By Gaia Stanzani Ghedini
Bookshop.org defines itself as the ultimate gift to bookworms: a website that reconciles the ethical dilemmas of digital book purchases. When Bookshop.org was first launched in the US in January 2020 it was largely hailed as the messiah of independent bookstores; celebrated as revolutionary by both The Guardian and Forbes. Bookshop.org was founded by the co-founder of Literary Hub, Andy Hunter, with the non-profit mission of creating a sustainable Amazon option. Global lockdowns and a growing interest in anti-racist literature uplifted print book sales in 2020, causing an 8.2% increase that boosted skyrocketing Amazon shares. Amazon’s rise in market power was accompanied by a rise in allegations regarding its monopolistic and unethical behavior. This increase in negative brand awareness as well as the pandemic itself, boosted Bookstore’s visibility. As stated by Hunter, Bookshop.org went from selling “$50,000 worth of books in all of February to selling $50,000 worth a day in March and $1million worth a day by June”. The website is partnered with ABA, the American Bookseller Association. All physical ABA bookstores that are signed up to the website receive 30% of a book’s cover price for each sale (the percentage was raised from 25% to 30% during the pandemic). Furthermore, 10% of total website sales is equally distributed amongst signed up bookstores every six months. Its affiliate program is designed to compete with Amazon as it offers a higher commission of 10% for each generated book sale, attracting an impressive list of supporters such as The New York Times and BuzzFeed. Furthermore, the website is experimenting with small 10% discounts in order to increase its competitiveness whilst avoiding creating too big of a discrepancy between in-store and online pricing.
Although Bookshop.org has largely been celebrated by media outlets and individual consumers, there is still a certain amount of skepticism amongst bookstore owners regarding its effective ability to protect independent bookstores. As stated clearly by the website, its main objective is that of targeting Amazon’s consumer market. However, some bookstore owners criticize this marketed objective as misinformation, suggesting that the website is tapping into another market; subtracting conscious buyers from physical bookstores by creating the illusion that Bookshop.org purchases are equivalent to physical purchases. Many booksellers reluctantly joined the website as a short term solution to the pandemic. Some fear that in the long run Bookshop.org will become a permanent replacement for bookstores, contributing to the dying out of physical retail. Although this is a possibility, the website has been careful to valorize and actively promote physical purchases through its email marketing tactics; placing consumers in direct contact with bookstore owners and providing lists of nearby bookstores that can be easily reached by using the website’s Store Locator. Furthermore, the website is careful to preserve the particularity of each individual bookstore through personalized “shop-front” pages that valorize the experience of physical purchases. Additionally, although bookstores obtain 30% of the cover price for each sale, a value that is lower compared to the 40/50% earned through direct sales, the website covers shipping and inventory costs. Ultimately, its design seems to reflect a genuine desire to protect bookstores through a simple and centralized portal that helps bookstores adapt to an inevitable digital restructuring of the book market; a process that has been accelerated by the pandemic and will, unfortunately, progress regardless of Bookshop.org.