Books for Better Business

As Neil Gaiman wrote, ‘a town isn’t a town without a bookstore.’ So, in the age of internet shopping, what’s out there supporting our local bookstores? Eve Halliday finds out more about Bookshop.org, a new bookselling platform helping out the smaller sellers in the changing market… 

Published:

01.04.21

Writer:

Eve Halliday

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘print is dead’? Well, new bookselling platform Bookshop is here to tell you that it’s not – and that the online selling of print books might actually be a way for our local, independent booksellers to thrive. 

Despite eBooks gaining popularity as they have become more widely available – and, admittedly, easier to carry around – studies show that the majority of us still prefer to curl up with a good paperback. In fact, when comparing the market between eBooks and paperbacks in the US, the American Association of Publishers found that physical books made up 85.7% of sales in 2019, compared to eBooks’ 14.3%. Back across the pond, the Publishers Association tells us that the UK is the largest exporter of print books in the world. 

Clearly, the industry relying on selling print books is alive and well. But, does that success filter through to our cherished, indie bookshops? Not necessarily… 

“without your stores, books will become a smaller part of our culture, and that would be bad for individuals, society and the future.”

Ironically, when Amazon was just starting out, from Jeff Bezos’ garage in 1994, the first item it sold was a book. By the end of 1995, it had sold books to people in all 50 US states. It’s a far cry from the big business juggernaut we know today. By the end of 2019, the infamous company accounted for more than 50% of the US print book market, and at least 75% of eBook sales, with this continuing to grow throughout 2020. Terrifyingly, these numbers don’t even count those published through Amazon itself, which is now an option.

I’m sure that, like me, most people have noticed that when authors or bookstagrammers are plugging their recent releases and favourite reads, the link they point us to always seems to lead to Amazon. These affiliate links earn them a 4.5% commission on each book sold. For them, it’s a good way to earn their pennies whilst sharing their passions. For us, it’s so easy we don’t really have to think abut it. A couple of clicks, a discounted price, a quick delivery. But we all know we’d rather be supporting the local bookshops in our own communities, and the booksellers that make our local high streets truly ours. Sometimes though, convenience wins out. Readers need something that combines convenience with shopping small…

Enter Bookshop, an online bookselling platform where indie booksellers can unite to take on Amazon. Founded as recently as January 2020, the B Corp’s success is seeing early growth similar in scale to Amazon’s. But this time, it’s not Bookshop’s founder and CEO Andy Hunter reaping the rewards Bezos- style – it’s your local indie booksellers.

Reaching out to disheartened small booksellers shortly before Bookshop’s launch, Hunter wrote ‘without your stores, books will become a smaller part of our culture, and that would be bad for individuals, society and the future, which is already so fraught.’ Besides being something of an eerie premonition of the months ahead, Hunter’s statement shows that Bookshop was established with the intention of putting these ethics above his own pocket, and to funnel the profits back into the bookstores.

Currently, Bookshop gives over 75% of its profits to stores, publications, authors and affiliates, and it’s super easy for booksellers to get in on it. Setting up a storefront on the site is as easy as setting up a Twitter account – from there, they just have to recommend some books. For bookshops that don’t already have an online presence and want support getting started in e-commerce, or simply want an additional platform, Bookshop is the bespoke way they’ve been waiting for. Bookshop even handles all the fulfilment and shipping of all books sold on the site, so selling through it comes at literally no cost to the bookseller.

Indie bookshops with brick- and-mortar locations have easy access to boosted earnings, too. Any bookseller with at least one, but no more than ten, physical shops in the UK (or part of the non-profit American Bookseller’s association in the US) are added to the Bookshop map for everyone to find. Shoppers can also support their local bookshop in particular – if they find them on the map and buy directly through their storefront, or pick one of their recommendations, that shop gets 30% of the sale. For us readers, it’s as convenient as shopping on Amazon. Even if we don’t have a particular local bookshop we want to support, just by buying through the site we’re putting money in the pot that’s split between all bookshops listed.

While we all know that the best way to support our locals is to visit them in-store, 21st century life can often get in the way. We’re working, we’re travelling – or, alternatively, stuck at home with no shops open due to a global pandemic… So, spreading the online bookselling profits to include small sellers is more important than ever.

Hunter’s initiative assuages any argument that we should head to Amazon for our literary liaisons. For an authentic, personal experience, we’d pop into the brick-and-mortar shop; for convenience, we’d tap enough faves to keep anyone entertained for at least a year. With more lists of ‘Anti-Racist Books for Adults’ and ‘Anti-Racist Books for Kids and Teens’, Melanie uses the platform to put forward picks of what she believes are the best learning tools for society, and keep the Cincy Book Bus going whilst doing it. Without an e-commerce site of its own, the Cincy Book Bus was able to make it through the pandemic by selling online through Bookshop.

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“By the end of 2019, Amazon accounted for more than 50% of the US print book market, and at least 75% of eBook sales”

“Because of Bookshop, I was able to take my mobile business online. Little did I know in February [2020, when Melanie got set up with Bookshop] how important it would be to keep my business growing and thriving during a global pandemic. Due to my online presence, I have experienced record breaking sales over the last year. I could not have done this without the support of Bookshop.”

As an independent bookseller, Melanie says that Bookshop is important to the bookselling community. “Bookshop supports local, independent bookstores which in turn, supports the communities they serve,” she says. “Bookshop’s pricing and service is comparable to Amazon, who continue to challenge bookstore sales. I believe the initiative of Bookshop will positively change the way people buy books. Instead of turning to Amazon, people will turn to Bookshop because they know they will be contributing to the vitality and survival of independent bookstores.”

Not only is Cincy Book Bus’ success giving a whimsical, unique experience for locals and visitors seeing the bus rolling around Cincinnati, but local children are benefitting, too; the more business Cincy Book Bus gets, the more books Melanie can donate to schools.

Melanie’s story shows us how important small booksellers are to local communities. With a love for literature and reading, stores like the Cincy Book Bus work hard to share their passion with those around them. In Melanie’s case, the Cincy Book Bus gets books to schools and children in the local area, giving them key learning materials. Between the pages of books, children learn communication skills, become the characters and experience new things and situations which they wouldn’t get the chance to in their everyday lives. Studies have proven that this helps children develop empathy, engage with the world around them, and begin to understand that there are cultures, societies and people out there that are so different to their own. Clearly, the Cincy Book through to Amazon… but not anymore. Bookshop is just as easy, and can makes online book shopping even easier. If you’re not sure what to buy, just ogle the online stacks of recommendations, lovingly curated by the booksellers themselves. In battling back against businesses like Amazon, Bookshop is the platform that the indie sellers have been looking for, letting them keep that personal touch.

One such bookseller is Melanie Moore, owner of the Cincy Book Bus, a unique bookstore selling books from the bed of a vintage 1962 Volkswagen pickup truck. Booking it around Cincinnati, Ohio, the Cincy Book Bus is filled with handpicked reads, with all profits going towards donating new books to schools and local organisations, getting stories in the hands of the children who need them most. Clearly this indie bookshop is a huge part of its local community.

“Local bookstores are at the heart of the community. They bring people together regardless of their backgrounds and unite them through the love
of literature,” says Melanie. “Every independent bookstore I know gives back and builds into the community where they reside.”

The Cincy Book Bus storefront on Bookshop speaks to the passion Melanie has for books. Her curated ‘Book Bus Favourites’ list has 65 books and counting – enough faves to keep anyone entertained for at least a year. With more lists of ‘Anti-Racist Books for Adults’ and ‘Anti-Racist Books for Kids and Teens’, Melanie uses the platform to put forward picks of what she believes are the best learning tools for society, and keep the Cincy Book Bus going whilst doing it. Without an e-commerce site of its own, the Cincy Book Bus was able to make it through the pandemic by selling online through Bookshop.

“Because of Bookshop, I was able to take my mobile business online. Little did I know in February [2020, when Melanie got set up with Bookshop] how important it would be to keep my business growing and thriving during a global pandemic. Due to my online presence, I have experienced record breaking sales over the last year. I could not have done this without the support of Bookshop.”

As an independent bookseller, Melanie says that Bookshop is important to the bookselling community. “Bookshop supports local, independent bookstores which in turn, supports the communities they serve,” she says. “Bookshop’s pricing and service is comparable to Amazon, who continue to challenge bookstore sales. I believe the initiative of Bookshop will positively change the way people buy books. Instead of turning to Amazon, people will turn to Bookshop because they know they will be contributing to the vitality and survival of independent bookstores.”

“Every independent bookstore I know gives back and builds into the community where they reside.”

“Bookshop UK had already raised over £800,000, with the US site having raised over $11,000,000 to be divided up between the small book sellers registered with the sites”

Not only is Cincy Book Bus’ success giving a whimsical, unique experience for locals and visitors seeing the bus rolling around Cincinnati, but local children are benefitting, too; the more business Cincy Book Bus gets, the more books Melanie can donate to schools.

Melanie’s story shows us how important small booksellers are to local communities. With a love for literature and reading, stores like the Cincy Book Bus work hard to share their passion with those around them. In Melanie’s case, the Cincy Book Bus gets books to schools and children in the local area, giving them key learning materials. Between the pages of books, children learn communication skills, become the characters and experience new things and situations which they wouldn’t get the chance to in their everyday lives. Studies have proven that this helps children develop empathy, engage with the world around them, and begin to understand that there are cultures, societies and people out there that are so different to their own. Clearly, the Cincy Book Bus is giving so much to these children, and is just one example of a local bookshop being an important asset to their community.

Back in the UK, we were given expedited access to Bookshop. After its massive success in the US in January 2020, Bookshop launched in the UK the following November, although we weren’t expected to be Bookshop blessed until 2021. Hopefully, we’ll see stories like Melanie’s for small UK booksellers, too, and it looks like it’s going in that direction; at the time of writing, Bookshop UK had already raised over £800,000, with the US site having raised over $11,000,000 to be divided up between the small booksellers registered with the sites.

With books being an outlet for many, and important to the education, development and socialisation of everyone from children to adults, bookselling can be an ethical business that gives back to society. And it often is when we look to our indie bookshops.

Bookshop achieves the thing it’s difficult for so many indies to meet: critical mass. It brings choice to convenience and a community outlook. Suddenly, the bookselling industry can be a turning point for shopping and supporting small and local in general. Just like books can shape the minds of adults and children and the way we see the world, initiatives like Bookshop can continue to shape the business landscape for the better.

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