookshop a year and a half ago, Hunter got started. He initially suggested the ABA overhaul IndieBound, its online marketing hub for independent bookstores, and turn it into this type of ecommerce platform. Since the ABA wasn’t positioned to become a retailer, it decided to partner with Bookshop instead.

Here’s how it works: For someone buying a book, Bookshop won’t be much different than Amazon. (As the platform is still in beta and was built in six months, it won’t be quite as seamless, though.) They click, they spend, they get what they picked out. The real difference is in how the profits are split up, and how people discover the books they buy in the first place. Ten percent of all the profits will be divided among independent bookstores every six months; in exchange, these shops will lend support to the mission by promoting Bookshop to their customers. Many independent bookshops vastly prefer brick-and-mortar traffic, and are distrustful of ecommerce partners. “For good reason,” Hunter says. Winning their support will nevertheless be crucial. “Hopefully we’re going to be sending them all checks in a few months and getting a check is gonna make them feel pretty good about it.” (Hunter also stresses that people who want to support their local indie’s online store should continue to do so.)

These sellers can also sign up for the company’s affiliate program, which offers a 25 percent commission to stores. If, say, a bookseller doesn’t want to deal with ecommerce, they can sign up for this program and essentially outsource their online sales to Bookshop, which uses the major book wholesaler Ingram to fulfill orders.

The affiliate program is also available to media large and small, from major magazines to micro-famous book bloggers, with a 10 percent commission. When it’s time to publish seasonal round-ups, gift guides, reviews, or other books coverage, these media companies will be able to hyperlink to Bookshop, and get paid if readers buy something they click on. Right now, this is a common media practice, but the vast majority of outlets link out to Amazon. “No matter how much we kvetch about prominent publications linking to Amazon, those publications simply can’t turn away from the significant revenue that affiliate links offer,” says Danny Kaine of Lawrence, Kansas’ Raven Book Store.

By offering a much larger affiliate commission, Bookshop hopes to cajole both bloggers and storied institutions into changing this default mode of the affiliate link ecosystem. “You have all these book blogs and major magazines and major websites that are linking to Amazon, because Amazon is giving them a four and a half percent affiliate fee for every book that they sell,” Hunter says. “We needed to have a solution that would break that cycle, and create something to benefit the indies that mimics it.”

So far, dangling the generous affiliate deal seems to be creating buzz. “It looks like The New York Times is going to be on board as an affiliate, which is going to be huge,” Hunter says. (The Times did not respond to a request for comment.)

Critically-acclaimed authors like Malcolm Harris and Viet Thanh Nguyen have already expressed support for the project on Twitter as well, and the plan is gaining support from booksellers. “We’re on board,” says Colleen Callery, who works in marketing at Brooklyn’s Books Are Magic. “The industry has needed an alternative to Amazon for so long and I’m happy there is finally a good one launching!”

All promising, but again–it’s promising with the caveat that the task at hand will be immensely difficult. As Bookshop does not want to undercut the prices of the independent bookstores, it will have to convince people to make the switch even when Amazon or other ecommerce spots offer substantially better deals. “Online is all about the lowest price,” Hildick-Smith says. “It sounds very challenging.”

In keeping with the David v. Late-Capitalist Goliath narrative, Bookshop’s tiny five-person team works from a sublet within leftist magazine The Baffler’s Manhattan office. Because the company plans to give away so much of its profits, it is likely to remain a lean operation. “It’s a hard project to get people to invest in because by nature it gives away 60 to 80 percent of its profit margin depending on the sale,” he says. Bookshop will need to sell around $6 million in inventory to break even, and if it manages more than that, it will look into additional ways to distribute profits to booksellers. Hear that, Amazon?

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