Is Bookshop.org a compelling Amazon alternative?

Discussion
Source: Bookshop.org
Mar 13, 2020
Tom Ryan

Twenty-five years after Amazon.com launched as an online bookstore, a start-up is aiming to bring some of online’s revenue stream back to independent booksellers.

Bookshop.org, supported by the ABA (American Booksellers Association), was founded by Andy Hunter, a literary entrepreneur who recognized that, while many independents have seen a revival in sales in recent years:

  • Amazon already sells more than half of all books;
  • Online sales will be expanding; and
  • The majority of indies have a meager online business.

Mr. Hunter wrote in a letter to booksellers, “I believe indies need a piece of online sales to safeguard their future.” Seeing bookstores as the “physical roots of book culture,” fewer stores mean less reading, and that’s “bad for individuals, society, and the future,” he said.

Bookshop.org, a B-Corp pledged to focus on purpose over profit, intends to support indies in numerous ways:

  • Ten percent of all profits will be divided among independents every six months. Participating independents must support Bookshop.
  • Independent booksellers that sell through Bookshop (sharing their Bookshop link on social media, email newsletters, on their websites, etc.) earn 25 percent commission of the list price of any sale, well above the normal 10 percent affiliate fee.
  • Publishers, authors and bloggers that link their “Buy Now” button to Bookshop receive 10 percent of any click-through sales versus 4.5 percent from Amazon. The New York Times, The New York Review of Books and Conde Naste were among those expected to sign on with its January launch.

The site posts a running count of money raised for local booksellers — $14,162.51 as of this writing.

The big challenge is price as Amazon tends to offer 30 to 40 percent off popular sellers. Bookshop.org is experimenting with 10 percent discounts, but doesn’t want to significantly differ from in-store pricing.

Mr. Hunter has a modest goal of reaching $30 million in annual sales. The hope is to reach “socially-conscious Amazon customers” that may sometimes seek online convenience over a visit to their local bookstore. Mr. Hunter told Forbes, “If we were to get one percent of Amazon’s book sales that would be a massive level of support for bookstores.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should independent booksellers welcome the opportunity to work with Bookshop.org? How important is it for the long term success of independent book retailers to have an online competitive alternative to Amazon.com?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Booksellers shouldn't expect that it is going to make a material impact, but I can't think of a reason to not participate."
"This seems like a nice way for independent book stores to achieve a high-level of online customer experience."
"I admire the pluckiness of this initiative and I see no downside for independent booksellers to work with Bookshop.org."

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12 Comments on "Is Bookshop.org a compelling Amazon alternative?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

I admire the pluckiness of this initiative and I see no downside for independent booksellers to work with Bookshop.org. However, Amazon has permanently transformed the bookselling business, and the Bookshop.org initiative will not have a significant impact on the industry.

Art Suriano
Guest

I think it could be beneficial for independent stores to work with Bookshop.org if it helps them develop a more robust presence than going it alone. There is no doubt that Amazon has and will continue to have the lion’s share of the book business, but independents can cater to specific needs better than Amazon. For example, many people prefer to read a book the old-fashioned way, rather than on a tablet. An independent bookstore can offer not just the book, but an evening with the author for book signings and a meet and greet, giving the readers a chance to ask the author questions. Little things can go far, sometimes giving the customer an enjoyable experience. Of course, service is the most significant opportunity the small independent bookstores have to offer. Be creative and be different. That is how one finds their niche in today’s competitive business world.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

This is nothing but a veteran marketer’s gut instinct, but I think this program has a real shot to make it. Bookshop.org makes my “marketing divining rod” tremble. It has a David versus Goliath feel that people tend to favor. The site itself is beautiful and full of great content to support product discovery. The affiliate commissions are very enticing, which should attract lots of links. I think all of these things can help overcome modest price differences with Amazon. And while I was on the site preparing to write this comment, I bought a book.

Suresh Chaganti
BrainTrust
Suresh Chaganti
Co-Founder and Executive Partner, VectorScient
6 months 16 days ago

The effort needs to be applauded. But in terms of impact, I don’t see it making any dent in Amazon or Apple Books.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

I don’t think this is a replacement for Amazon, but an alternative way for indie booksellers to unite and offer their assortment to the masses. Good for them.

Ken Cassar
BrainTrust
Ken Cassar
Principal, Cassarco Strategy & Analytic Consultants
6 months 16 days ago

This is similar to another initiative on behalf of independent booksellers from 20 or so years ago. Booksellers shouldn’t expect that it is going to make a material impact, but I can’t think of a reason to not participate. If nothing else, it offers an opportunity to make some money on books that they don’t have in stock. Today and forever, though, the key to successful independent bookselling is the store experience. I’m blessed to live near one of the best in Madison, Connecticut – RJ Julia, which is always a pleasure to shop. Awareness of price flies out the window as its comfortable environment and passionate, friendly, knowledgeable staff entice one to stay longer and buy more.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

Bookshop.org faces several issues on the road to success. It is a David versus Goliath scenario and Goliath has a long head start. Goliath (Amazon) not only changed the way many people buy their books but does so at a discount for a great number of them. Goliath also owns a great deal of the mindshare of consumers when they think of books. All that being said, Bookshop.org offers independent bookstores an opportunity to gain back some of what they lost or at least hold on to what they have left. The bad news is I doubt that Amazon will even know they are a competitor.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

“The bad news is I doubt that Amazon will even know they are a competitor.” For an entrepreneur that is not bad news. If the leader doesn’t know you exist and is as big as Amazon, you get plenty of running room to build a business. The $30 million target is a rounding error for Amazon. It is success for Mr. Hunter.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Here’s the real issue. Amazon also owns AbeBooks which any number of independent booksellers already use as a sales platform for collectible and remaindered books. So, the choice for indie booksellers is either to abandon AbeBooks in favor of the new platform or start selling across both platforms. Bookshop.org is a great idea in theory for sellers, but I’m not sure I understand the consumer value proposition beyond a chance to pay a 10 percent to 20 percent premium for an opportunity to “stick it to the man.” As to the second question, it all depends on the bookstore. My favorite bookstore offers new titles from obscure publishers, a deep back catalog of impossible to find art books, and has regular events from signings to readings to music. Hard to get that from Amazon.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

It’s a great idea in many ways. Independent sellers have shown that there continues to be a market untapped by Amazon’s online Barnes & Noble model.

That said, I wish their discussion showed they clearly understand what independent booksellers bring to shoppers. More interesting titles than Amazon promotes. More variety in content than Amazon’s “five star reviews” would ever discover. Those are the reasons people tend to love independents.

I’m rooting for them. But as a consumer behavior guy, I recommend they go spend some deeper research time with those who buy from independents.

The worst thing that could happen to them is to believe that the purpose of supporting independents financially is enough. It’s not.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I like the idea. And certainly there doesn’t seem to be a downside for an independent to sign up. But how does the value that the independent brings to its customers translate to something online unless the shopper can’t find the book they want and the shopkeeper, right then and there, leads them to Bookshop.org? Or would the shopkeepers just order the book for the customer as they have done for decades?

Cate Trotter
BrainTrust
This seems like a nice way for independent book stores to achieve a high-level of online customer experience. For a lot of small businesses the time and cost of running an ecommerce operation can mean that the experience is somewhat lacking. Others may not have the skills or resources to create their own ecom service in the first place. Bookshop.org also benefits from being a single destination for all things indie. This helps with customer acquisition and visibility given that a lot of independent book seller websites may not even appear in the top search results. I can’t see this being a bad thing for indies to get onboard with, especially with the commission and affiliate benefits. I’m not sure it will make a big dent in Amazon’s sales — especially where price is a consideration — but I don’t think that’s the point. As noted above — if Bookshop.org can take a tiny percentage of sales from Amazon, then that’s a big deal for the indie sector. It all comes down to the customers,… Read more »
wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Booksellers shouldn't expect that it is going to make a material impact, but I can't think of a reason to not participate."
"This seems like a nice way for independent book stores to achieve a high-level of online customer experience."
"I admire the pluckiness of this initiative and I see no downside for independent booksellers to work with Bookshop.org."

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