For every story of a business being devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, there’s a story of an ingenious plan owners, patrons and communities have cooked up to save one. Indie movie theaters are selling virtual tickets, whiskey temples are liquidating their rare assets and there’s even a NSFW riff on Uber Eats.
Independent bookstores around the country have a particularly clever lifeline, one perfectly suited to the unprecedented moment we find ourselves in. The strange part? It came into being just weeks before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, and before the bookstores started closing up shop wondering if they’d reopen at all.
The lifeline in question is called Bookshop. In simple terms, it’s a super clean, user-friendly online bookstore whose raison d’être is supporting independent bookstores — not simply with exposure or resources (though that’s certainly a factor), but with cold hard cash.
Implicitly? For the first time in 25 years — since Jeff Bezos launched Amazon as “Earth’s biggest bookstore,” effectively waging war against all booksellers (from chains to indies) and devouring market share at all costs until it owned about half of all new book sales — independent bookstores are fighting back, not just with expertly curated tables or eloquent shelf talkers, but with Amazon’s own tactics. And with Bookshop, they just might win.
“There are almost 2,000 bookstores in the country, and only about 150 of them have good online shopping platforms,” Andy Hunter, CEO and founder of Bookshop, tells InsideHook. “That leaves a lot of stores that haven’t adapted, and Amazon’s kind of eating their lunch.”
That’s not news to anyone. Even though small bookstores have seen some growth in recent years, your local outpost most likely still runs on slim margins, as the fallout from COVID-19 quickly showed. Portland’s Powell’s Books, one of the country’s largest and most celebrated indie bookstores, initially laid off over 300 booksellers (though some have been hired back). Other supposedly thriving book retailers like New York’s McNally Jackson and The Strand did the same.
Now, to stay alive, they’re hanging by the thread that is online sales, and that’s where Bookshop comes in.
“The idea came to me a long time ago — five years ago. I was thinking about all the challenges that independent local bookstores were having competing with Amazon. It occurred to me that they should not actually be handling their online orders, that there should be a platform where their orders could be shipped directly to customers from a wholesaler,” says Hunter. “That way, all the competitive disadvantages that they have could be taken care of.”
Those disadvantages include less inventory, less money to develop a website, and fewer resources and staffers to ship books. But those disadvantages have become even greater as bookstores are deemed non-essential businesses during the coronavirus outbreak and are forced to shut down. But with Bookshop, stores can make money on sales without anyone stepping foot between the stacks.
Here’s how Bookshop works: American Booksellers Association stores can sign up to sell books through the website, and 30% of the profits from those sales go directly to them (recently increased from 25% because of coronavirus fallout). That’s versus 40 to 45% if they do it themselves, according to Poets & Writers, but Bookshop handles the entire fulfillment process through the wholesaler Ingram. Additionally, stores can opt in to split an earnings pool that’s 10% of all non-bookstore affiliate sales, thus getting a second source of revenue.
That second source of sales can come from pretty much anywhere, because anyone — a book club, a media company, an individual bookstore employee — can create a Bookshop account and get kickbacks on any books they sell through their proprietary links. It’s all about affiliate revenue, and it’s a little complicated, but that’s where the organization stands the biggest chance of defeating Amazon.
“Right now, Amazon pays a commission on every book sale [online media companies] send their way,” explains Hunter. “Pretty much every piece that’s written about a book is linking back to Amazon, creating a funnel for millions and millions of readers, driving them straight to Amazon and excluding independent bookstores. That’s one of the reasons why Amazon has been able to grow from 37% of consumer book sales to over 50% in four years, because everybody links to Amazon.”
Our traffic and orders are about 20 times what we had planned at this point. It’s a lot of work, and there are 300 urgent unread emails in everybody’s inboxes, but we are helping people at a time when people desperately need help.Andy Hunter, CEO of Bookshop
Did you buy a book after clicking through from a New York Times review? An Esquire review? Even a New Yorker review? They all link straight to Amazon (as has InsideHook), and in doing so, they get a slice of the profits.
“I’m the publisher of Literary Hub, Electric Literature I created, so I’m in online media and I know how hard it is to stay afloat,” says Hunter, who is also publisher at Catapult. “So we need to support the people who write about books just the way we need to support bookstores. Bookshop does both of those things.”
And it does it better than Amazon. Right now, Amazon offers media companies a 4.5% affiliate kickback for selling paper books, while Bookshop offers 10%. It also offers discounts and fast shipping. Just over two months in, that’s already led to massive shifts in the landscape.
“The New York Times has said that they’re coming on board. Slate just came on board, Vox came on board,” says Hunter. “We were having discussions but people’s feet weren’t to the fire. Now I think, first of all, they’re excited by our success and it makes us seem legit. Also, they understand the need to support stores right now, so they’re more inclined to do it. I think the third thing that’s going on is there’s some kind of social pressure. People are kind of shaming magazines that are linking to Amazon now and not linking to Bookshop, which is great for us.”
When looking at the numbers, “success” seems a tad reserved. On Bookshop’s website, there’s a ticker displaying how much money has been raised for independent bookstores. On February 1, it was just over $2,000. On March 1, it was just over $10,000. On April 1? They ended the day over $240,000.
But what about the booksellers, the people who make your local literary emporium what it is? As previously mentioned, anyone can sign up to be a Bookshop affiliate, and some of the employees who’ve recently been let go are leveraging the site’s resources to their advantage.
After booksellers in New York City lost their jobs, Jeff Waxman, a freelance strategic consultant for publishers and book slinger at Word in Brooklyn, got a group together and opened up a storefront on Bookshop called The Bookstore at the End of the World. It includes recommendations from employees of McNally Jackson, The Strand, Greenlight, Books of Wonder, Rizzoli and Book Culture, and they’re looking to add more.
“We’ve done about $15K in business in a week and a day. Which, before taxes, will net the 33 booksellers involved around $150 each, as we are all equal partners,” said Waxman via email. “Setting up the store is the easy part; I’ve uploaded everyone’s lists myself and, frankly, anyone could do the same.”
As he notes, there’s a waiting period to collect the profits, and in the end “this is only a pale substitute” of their normal professions, but at least it’s something. “I believe in Bookshop.org’s mission,” he wrote.
“Books have always been sacred for me, and literacy among the most important things I could ever contribute to facilitating in a community,” wrote Genay Jackson, one of the contributing booksellers. “I was devastated by the news of layoffs, and was thrilled by the opportunity to remain connected to my peers, provide an online forum for readers to still access some semblance of their indie bookstore experience, and to raise whatever money and awareness might help the possibility of all of us being able to return to jobs and communities we loved.”
If Bookshop keeps up at the rate it has, that money and awareness may end up being enough. And if Hunter has his way, this will be just the beginning of indie bookstores reclaiming their space.
“I’d say the biggest thing I want to do is create something that is competitive with Goodreads,” he says, talking about the reader recommendation website with 90 million members. “I would love to have a community of readers like Goodreads has that supports independent bookstores and independent presses and indie culture.”
As it happens, Goodreads is also owned by Amazon.
Shop InsideHook’s “bookstore” at Bookshop here.