Amazon Affiliate Marketing

With sales momentum, Bookshop.org looks to future in its fight with Amazon – TechCrunch

With sales momentum, Bookshop.org looks to future in its fight with Amazon – TechCrunch
Written by publishing team

If Gutenberg were alive today, he would be a very busy angel investor.

With book sales booming during last year’s COVID-19 lockdowns, the humble written word suddenly garnered the limelight from enterprising and established investors. We’ve seen a whole host of new products and funding, including the algorithmic recommendation engine BingeBooks, book club startups like Literati called BookClub, as well as streaming service Litnerd. There were also potential exits and exits for Glose, LitCharts, and Epic.

But the one company that has captured many readers’ imaginations is Bookshop.org, which has become the go-to platform for local independent bookstores to build an online interface and compete with the giant Amazon. The company, which debuted with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, has grabbed headlines and profiles for founder Andy Hunter, a diligent publisher with a deep love of the reading ecosystem.

After a year and a half, how does it hold up? The good news for the company is that even as customers return to retail including bookshops, Bookshop has not seen a dip. Hunter said August sales this year were 10% higher than July sales, and that the company is on track to do the same number of sales in 2021 as it will in 2020. He put those numbers into context by noting that in May, bookstore sales increased by 130% annually during the year. “That means our sales are added up,” he said.

Bookshop now hosts 1,100 stores on its platform, and has over 30,000 affiliates curating book recommendations. These lists became central to the library’s offerings. “You get all of these lists of recommendations not only from libraries, but also from literary journals, literary organizations, book lovers, and librarians,” Hunter said.

Bookshop, a public utility company, makes money as all e-commerce businesses do, by moving inventory. But what makes it stand out is that it is fairly liberal in paying for affiliates and bookstores that join the Platform Seller program. Affiliates get 10% off a sale, while the bookstores themselves get 30% of the cover price for sales they generate through the platform. Additionally, 10% of affiliate and direct sales on Bookshop are put into a profit sharing pool which is then shared with member bookstores. According to its website, Bookshop has spent $15.8 million on bookstores since its launch.

The company has seen a lot of developments in its first year and a half, but what will happen next? For Hunter, the key is building a product that continues to engage customers and libraries in the simplest way possible. “Keep the Occam’s blade,” he says of his product philosophy. For each feature, it “adds to the experience and won’t overwhelm the customer.”

Easier said than done, of course. “For me, the challenge now is to create a very compelling platform for customers, that does everything booksellers want us to do, and create the best bookselling and book buying experience online,” Hunter said. What that often means in practice is to keep the product feeling “human” (such as shopping in a bookstore) while also helping booksellers increase their online advantages.

CEO and Founder of Bookshop.org Andy Hunter. Image credits: Idris Suleiman

For example, Hunter said the company is working hard with libraries to improve their lists of recommendations for search engine discovery. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) isn’t exactly a skill you learn in the traditional retail industry, but it’s crucial to staying competitive online. “We now have stores that rank number one in Google for book recommendations from their book lists,” he said. “Whereas two years ago, all of those links were Amazon links.” He noted that the company is also layering best practices around email marketing, customer communications and optimizing conversion rates on its platform.

Bookshop.org offers tens of thousands of listings, which provide a more “humane” approach to finding books than algorithmic recommendations. Image credits: Bookshop.org

For customers, a big focus for Bookshop going forward is to eschew the algorithmic recommendation model popular among Silicon Valley’s top companies in place of a more human-curated experience. With tens of thousands of affiliates, “it feels like a beehive of… the institutions and retailers that make up the diverse ecosystem around the books,” Hunter said. “They all have their own personalities [and we want to] Let those characters show through.”

There’s a lot to do, but that doesn’t mean dark clouds aren’t on the horizon.

Amazon, of course, is the company’s biggest challenge. Hunter noted that the company’s Kindle devices are very popular, and that gives the e-commerce giant a stronger lock that it can’t achieve with physical sales. “Because of publisher agreements and digital rights management, it’s really hard to sell an e-book and let someone read it on a Kindle,” he said, likening the link to Microsoft that bundles Internet Explorer on Windows. “There should be a case in court.” It’s true that people love their Kindles, but even “if you like Amazon…you have to admit it’s not healthy.”

I asked him if he was concerned about the number of book start-ups being funded, and whether that funding could displace Bookshop. Hunter believes that “book club startups will succeed by putting books—and conversations about books—in front of the largest audience.” “And that will make everyone succeed.” Despite this, he is interested in focusing on “disruption” and says “I hope they succeed in a way that collaborates with independent libraries and community members that are out there”.

Ultimately, Hunter’s strategic interest isn’t directed at competitors or even the question of whether or not the book is dead (it wasn’t), but rather a more specific challenge: that today’s publishing ecosystem ensures that only a handful of books will succeed. Often called the “middle list problem,” Hunter is concerned about the increasingly bulky nature of books these days. “One book will absorb most of the oxygen and most of the conversation, or top 20.” [while] Great innovative works from young authors or diverse voices don’t get the attention they deserve.” The bookstore hopes that human organization through its listings will help maintain a more vibrant book ecosystem than recommendation algorithms, which constantly push readers to the biggest winners.

As Bookshop approaches its third year of operations, Hunter just wants to keep the focus on humans and bring a rich browsing experience in a store to the online world. In the end, it comes down to intent. “I really want people to understand that we are making the future we live in with all these little decisions about where we shop and how we shop and we have to stay very conscious of how we trade about these,” he said. “I want the bookstore to be fun to shop in and not just a place to do your civic duty.”

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publishing team