As far as I’m concerned, 2020 is the dawn of a new era in independent bookselling thanks to Bookshop and Edelweiss360 from Above the Treeline. I believe that with their healthy adoption, the most common observation from consumers will not be “bookstores are dying because of Amazon” but “I can’t imagine shopping anywhere but my local indie.”
When my business partner and I opened our bookstore, I was constantly frustrated about our lack of access to e-commerce functionality and the ability to act on sales insights. We both came from publishing, and I had worked for a marketing analytics firm, so we came with an understanding of the depth of data available from the books themselves and the potential of organized transaction data. But there wasn’t a single service made with booksellers (or our budgets) in mind. We couldn’t gamble on a platform and wait months to see ROI; the margin just doesn’t allow for that (a conversation for a different day).
Now, with the launch of Bookshop and the beta testing of E360, all of a sudden there are solutions and options. The functions differ, but the goal is the same: increase revenue, reach, and profitability quickly and measurably.
Let’s start with E360. The premise is simple: a customer has bought something, and you, the bookseller, want to be able to regularly show (and sell) them similar somethings in a user-friendly way, via any e-commerce of your choosing. E360 does this with a POS-integrated email marketing platform that provides intelligent subscriber segmentation based on your own sales. Though still in beta, it promises to be a way to leverage and amplify those proprietary bookselling qualities that create loyal customers: experience, curation, and handselling.
There are more terrific bells and whistles (halo effect! customer loyalty app! review imports!), but that’s the main thesis. It’s available to any subscriber to Summit, ABT’S $50-per-month top-shelf analytics service. I understand the hesitation many stores have about adding recurring costs, because I have such reservations, too, but the service is worth it even without the added benefit of E360. Every other tool I’ve tried has overpromised and underdelivered, but none of them were built with indies in mind. This tool is.
What about Bookshop? When I first heard about it, it sounded like a much prettier, more user-friendly version of Baker & Taylor’s My Books and More. Fine, but not great—though admittedly with better terms: ABA member stores can create their own Bookshop page that earns 25% on direct transactions, with all fulfillment handled by Ingram and all processing by Bookshop. It’s free, so we decided to sign up and see what might happen.
As I heard more, I got downright giddy. The driving force of this entire model is affiliate linking: the “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” of e-commerce. Whenever the New York Times or other sources link to a retailer, it’s usually because that retailer has an affiliate program. Why wouldn’t they? It’s basically free money. And that free money can amount to millions of dollars a year.
How it works: a retailer sets up a trackable product link for a partner business. The partner business displays the link and gets a percent of revenue from every transaction resulting from it. It’s kind of like a co-op but far less complicated.
The coup is that Bookshop’s affiliate program pays more than Amazon’s, and for every affiliate transaction, 10% goes to the source and 10% goes to a pool of member ABA bookstores. By doing absolutely nothing except signing up, my store will get an equal share of however much money is earned. (I’m calling this the Pool Party from now on.) For stores with robust e-commerce, Bookshop doesn’t make sense, but for stores like mine that can’t handle a lot of pick-up orders, it makes a metric ton of sense.
Booksellers’ concerns about what Bookshop means for IndieCommerce are understandable, but ultimately, the issues are avoidable. Bookshop doesn’t have to affect IndieCommerce business unless the messaging from bookstores, the ABA, and Bookshop itself totally fails.
We still have to educate readers about the impact of buying directly from us and provide viable options for when that’s not possible, and we must be adamant that publishers are doing the same and not simply defaulting to Amazon. It’s in publishers’ best interests to expand our market share as much as possible. Diversified revenue is key to economic health; any industry where a single retailer owns over 70% of the market is not just sickly but is turning into an oligarchy with an ever-dwindling number of stakeholders. Who do they think will be left standing if the current model persists?
Christen Thompson is the co-owner/cofounder of Itinerant Literate Books in North Charleston, S.C., and the director of special projects for Arcadia Publishing.