Alexandre Duret-Lutz from Paris, France / CC BY-SA

April 2, 2020; InsideHook

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the shelter-in-place orders, the act of reading for pleasure has become a lifeline for many. But when one’s beloved local independent bookstore is shuttered, where do the books come from?

One answer, of course, is Amazon—the 500-pound gorilla of booksellers, covering almost half of all new book sales. But that answer takes a toll on your neighborhood bookstore, with its wonderful, knowledgeable staffers who share your love for quirky mysteries or science fiction or nifty cookbooks. Especially now, when their doors have been closed for weeks and months, it might leave them out of the competition.

Well, help might be on the horizon, something a local store can use to even the odds with Amazon. That help is Bookshop, which aims to be a user-friendly, online intermediary that supports independent bookstores with exposure, resources, and cash.

Bookshop was developed with the support of the American Booksellers Association, the trade association of independent bookstores. This past January, before COVID-19 interrupted in-person sales, Kate Knibbs, writing in Wired, explained the main design principles behind the Bookshop online platform:

Here’s how it works: For someone buying a book, Bookshop won’t be much different from Amazon…they click, they spend, they get what they picked out. The real difference is in how the profits are split up and how people discover the books they buy in the first place. In exchange [for a share of the profits], these shops will lend support to the mission by promoting Bookshop to their customers.

“There are almost 2,000 bookstores in the country, and only about 150 of them have good online shopping platforms,” Andy Hunter, CEO and founder of Bookshop, tells InsideHook. “That leaves a lot of stores that haven’t adapted, and Amazon’s kind of eating their lunch.”

Moving online orders and delivery to a platform managed by a central wholesaler removes many challenges independent booksellers face. They use less space storing inventory and spend less money on shipping books and on paying staff to ship them—a task made far more problematic when their doors are shut. With Bookshop, stores can continue to make sales even when they are closed.

InsideHook’s senior editor, Alex Laurer, breaks some of the numbers down:

American Booksellers Association stores can sign up to sell books through the website, and 30 percent of the profits from those sales go directly to them (recently increased from 25 percent because of coronavirus fallout). That’s versus 40 to 45 percent if they do it themselves, according to Poets & Writers, (a DC independent bookstore) but Bookshop handles the entire fulfillment process through the wholesaler Ingram. Additionally, stores can opt in to split an earnings pool that’s 10 percent of all non-bookstore affiliate sales, thus getting a second source of revenue.

Bookshop is very much aware of how Amazon makes money from this secondary revenue source. According to Hunter, Amazon pays a commission on every book sale that online media companies send to them, accounting for over 50 percent of consumer book sales in the last four years. If a person buys a book after clicking through a review in a paper or a magazine, they are linked straight to Amazon and the magazine and/or reviewer gets a slice of the profits. So now, Bookshop offers similar affiliate sales, only with a greater percentage. While Amazon offers media companies a 4.5 percent kickback, Bookshop is offering them 10 percent.

And many companies are making the shift. “We were having discussions, but people’s feet weren’t to the fire. Now I think, first of all, they’re excited by our success and it makes us seem legit. Also, they understand the need to support stores right now, so they’re more inclined to do it. I think the third thing that’s going on is there’s some kind of social pressure. People are kind of shaming magazines that are linking to Amazon now and not linking to Bookshop, which is great for us,” says Hunter.

And there’s one more thing about Bookshop that helps the “little guy” in these days of layoffs and people being out of work. The platform provides a place for that local bookstore employee who has been let go to freelance and do what they love—curate and sell books. For example, a group of now-unemployed New York booksellers got together an opened up their own storefront on Bookshop called The Bookstore at the End of the World. On their site, they can make recommendations, curate books they love, and make some money. While it’s not a lot of money, and it will take time for it to come in and be distributed to all the partners (they want an even split in the profits), the site is selling books, and they stay virtually connected to their peers and the indie book scene until they can resume an in-person connection.

As you kick back and pick up a good book to pass the time in isolation, perhaps it’s a good idea to consider just where it came from. In these days where support for small business owners has not always been elevated, independent booksellers deserve some attention—and so does this new platform.—Carole Levine