By: Joan Verdon, Senior Contributor in forbes.com, Feb 14, 2020,07:00am EST
In the book industry, Amazon is Goliath, the giant who overshadows everyone else. But there’s a new David on the scene, Bookshop.org.
It doesn’t expect to topple the giant, but it has launched a weapon that could make Amazon’s shadow a little smaller, and help local bookstores fight back.
Bookshop.org, a website that went live at the end of January and is still in beta mode, is designed to be an alternative to Amazon, and to generate income for independent bookstores. And, perhaps more importantly, it seeks to give book reviewers, bloggers and publications who rely on affiliate income from “Buy now” links to Amazon a different option.
Profit from books sold through Bookshop will be split three ways, with 10% of the sale price going into a pool that will be divided among participating bookstores, 10% going to the publication that triggered the sale by linking to Bookshop.org, and 10% going to Bookshop.org to support its operations.
Bookshop’s 10% commission for affiliate publications is roughly twice Amazon’s 4.5% affiliate commission.
Over 200 independent bookstores already have signed up to participate, and Bookshop has the backing of the American Booksellers Association (ABA).
“We believe that there are consumers who shop online and would choose to support indie bookstores if there were a visible and convenient alternative to Amazon and others,” the ABA said when it announced its partnership with Bookshop last month.
Bookshop is the brainchild of Andy Hunter. He is well-known in the independent bookstore community, with his background as a book publisher (Catapult, Counterpoint, Soft Skull Press); publisher of online literary sites (Literary Hub, CrimeReads, Book Marks; and as the founder of digital publisher Electric Literature.
Hunter said he started Bookshop because “I became more and more worried about what the future was going to look like if Amazon achieved total market dominance.”
John Warner, who writes about books for the Chicago Tribune, used a Star Wars analogy and cast Bookshop as the “rebel alliance” preparing to stand up against the Amazon empire, with Hunter in the role of Princess Leia, leading the charge.
Hunter, however, says blowing up the Amazon empire is not his goal. Instead, he is aiming to divert some of its sales to helping independent stores.
“We don’t have to beat Amazon for this to succeed,” he said. “All we have to do is get a very small number of socially conscious consumers to choose Bookshop instead of Amazon.”
He defines socially conscious consumers as “people who realize that bookstores have an outsized importance to the culture that we value, and we want them to stick around.”
Even a tiny fraction, say a shift of one out of every 500 sales, or 1/500th of Amazon’s book revenues would be enough to be a game changer, Hunter said.
“If we were to get 1% of Amazon’s book sales that would be a massive level of support for bookstores,” he said.
Bookshop sells books on its site, with fulfillment by leading book wholesaler and distributor Ingram. Independent bookstores get a 25% commission on sales they directly drive to the site, either by customers who click on links in a store’s website, or who select books on recommendation pages that stores can create on the Bookshop site.
Bookstores don’t have to do anything other than register with Bookshop to share in the income from the 10% of every sale that will be donated to participating stores.
“They don’t even have to mention our name to get the money,” Hunter said.
Bookshop.org is independently financed, without venture capital backing. “Nobody’s going to get a 10x return on Bookshop because we give away most of our profits,” Hunter said. “It’s all committed individuals who care about bookstores.”
Bookshop.org is a B-Corp, pledged to place social good ahead of profit. Its bylaws state that it can never be sold to Amazon or any other major retailer—a clause inserted to ease the skepticism of independent owners worried that Amazon would simply buyout Bookshop.
The site has sold over $41,000 worth of books in under two weeks. That translates into $4,140 for participating bookstores in the 10% pool. Commissions on linked sales of books would be paid on top of any store revenue from the 10% pool.
The numbers of independent bookstores are growing, according to the ABA, after plunging by more than 40% in the first decade after Amazon began selling books.
But independent booksellers say they still have a tough time competing with Amazon, and that they welcome Bookshop’s efforts to support local book stores.
Tom Beans, owner of Dudley’s Bookshop Café in Bend, Oregon, one of the first stores to sign up with Bookshop, said he has already made sales through the site.
“In just this short period of time its more sales than I saw when I was using a previous portal kind of website for our online sales. So its definitely very encouraging,” he said.
For Beans, the larger value of Bookshop lies in giving people who love local bookstores a way to support them when them even when they can’t visit in person.
“The fact that a percent of every purchase is going back to all participating indie bookstores makes people feel good about shopping” on the site, he said.
Jamie Fiocco, owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, said the most important advantage Bookshop.org creates is the opportunity it gives publications and book review sites to link to Bookshop.org rather than Amazon.
“I’ve often wanted to share an article with our customers only to think twice because it links to Amazon,” Fiocco said. “As a reader and consumer myself, I can’t tell you how disappointing it is to be reading an article online” and seeing the publication has added book links to Amazon.
“I get it, up until now there’s not been an easy, frictionless alternative to Amazon, but now there is with Bookshop,org,” Fiocco said.
Consumers often don’t realize that Amazon’s affiliate program is a key factor driving sales to the e-commerce giant, Hunter said. Newspaper websites and online publications that write about books embed Amazon “buy now” links to the books mentioned in their stories and get money when the link leads to a sale.
The Amazon affiliate links have become an important revenue source for those publications, but “it has the effect of creating a giant funnel that’s shoving every book buyer into the Amazon channel,” Hunter said.
He believes publications and writers will welcome the opportunity to link to an online site that supports independent bookstores. “Even if they like Amazon, they don’t necessarily want Amazon to put all of the bookstores out of business,” he said.
“And I think that’s true of the major publishers, too,” he said. “There are publishers who feel that Amazon is a good partner. But everybody understands that if the only partner is Amazon, if Amazon completely dominates the market, that it’s not going to be healthy for anyone.”
Hunter said he’s been warned that American consumers care about one thing—price—and that Bookshop.org can never beat Amazon on price. He doesn’t buy that. He believes there is a growing population of consumers who care more about supporting local businesses than price. “From buying organic to choosing clean energy, it’s all part of a general consumer enlightenment that is occurring now and Bookshop is part of that,” he said.
Amazon did not reply to a request for comment on Bookshop.
Right now Bookshop.org is a tiny gnat compared to the Amazon Goliath. Hunter said he hasn’t heard of any push back from Amazon against Bookshop.org. “I think as long as we don’t reach a certain level of success we’re going to fly under their radar,” he said.
Note to Amazon: Flying under the radar was how the rebel alliance won.