Bookshop launched in January with the intention of offering independent bookstores an improved online commerce hub that will help them woo customers away from Amazon. According to founder Andy Hunter, who is also the publisher and COO of Catapult, Counterpoint, and Soft Skull Press, the site has seen a 2,000% increase in sales in the past month compared to the month before and has become a lifeline for many stores that have been temporarily closed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Stores can link from their websites to their own curated Bookshop pages; orders placed through those pages are fulfilled by Ingram and stores currently get 30% of the retail price.
Bookstores have been selling 8,000 titles per day through the site with around one quarter of orders coming from returning customers, Hunter said. Bookshop added 270 stores since March and several prominent booksellers—such as Book People in Austin, Tex.; City Lights Book Shop in San Francisco; and Harvard Book Shop in Cambridge, Mass.—are using the site.
In response to higher sales volumes, Bookshop has scaled up its site, which is still in beta, and added new features such as a map to allow customers to find their local participating bookstores. It has also added five customer support specialists.
Despite its success, the site has critics. Brad Johnson, owner of East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, Calif., which maintains a Bookshop page, pointed out that though the site is helpful, it is not a replacement for direct sales, as the profit margin on Bookshop sales is significantly lower. In particular, Johnson said, the site doesn’t provide any direct engagement with customers—or individual customer data. “There seems to be a belief among many people that buying a book from Bookshop is the same as buying it directly from the bookstore,” he added.
Johnson also objects to the way Bookshop is marketing itself to indie booksellers. “While, I see [Bookshop] as a tool that can conceivably be used, they’re making it much more difficult to do that because of their narrative of saving bookstores. They’re not.”
Hunter sees things differently. “I only use the word supporting,” he said. “We’re not claiming to be saving anyone. I do think that selling books online is going to be important to the survival of stores in the future, and we want to help stores make the transition.”
Hunter noted that this is a time of crisis and that there are several large bookstores that may not continue to use Bookshop when they reopen. “They’re using Bookshop as a stopgap until they go back to their stores,” he said. “And we’re happy to have them for now.”
But Hunter believes the platform is providing a long-term revenue stream for smaller stores. “These stores are using Bookshop as their sole means of commerce,” he explained. “They don’t have a lot of resources or inventory to satisfy their customers. They just want a turnkey solution, and to earn money every day without doing much work.”
Hunter also said that on May 4, Bookshop will begin providing customer data reports that indie booksellers can download.
Joelle Herr, a book publishing veteran who now owns the Bookshop in East Nashville, Tenn., said she immediately began driving customers to her page on Bookshop after her store was forced to close. “It has been an utter lifeline. Sales flooded in as soon as we announced our temporary closure.” She added that she has been as careful in curating the store’s Bookshop page as she is in picking books for her 550-sq.-ft. store. “I work hard at it, through creating lists and spotlighting them, or specific titles, on social media.”
Combined with sales of book bundles that Herr creates in-store, her Bookshop site sales have allowed her to retain her one employee and pay her own basic expenses. “We are in good shape,” she said. “I’m confident that the shop is going to make it through to the other side of this.”
Perhaps because of bookstores like Herr’s, the American Booksellers Association has lent its imprimatur to Bookshop. “ABA promotes the site because we believe in Bookshop’s mission as a B Corp. committed to helping indie bookstores,” said Allison Hill, the ABA’s recently installed CEO. “We also believed that Bookshop would help indies capture more of the market. Bookshop is an alternative buy button that supports the indies for sites that don’t want to choose one indie over another, or that want an alternative to Amazon.”
Hill said that the ABA is aware that profits from Bookshop sales are slimmer than those from direct sales. “Existing indie customers should continue to support their local independent bookstores directly through in-store and online purchases,” she noted. “This is still the best way to support these stores. What stores receive just from Bookshop’s sales isn’t enough to keep them in business, and the whole point of Bookshop is to support bricks-and-mortar independent bookstores and to ensure that communities and readers continue to benefit from having independent bookstores in their communities.”
East Bay’s Johnson maintains that even small bookstores will be hurt by the slimmer margins in the long term. He also feels that the relationship between the ABA and Bookshop is a source of concern, as Bookshop is a privately held B Corporation—a socially responsible for-profit company. The ABA has deemphasized its own indie commerce platform and is working as an “affinity partner” with Bookshop, promoting the site.
Others booksellers have seen new challenges arise as Bookshop becomes more popular. One store owner, who asked not to be named, was particularly concerned after a nonbookseller in his community created a Bookshop page thinking it would somehow help the owner’s store. “Somebody who is doing this as a hobby and detracting from actual bookstore sales is a problem,” the owner said. “They’re competing with something they are, in theory, trying to lift up,” the bookstore owner said.
Some booksellers fear that as Bookshop grows, similar issues will become more prevalent.
For his part Johnson remains in contact with Hunter, who, Johnson said, has good intentions and listens to his concerns. But, he added, “when it comes to a third party saving us, one that is a for-profit business, maybe I don’t want to give them the gold crown. I think that some of the good intentions do come with consequences that they’re not willing or able to acquiesce to right now.”