ABA Relationship with Bookshop Draws Booksellers’ Scrutiny

From Publishers Weekly:

Last month, online retail newcomer Bookshop divvied up a sales dividend of more than $1 million among 861 bookstores who use the site to sell books. It is the latest in a string of successes for the fledgling company that many booksellers, who receive a percentage of each sale made through Bookshop from their stores, praise for providing a lifeline during the coronavirus outbreak. But some booksellers say their own advocacy organization, the American Booksellers Association, is not being transparent about its financial relationship with Bookshop.

ABA’s support has been key to Bookshop’s success. Andy Hunter, founder of Catapult and Soft Skull Press, launched Bookshop in January, and the timing sheltered many American bookstores from some of the worst financial effects of the coronavirus. Through Bookshop, anyone—including but not limited to booksellers—can set up ordering pages backed by a massive book database. ABA has encouraged members to sign up, and ABA CEO Allison Hill praised Bookshop at ABA’s town hall in June. “Bookshop has reached an entirely new audience that were interested in us, but didn’t necessarily know how to buy from us,” she said. “Bookshop pulled customers from [competitors] and maybe introduced us to some new customers.”

Hunter structured Bookshop as a socially responsible B corporation and has emphasized that he believes those new customers are being drawn away from Amazon to the benefit of indies. The result, he said, is that indies have their first effective digital retail platform after years of unsuccessful ABA-led initiatives. But not all booksellers are happy about the ABA-Bookshop connection, with some expressing frustration and disappointment about how the ABA has communicated its specific ties to Bookshop.

ABA confirmed to PW that it holds a 4% stake in Bookshop, the result of the association’s $100,000 investment in the company. The investment was approved by the ABA board in February 2019, seven months before members were informed of ABA’s “affinity partnership” with Bookshop, and nearly one year before Bookshop launched. (The investment was also made before Hill took office.) In addition to its stake in Bookshop, ABA receives a 10% media-affiliate commission from click-through sales that originate from its IndieBound book database.

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Toadstool Bookshop owner Willard Williams and manager Mike Joachim did not initially see eye-to-eye about Bookshop. Both had concerns about the site and neither wanted to use it for Toadstool’s three New Hampshire stores, Joachim feeling strongly that it would lead to increased competition from nonbookseller Bookshop affiliates. Williams reserved judgment because Bookshop was helping many indie booksellers survive during the pandemic. “My understanding is that the ABA did not think IndieBound was getting enough attention and tried tinkering with it to no avail, so they jumped at the idea of Bookshop,” Williams said. “It did launch at an ideal time, given the virus disruption, and it enabled many stores to keep customers supplied with books.”

But after learning of ABA’s financial connections to Bookshop, both booksellers said they are worried they are competing with the organization that is supposed to represent their interests. “Every time a consumer in my area orders from Bookshop, I lose the sale and ABA benefits from the sale,” Joachim said. He worries that Bookshop’s pursuit of affiliate links for click-through sales only adds a new competitor alongside Amazon. “ABA is supporting and investing in a company that is aggressively seeking to pay individuals—bloggers, influencers, authors, readers in my community—to direct business away from us,” he said. Joachim is afraid that ABA is profiting from nonbooksellers who can set up Bookshop accounts while asking member stores to sign on despite Bookshop’s significantly narrower margins.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly and thanks to DaveMich for the tip.

2 thoughts on “ABA Relationship with Bookshop Draws Booksellers’ Scrutiny”

  1. Considering that the URL for Bookshop is this: bookshop.org, and that they haven’t secured, for example, bookshop.com or bookshop.co to ease customer discovery (given their very generic company name in any search algorithm) allows me to infer not very good things about their digital acumen.

    As does the useless generic search mechanism (a search for “Karen Myers” turns up every Karen and every Myers, a rookie mistake that their digital design partners should not permit.

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