January 30, 2020

Bookshop.org launches as the new name in book retail


Earlier this week, a plucky upstart online book retailer launched the beta version of its possibly revolutionary site.

Indeed, Bookshop.org has gone live with the mission to “financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community.” Founded by the publisher and entrepreneur Andy Hunter, they see themselves as a corporation putting the public good—and the health of the ailing book economy—above profit.

They will operate by taking orders from consumers (you and me), processing them, then distributing a percentage of the profit among a growing pool of indie bookstores twice a year, as well as directing another percentage of the profit to the entity that served us (the consumers) the Bookshop.org link in the first place.

Essentially, it’s a central online hub that hopes each book purchase can lift all boats in the transaction. For this reason, some of its champions want to see Bookshop.org become the indie alternative to Amazon.

But what does that look like? Gila Lyons over at Poets & Writers very helpfully breaks it down for us:

Here’s how Bookshop plans to work: Interested parties will sign up as affiliates with the site. Anyone can be an affiliate, including authors, reviewers, publishers, and media sources. There will be no cost to participate. When affiliates link to a title on Bookshop, they will receive 10 percent of any sales that come from clicking through to Bookshop from their site. (Amazon gives 4.5 percent of sales to their partners). Another 10 percent of sales will go into a pool to be distributed equally among participating independent bookstores semiannually. “For example, if Bookshop’s sales are $4 million in six months, and we have two hundred partners,” Hunter says, “each partner will receive $2,000.” If independent bookstores link to Bookshop—the bigger site promises a larger audience than the shop would connect with on its own, as well as other conveniences—they will receive a 25 percent commission of a sale directly. (Most bookstores typically make 40 to 45 percent when they sell a book online themselves.)

Of the rest of the revenue on a sale, Hunter says the publisher gets about 50 percent, Bookshop gets 5 to 10 percent to cover costs, and the rest goes toward processing and shipping the book. Ingram, the country’s largest wholesaler, will fulfill all orders and provide two- or three-day shipping, customer service, and a competitive return policy.

With this model, one of the site’s main goals will be to reach the type of consumer whose instinct is to order a book through Amazon, and convince them that their money could instead be spent in a way that sustains the book industry. Hell yes. The rub? For the foreseeable future, Amazon will still have the muscle to offer significantly steeper discounts off the cover price of a book.

Another, and perhaps even more impactful goal, will be enticing affiliates—major book review outlets, for instance—to link to Bookshop.org instead of Amazon in their reviews. Here, Bookshop.org actually can outcompete Amazon, by offering a better cut of the sale to the affiliate that hosted the link. The result would be a some key players fostering a culture where Amazon is not synonymous with online book retail—which is what it will take to claw back some power from Bezos & co.

Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.