At Winter Institute in Memphis in 2018, American Booksellers Association board member Christine Onorati of Word in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Jersey City, N.J., asked Andy Hunter for suggestions on improving IndieBound.org. The ABA’s consumer website has been unable to effectively convert customer traffic to sales. Hunter, who cofounded digital magazines Electric Literature and Literary Hub, as well as Catapult publishing house, responded five months later with Bookshop, a mobile-friendly website with one-click ordering à la Amazon that is designed to benefit indies.
Since then, the ABA, Morgan Entrekin of Grove Atlantic (Hunter’s partner at Literary Hub), and Will Hearst, chairman of the board of Hearst, have come on as Bookshop investors; Ingram (which will handle inventory and customer fulfillment) as a business partner, When the site launches in January, it will sell physical books and digital audio but not e-books. It will also discount, but not nearly as deeply as Amazon; it has no plans to go beyond 10%. Bookshop will also experiment with various thresholds for free shipping.
With the rapid timeline between development and launch, there has been little advance news about Bookshop, which was announced in the ABA’s Bookselling This Week e-newsletter in September, just before the opening of the first fall regional trade show. A Bookshop representative was at most of the shows to discuss the website, but it was too early for a demo. To ensure that it addresses booksellers’ needs, Bookshop’s seven-member board includes three booksellers: Hannah Oliver Depp of Loyalty Bookstores in Washington, D.C.; Kelly Estep of Carmichael’s in Louisville, Ky.; and Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla. The board will meet for the first time next month.
Hunter told PW that in building Bookshop, he wanted to solve three problems, beginning with the fact that few independent booksellers do meaningful business online. In addition, authors and publishers need an affiliate program whose sales support independent bookstores. Right now, Amazon offers the only viable affiliate program for book purchases. If authors and publishers want to support indies and link to IndieBound, they have to forego revenue. Bookshop plans to give affiliates a larger portion of sales than Amazon.
Hunter noted that affiliate sales account for 20% of the average digital magazine publisher’s revenue and are growing in importance (and he should know, as a digital magazine publisher himself).
Bookshop was designed to help bookstores financially in several ways. Ten percent of the list price of every book sold through the site goes into a pool that will be distributed every six months to ABA member stores that opt in as Bookshop partners. Those who use the platform to sell books through links on their own websites, newsletters, and on social media will earn 25% of the list price of each book sold in addition to their share of the revenue pool.
If a bookstore doesn’t have a website that sells books, Bookshop can give it a site. But, Hunter said, Bookshop has no intention of competing with IndieCommerce and building websites with features such as those that allow customers to order online and pick up in-store, which have driven sales for some indies.
Hunter also stressed that “we’re in it for the long haul, and there’s no venture capital behind Bookshop.” Bookshop is a B-Corp, with a mission to benefit the public good, and as he and his backers see it, “bookstores are a public good—they are central to the community around books, a gateway into reading for so many of us, the place where authors connect with readers, and essential advocates for books in their communities. Bookshop’s sole purpose is to support them.”
To allay concerns that Bookshop—like Goodreads, which was an indie favorite before it was bought by Amazon—could be sold to the e-tailer, Hunter said that the company’s corporate documents state that it will never sell Bookshop to Amazon or any top U.S. retailer.
What About IndieBound?
When IndieBound was introduced at BookExpo America in 2008, the country was in the midst of the Great Recession and independents were closing at an alarming rate. The website had an ambitious mandate: to help ABA bookstores compete with Amazon for online sales, promote books that independents can get behind, and encourage consumers to shop locally for books.
But the website’s cumbersome ordering process prevented it from generating meaningful sales. With the expense and time involved in keeping up with changes in online retail, IndieBound continued to lag. Following requests from the boards of both the New England and the New Atlantic booksellers associations to fix IndieBound’s shopping experience, which they said was decades behind other online retail sites, ABA tested “buy now” buttons during the 2015 holiday season with little success.
In August, PW ran a Soapbox column in which Paul Swydan, owner of the Silver Unicorn Bookstore in Acton, Mass., voiced a different complaint: that ABA should enhance its website with ratings and reviews like those on Amazon and Goodreads. “Yes, we have IndieBound, and I pepper authors with their IndieBound links on Twitter,” he wrote. “But authors want to have a place where they can see what people think of their books.”
Though Bookshop was created to address those concerns, IndieBound won’t be going away. Clearly, it won’t try to compete in terms of e-commerce. Instead, as ABA’s consumer website, it will continue introducing favorite indie books and authors with buy buttons that function as affiliate links to Bookshop, encouraging shopping local with lists of bookstores, and offering information on indie-wide promotions such as Independent Bookstore Day.
As for Swydan’s concerns about ratings, Bookshop will link with Book Marks, which aggregates reviews. Initially, Hunter had wanted to use Goodreads, but Bookshop changed course as a result of bookseller feedback at NEIBA.
An earlier version listed Ingram as an investor. Instead it is a business partner. That version also implied that booksellers who sell books through links on their websites, newsletters, and social media would not participate in the revenue pool. However, they will participate in the pool as well as earn a percentage of the list price of the books that they sell.