June 25, 2020

Bookshop.org is shattering sales projections, not all indies are chuffed


Way back at the end of January, we wrote a little ditty about the new kids on the online retail block, Bookshop.org. Back then they were taking it step by step, and seeing if they had the right stuff.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the still-in-beta website had big plans to establish itself as an indie alternative to Amazon and perhaps generate $30 million in yearly sales by the company’s two year anniversary.

Those numbers did not factor in a worldwide months-long shelter-in-place-and-shop-online season, from which the company immediately benefitted . . . almost beyond its wildest dreams.

As Alexandra Alter reports for the New York Times:

Now Bookshop is on track to exceed $40 million in sales this year, blowing past the sum that Mr. Hunter initially hoped to reach by 2022. The site sold some $4.5 million of books in May, and more than $7 million in the first two weeks of June. More than 750 bookstores have joined, and Bookshop has generated more than $3.6 million for stores.

Powered by the book wholesaler, Ingram, in the United States, Bookshop.org has turned its attention to the UK, where it plans to partner with a similar outfit called Gardners. As Shelf Awareness writes of the expansion:

Later this year, “hopefully before the holidays,” Bookshop will open in the U.K., working with book wholesaler Gardners. “It’s going to be a ton of work and we already feel at our limit,” Hunter said. “But they really, really want us to come.” In the U.K., fewer stores than in the U.S. have e-commerce–or even informational–websites, and there’s no equivalent to the American Booksellers Association’s IndieCommerce.

But not everyone is happy about the bookseller’s meteoric rise, and some worry that this narrative will obscure the fact that the best way to support a bookseller is still to buy directly from that bookseller.

To put the cost / benefit as simply as possible: When you buy a book from the Bookshop.org main website, a percentage of that sale goes into a pool that is distributed evenly to indie bookstores on an annual basis. When you buy a book from a specific indie’s storefront on Bookshop.org they receive a higher percentage of that sale directly. When you buy a book directly from a bookshop–a service that many bookshops have had to inaugurate, or scurry to enhance since Covid hit–they make the highest possible percentage of money.

So while Bookshop.org’s mega-season has helped many bookstores stay afloat, and its model is meant to lift all ships, the best way you can support your local bookstore is by buying from them directly.

But another, less monetary way you can support your local bookstore is by being patient! Many are crawling out of piles and piles of back orders (bless you for those!). Many of those orders are for books that publishers are having trouble re-printing and shipping because of Covid slowdowns. And all of this has to happen while booksellers are learning new systems and social distancing.

Amazon–which is currently charting record numbers–has given many of us unreal expectations about convenience, a convenience built on VC money and horrific labor practices. Supporting your local means examining (and forgetting) those expectations, which we should all be doing in other areas of our online purchasing lives as well.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.