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How Bookshop helped independent bookstores make it through the pandemic

The nonprofit e-commerce platform—a winner of Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards—designed to help local bookstores fend of Amazon, launched in January 2020. Its founder had no idea it was about to become an essential service.

How Bookshop helped independent bookstores make it through the pandemic
[Images: BrianAJackson/iStock, Lonely/iStock]
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When Andy Hunter launched independent bookstore e-commerce platform Bookshop.org at the end of January 2020, he thought it would have a slow start—maybe nine months in beta, a trickling in of customers, a slow-and-steady building of its reputation as an alternative to Amazon for direct-to-home book sales.

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Six weeks in, though, everything changed. With pandemic lockdowns suddenly in place, bookstores couldn’t make any sales in their physical locations; online business was crucial. In all of February 2020, Bookshop.org did about $50,000 in sales. By April—with COVID-19 in full swing and millions of small businesses across the country struggling—the site was doing $150,000 in sales a day.

Independent bookstores can either create their own virtual storefronts on Bookshop, join the site’s profit-sharing pool, or do both. When visiting Bookshop.org, there are two ways to shop, which have different revenue streams: A customer can use the site’s map to find a local bookstore’s virtual storefront to buy a book directly, and that store receives 30% of the retail price, which Bookshop says is the full profit margin of the sale (the remaining 70% is divided among the publisher, fulfillment costs, and customer discount; any remaining portion goes to Bookshop’s operating costs). Or, a customer can search for a book from the site’s search bar, which then shows titles with no specific bookstore attached. When someone buys a book through the platform this way, 10% of the sale goes to that earnings pool that gets divided and shared with the independent bookstores every six months.

[Screenshot: bookshop.org]
In 2020, Bookshop distributed $11 million to independent bookstores, both from direct sales to a bookstore’s individual Bookshop page and payouts from the profit-sharing pool. Bookshop is the winner of the On the Rise (0-4 years in business) category of Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards.

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Though independent bookstores can create their own digital storefronts, Bookshop handles order fulfillment through a wholesaler so the site can fill orders quickly without taxing the abilities of a small business. The site also has an affiliate program which allows both Bookshop and digital publications to make money when someone makes a purchase through a referral link. This is another direct counter to Amazon’s looming online presence. “Anybody who writes about books online has always been linking to Amazon,” he says. Bookshop’s affiliate links started to change that. When someone buy’s a book through an affiliate link, 10% goes to the affiliate’s commission (versus Amazon’s 4.5%), and another 10% goes into that profit pool for independent bookstores, whether they sell through Bookshop or not. Of that $11 million the site distributed to bookstores in 2020, about $8 came from direct sales, and $3 million from the site’s affiliate program.

Hunter started building Bookshop in July 2019, and he felt an urgency to get it out the door, leading him to launch it just six months later. “At the time, I thought the urgency was because of Amazon,” he says. “Now that I look back, it almost seems like some kind of fate, because if we hadn’t hustled like that, we would not have launched in time for the pandemic.”

Bookshop is now also open in the U.K., where it’s generated more than 1 million pounds for bookstores there, and it’s set to launch in Spain in Spring 2021. Post-pandemic, Hunter wants people to go back into bookstores. “We’re not worried about losing business to people who shop in person. I really welcome it,” he says. But he thinks there’s still room for Bookshop in the e-commerce space. “We’re looking to replicate this internationally, and help bookstores everywhere that they want us to come.”