Gutenberg would be an angel investor if he were still alive.
The COVID-19 lockdowns saw book sales boom, and the written word is now in the spotlight from founders and VCs. There have been many new products, fundings and startups, such as BingeBooks’ algorithmic recommendation engine, BookClub startup Literati, and BookClub (aptly named BookClub), as well as Litnerd, a streaming service Litnerd, and book club startups like Literati. Glose LitCharts, Epic and Epic have all seen exits or potential exits.
But the one company that has captured the imagination of a lot of readers has been Bookshop.org, which has become the go-to platform for independent local bookstores to build an online storefront and compete with Amazon’s juggernaut. It was launched just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020. The company quickly gained attention and profiled Andy Hunter, an industrious publisher who has a deep passion for the reading community.
How is everything holding up after a year and half? Bookshop is still thriving despite customers returning to bookstores and retail. Hunter stated that August’s sales were 10% more than in July and that Bookshop is poised to make about the same amount of sales in 2021, as it did in 2020. These figures were contextualized by Hunter pointing out the fact that bookstore sales increased 130% in May compared to last year. He said, “That’s because our sales are additonal.”
Bookshop hosts over 1,100 shops on its platform and has more than 35,000 affiliates that curate recommendations for books. These lists are a central part of Bookshop’s offerings. Hunter stated that you can get these lists not only from bookstores but also from literary magazines and literary organizations as well as book lovers and librarians.
Bookshop is an ecommerce business that has a public benefit corporation. It earns its money by selling inventory. It is a public-benefit corporation, but what makes it different? The fact that it pays money liberally to both affiliates and bookstores who sign up for its Platform Seller program. While affiliates get 10% of a sale and bookstores take 30%, the total cover price for sales generated through the Platform Seller program is paid to them. Bookshop also places 10% of direct and affiliate sales in a profit sharing pool, which is shared among member bookstores. Bookshop claims to have distributed $15.8million to member bookstores in the first year of its existence.
Although the company made a number of advancements in its first half-year of operation, what next? Hunter believes that the most important thing is to create a product that engages customers as well as bookstores as quickly as possible. He says that his product philosophy is “Keep the Occam’s razor.” Every feature should be added to an experience, not confused.
This is not an easy task. Hunter stated, “For me, it is now to make a platform that’s extremely appealing to customers. It does all that booksellers want. And to create the best online experience for book buying and selling.” In practice, this means that the product should feel “human”, similar to shopping at a bookstore. It also helps booksellers maximise their online sales.
Hunter stated that the company is working with bookshops to improve their recommendations for search engine optimization. Although SEO is not something you can learn in traditional retail, it is essential online to remain competitive. He said that stores now rank first in Google when it comes to book recommendations. “Whereas, two years ago all those links were Amazon links,” he said. He also noted that Amazon is incorporating best practices in email marketing and customer communications into its platform, as well optimizing conversion rates.
Bookshop’s future focus is to abandon the popular algorithmic recommendation system used by Silicon Valley giants and instead offer a more personalized experience. Hunter stated that Bookshop is “a bustling hub of institutions and retailers which make up the varied ecosystem surrounding books”, with tens to thousands of associates. They all have different personalities and we would like to let them shine.
Although there is a lot of work to be done, it doesn’t necessarily mean that dark clouds don’t lurk somewhere.
Amazon is, naturally, the greatest challenge facing the company. Hunter pointed out that Kindles are very popular and give Amazon an additional advantage over physical sales. He said that DRM and publisher agreements make it difficult to sell ebooks and let people read them on Kindle. This is similar to Microsoft bundling Internet Explorer for Windows. There will be a case against Amazon.
When I asked Hunter if he was concerned about how many startups are getting funding in the book space and whether this could lead to Bookshop being overrun, he said that he wasn’t. Hunter thinks that book clubs startups will succeed because they put books and discussions about books in front of the biggest audience. Hunter believes that this will make all of us succeed. However, he is worried about the emphasis on disruption and states that he hopes they can partner with local bookstores and other members of the community.
Hunter isn’t concerned with competitors, or the question whether the book has died (it is not). He is more focused on a specific problem: how today’s publishing environment ensures only a handful of books are successful. Oft called “the middlelist”.
Hunter worries about the increasing blockbuster status of books. He said that one book would take up the majority of oxygen, most conversation and the top 20 books. However, great works by young authors or other voices won’t receive the respect they merit. Bookshop hopes that humans can cull through their lists to help sustain a vibrant book ecosystem. This is in contrast to recommendation algorithms which push readers towards the most successful books.
Bookshop enters its third year. Hunter wants to maintain the emphasis on people and bring the same rich browsing experience to online. It’s all about intention. He stated, “I want people to see that all the small choices we make about shopping and where and how we shop are making a difference in our future and should be very mindful of how they think about these things.” Bookshop should be fun and enjoyable to visit, not just as a place where you can do your civic duty.
Publiated at Sun, 12 Sep 2021 16:49:33 +0000