woman reading and holding coffee
The idea behind Bookshop.org is to offer independent booksellers another way to boost revenue and stay competitive, with a communal virtual storefront and an affiliate program. — Getty Images/monkeybusinessimages

Andy Hunter, a veteran publisher and bookseller, had a plan to slay the Amazon dragon — or at least hold back its fire a bit for independent retailers — when he launched an online sales hub, Bookshop.org, to benefit them back in January.

When he spoke to CO— in early March, he compared Amazon’s bookselling strategy to a virus attacking its host (more on that in a moment). He couldn’t have predicted there was another, more insidious virus threatening as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to spread into the U.S. But as more states issued “shelter in place” orders to stop the spread of COVID-19, Bookshop.org and its independent retail members have experienced a silver lining.

An estimated 154 million print books were sold during the year-to-date period ending April 4, according to NPD Bookscan. During the month of March, Bookshop.org has distributed more than $200,000 to the 410 independent bookstores that signed up to sell books through the platform. What’s more: Bookshop.org is waiving its profits, giving all of them directly to indie bookstores that have now shuttered physical storefronts in the wake of the pandemic.

Hunter originally explained his theory that Amazon’s competitive strategy of deeply discounting books and subsequently forcing many independent retailers out of business would eventually become unsustainable. “What happens when [Amazon has] total market share? Are they going to keep selling at a loss?” He posited that the e-commerce giant would likely have to raise prices to continue to turn a profit. Hunter suggested that Amazon needed competition from independent retailers to continue selling books: The one product the nation’s now biggest online retailer offered when it started peddling back in 1995.

Sales on Bookshop have increased 1500%. We're selling over $100,000 in books per day.

Andy Hunter, CEO, Bookshop.org

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A communal, virtual storefront

Bookshop.org was Hunter’s bid to offer independents another way to boost their revenue and stay competitive against Amazon. The idea was to provide indie bookstores with a communal virtual storefront and an affiliate program.

Orders from customers clicking on links from the stores or from recommendation pages created by the stores would be fulfilled by book wholesaler and distributor Ingram Publisher Services. The indies would earn a 25% commission on these sales. If they simply signed up to participate in Bookshop — even without actively adding links to sell books — the stores were also eligible to get 10% of every sale made on the site. They didn’t have to do anything other than register with Bookshop to get that income share.

Bookshop is a registered B Corporation, Hunter noted, which means that its business is designed to drive purpose as well as profit.

“Early in March, when we first realized that bookstores would be forced to close their doors and become completely reliant on online sales, we made the call to increase their revenue share to 30% of the cover price — essentially our entire profit margin,” said Hunter.

Retailers who signed up are divided between those who are using it as a virtual storefront and others who are just participating in the revenue pool for free, Hunter noted. “Seventy-five percent of our sales come from bookstore affiliates, which demonstrates how essential that has been for them,” he explained.

Setting up a store on Bookshop can be accomplished in 15 minutes, he said, “as easy as setting up a Facebook page.” Hunter also pointed out that many of the smaller shops had been reluctant to set up e-commerce sites because they would have to pay a hosting fee for the website, build out a virtual shopping cart and deal with the logistics of order fulfillment. Through Bookshop’s partnership with Ingram, he said, “They don't have to worry about having books in stock… so there’s no reason not to participate.”

 andy hunter headshot
Andy Hunter, CEO, Bookshop.org. — Idris Solomon

‘It’s proving to be a lifesaver for a lot of us during really difficult times’

Auburn Oil Co. Booksellers in Auburn, Alabama, is one of the newer bookstores that opted to go all in, after deciding against building out its own e-commerce website. The shop, which opened last summer, has recently experienced an uptick in sales through Bookshop even though it’s only open for curbside pickup. Owner June Wilcox said, “We’re grateful that they’re here. We think what they’re doing is really smart in the best of environments, and it’s proving to be a life saver for a lot of us during really difficult times.”

“Sales on Bookshop have increased 1500%. We're selling over $100,000 in books per day,” Hunter told CO—. He had initially asserted that if Bookshop made $6 million in sales, he’d break even.

Hunter pointed out that he’s not paying himself and the organization’s investors, which include the American Booksellers Association (ABA) that contributed $775,000 in July, are those “who love books” as much as he does. To date, Bookshop hasn’t done any paid promotion; it’s just relying on word of mouth.

The most important thing to Hunter is to keep as many booksellers as possible thriving through a very challenging economic climate. Oft-cited federal statistics indicate that 1,000 independents went out of business between 2000 and 2007, well before the Great Recession.

A plug from Simon & Schuster

Hunter said the long-term economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic may be comparable to the 2008 downturn. “We could see book sales drop [by] up to 35%,” he said. “But people seem to be rallying together in a positive way that gives me hope,” he continued, “The support for local stores that we've been seeing has been incredible.”

For instance, Simon & Schuster, which recently became the first large publisher to add buy buttons to all its websites, is encouraging its authors to add the Bookshop.org links to their own websites and social media posts. Simon & Schuster is also pressing its consumer-facing platforms to promote the independent bookselling community, and encourage shopping at Bookshop.org through email marketing, blogs, and reading community sponsorships such as LitHub.

That said, Hunter confessed that he believes some stores won't make it through and noted that many booksellers have been laid off. “But if there is a silver lining,” he said, “it is that independent bookstores have gotten much better at competing with Amazon for online sales, very quickly. I hope that is a shift in consumer habits that sticks.”

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Published April 21, 2020