This Startup Wants to Help Indie Booksellers Take on Amazon

From Wired

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 to 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, there’s 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, president of book audience research firm Codex, says that this includes most people who frequent independent shops; just over three-quarters 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 cofounder 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 that 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 from 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 roundups, 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. (WIRED participates in affiliate programs.) 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 Caine of Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas.

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.”

Link to the rest at Wired

PG hadn’t heard anything about Bookshop prior to reading the Wired article.

He experimented to see what it was like to sign up and set up a bookstore. The experience was not what anyone would call seamless and PG quit before he was sure everything was set up.

PG hopes nearly all startups will find success, but he thinks setting up an affiliate program based on fulfillment by Ingram may not result in the best prices for Bookshop. In his brief experiment, he didn’t see any ebooks being offered.

He’s happy to hear about the experiences of others in the comments.

3 thoughts on “This Startup Wants to Help Indie Booksellers Take on Amazon”

  1. From a consumer perspective, how is this in any way disruptive or anti-disruptive? Sounds more like a stepping stone for new eBuyers to find their way to Amazon.

  2. 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.

    Bookshop won’t discount. When asked about it they reacted with horror. Virtue signalers might use it a bit, but the curious will click these new affiliate links and then go search on Amazon, mildly inconvenienced. Booksellers will see a tiny check and sigh. Other linkers will see that they are getting a larger cut out of way fewer sales, and either go back to linking to Amazon, or just complain about them like usual.

    • If I wanted to signal my virtue* I’d prefer to do so by increasing the amount of money going to the author and not rearranging the middlemen’s deck chairs. Upping the affiliate commission seems to offer a bit more money to a lot of people, money that will presumably come from the booksellers (unless the publishers give bigger discounts or the customers pay higher prices).

      *which I don’t. I find the whole idea of talking about my charitable donations a bit embarrassing and the “more virtuous than thou” on line outpourings are often sickening.

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