Last month, online retail newcomer Bookshop divvied up a sales dividend of more than $1 million among 861 bookstores who use the site to sell books. It is the latest in a string of successes for the fledgling company that many booksellers, who receive a percentage of each sale made through Bookshop from their stores, praise for providing a lifeline during the coronavirus outbreak. But some booksellers say their own advocacy organization, the American Booksellers Association, is not being transparent about its financial relationship with Bookshop.
ABA’s support has been key to Bookshop’s success. Andy Hunter, founder of Catapult and Soft Skull Press, launched Bookshop in January, and the timing sheltered many American bookstores from some of the worst financial effects of the coronavirus. Through Bookshop, anyone—including but not limited to booksellers—can set up ordering pages backed by a massive book database. ABA has encouraged members to sign up, and ABA CEO Allison Hill praised Bookshop at ABA’s town hall in June. “Bookshop has reached an entirely new audience that were interested in us, but didn’t necessarily know how to buy from us,” she said. “Bookshop pulled customers from [competitors] and maybe introduced us to some new customers.”
Hunter structured Bookshop as a socially responsible B corporation and has emphasized that he believes those new customers are being drawn away from Amazon to the benefit of indies. The result, he said, is that indies have their first effective digital retail platform after years of unsuccessful ABA-led initiatives. But not all booksellers are happy about the ABA-Bookshop connection, with some expressing frustration and disappointment about how the ABA has communicated its specific ties to Bookshop.
ABA confirmed to PW that it holds a 4% stake in Bookshop, the result of the association’s $100,000 investment in the company. The investment was approved by the ABA board in February 2019, seven months before members were informed of ABA’s “affinity partnership” with Bookshop, and nearly one year before Bookshop launched. (The investment was also made before Hill took office.) In addition to its stake in Bookshop, ABA receives a 10% media-affiliate commission from click-through sales that originate from its IndieBound book database.
Toadstool Bookshop owner Willard Williams and manager Mike Joachim did not initially see eye-to-eye about Bookshop. Both had concerns about the site and neither wanted to use it for Toadstool’s three New Hampshire stores, Joachim feeling strongly that it would lead to increased competition from nonbookseller Bookshop affiliates. Williams reserved judgment because Bookshop was helping many indie booksellers survive during the pandemic. “My understanding is that the ABA did not think IndieBound was getting enough attention and tried tinkering with it to no avail, so they jumped at the idea of Bookshop,” Williams said. “It did launch at an ideal time, given the virus disruption, and it enabled many stores to keep customers supplied with books.”
But after learning of ABA’s financial connections to Bookshop, both booksellers said they are worried they are competing with the organization that is supposed to represent their interests. “Every time a consumer in my area orders from Bookshop, I lose the sale and ABA benefits from the sale,” Joachim said. He worries that Bookshop’s pursuit of affiliate links for click-through sales only adds a new competitor alongside Amazon. “ABA is supporting and investing in a company that is aggressively seeking to pay individuals—bloggers, influencers, authors, readers in my community—to direct business away from us,” he said. Joachim is afraid that ABA is profiting from nonbooksellers who can set up Bookshop accounts while asking member stores to sign on despite Bookshop’s significantly narrower margins.
Williams, who has been an ABA member for 50 years, said he is frustrated by the lengths it took to get the information they wanted about the ABA’s stake in Bookshop. He eventually learned about it from a regional association director who reached out to Hunter on Joachim’s behalf.
A former antitrust attorney for the aluminum giant Alcoa, Barbara Jeremiah said she walked away perplexed from a presentation on Bookshop at the ABA’s Winter Institute in January. Jeremiah opened Riverstone Books in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 2017, and used ABA’s in-house IndieCommerce platform to sell books when her store was forced to close because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Like Williams and Joachim, the lower margins offered by Bookshop compared to IndieCommerce meant Jeremiah could not sign with Bookshop without damaging her bottom line. When the platform launched a few weeks after the January presentation, she said she was upset to see that books were being discounted, which creates an incentive for customers to go to Bookshop instead of her site.
Given the issues that have arisen, Jeremiah is concerned about the governance decisions that led ABA to embrace the company, issues she has raised with ABA. “It’s not like we took a vote on this in the ABA,” she said. “I looked at the numbers, and they don’t work for me.” Jeremiah said ABA was putting its members in a difficult position if they do not sign on. “It felt like Bookshop is, in essence, a competitor for my store. I can understand if a small bookstore needs this, but I have signed up for IndieCommerce and invested in that online storefront.”
Tom Roberge, co-owner of Riffraff Bookshop in Providence, R.I., had reservations about Bookshop last fall, but despite those concerns, he set up a Bookshop page when the site debuted. It was a somewhat subversive act because he used the site to drive traffic back to his own website. Six months later, he said, even having the page serve as a signpost back to his own site made him uncomfortable, so he shut down the Bookshop page.
Attending the virtual town hall in June, Roberge said he was stunned when Hill gave the floor to Hunter for 20 minutes to respond to questions. “Why on earth did they allow him to talk at our town hall?” Roberge asked. “We knew what he was going to say. He’s been saying the same thing for a year, which is that he has no intention of harming bookstores. But I would like a forum for discussion about it that didn’t place him and his own business interests squarely at the center of it.”
Like some other booksellers, Roberge said there is no proof that Bookshop is taking customers from Amazon rather than from him. “I don’t know how many people went to my page to buy How to Be an Antiracist and saw it was out of stock, and then went to Bookshop instead of preordering a copy from me,” he said. “To me it seems like ABA has allowed this thing to happen under its auspices in whatever formal or informal way as a solution to bookstores that are not going to have an online presence, but doesn’t bother to investigate whether it’s hurting other stores who don’t use Bookshop.”
Standing by Bookshop
Hunter remains dedicated to his mission to offer indies a competitive e-commerce platform. “Every store should be able to have a website and sell books to their customers,” he said. He also maintained that Amazon’s dominance means that the overwhelming majority of new customers are switching over from Amazon.
“From where I sit, Bookshop has been an amazing option,” said Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, which has multiple locations in Florida. Along with Carmichael’s Bookstore co-owner Kelly Estep (in Louisville, Ky.) and Loyalty Bookstores owner Hannah Oliver Depp (in Washington, D.C.), Kaplan sits on the seven-member board of Bookshop. “Bookshop.org has been a really remarkable addition,” he said. “Who knows where some bookstores would be if there weren’t Bookshop.org during the pandemic? I have only good things to say about it.”
In written responses, ABA’s Hill maintained that the organization has kept its members informed of its involvement with Bookshop, pointing to handouts that were distributed at fall 2019 regional conferences, which said that ABA was an investor. “ABA has communicated with members about Bookshop since the beginning and has always been transparent about ABA being an investor,” she said. Hill did not directly address members’ concerns about competition and declined repeated requests to elaborate on written answers in person.
In her email to PW, Hill wrote that the ABA undergoes an annual independent audit to ensure legal compliance. She added that the eight-person Advisory Council was fully aware of the decision to invest in Bookshop, as was the board. In addition, Hill said, “ABA discussed Bookshop and its investment, and answered questions at the 2019 regional fall shows.”
A lack of clarity
Discussion of Bookshop was brief and heated at the fall 2019 New England regional show, with members challenging ABA for rushing the decision to support Bookshop without offering adequate time for discussion. Then-ABA CEO Oren Teicher told booksellers there was nothing ABA could do, emphasizing that ABA had “no control” over Bookshop. “Bookshop is not a program of the American Booksellers Association. It is a totally separate B corporation that is happening independently of ABA,” Teicher said.
At Toadstool, ABA’s responses have done little to allay Joachim’s concerns. He continues to believe the organization has misled the general membership, failing to fully inform them before committing to a partnership that may split their interests and fuel competition between them. “A decision like this, something that involves our trade organization actively going into business with a private for-profit company, should have been discussed publicly, and put to a vote from the members,” he said. “At the very least there should have been a clear announcement after the deal was done, and every subsequent communication from ABA regarding Bookshop should have come with the disclaimer that ABA is an investor and has a financial interest in Bookshop. None of that happened.”