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This startup uses Amazon to help independent bookstores




Most companies have mission statements. The Lit. Bar has a missionary poem. When Noelle Santos launched her bookstore in April 2019, the only independent bookstore in the Bronx, she expressed in verse her intention to gather the community through books. "The Bronx is no longer burning," Santos wrote, "except with the desire to read."

Ten months later, Lit. Bar closed its doors with the rest of New York City. Santos is dissatisfied with on-street service and is concerned about the health of customers and employees. Santos intends to postpone the reopening, an option made possible by the $ 500,000 dollar she made for more than $ 1

.5 million in sales in May and June. All that business came courtesy of a new third-party platform called Bookshop, a nonprofit based in New York City with eight full-time employees. "Because of Bookshop, I'm not concerned about our viability," says Santos. "I can thrive instead of just surviving."

Independent booksellers are the baby's harnesses – at the same time universally beloved and endangered. Although the sector's sales grew by a combined 7.5 percent between 2014 and 2019, Amazon continues to swing its mighty club against them. The online behemoth controls more than 50 percent of the print market, and it is expanding.

The industry's slow adoption of e-commerce is part of the problem. In 2018, "only about 200 [independent] booksellers had over $ 10,000 in annual online revenue," says Andy Hunter, Bookshop's founder and CEO. "I didn't want to live in a future where the 200 stores were the last ones left and Amazon had crushed everyone else."

Hunter's original goal was to take 1 percent of Amazon's annual print book sales, which he estimates to be $ 4.5 billion. Recently, Bookshop has sold between $ 300,000 and $ 500,000 in books each day, and has put them on track to reach about 3 percent of Amazon's sales by year's end.

Free Money

Bookshop supports the independent in two ways. First, it provides on its platform – free – shop and e-commerce and fulfillment, supported by the major book distributor Ingram. If you want to buy How to Be an Antiracist (Bookshops current bestseller) and want Lit. Bar in favor, order from the side. "Instead of just selling books from my 1,700-foot-long curated warehouse, I now have access to the entire Ingram catalog," said Santos, who specializes in books on social and racial justice.

The Lit. Bar receives 30 percent of the tire price from the purchase, which is between 10 and 16 percent less than normal store sales. (Bookshop puts pricing across the platform: usually 8 to 10 percent off.) But Santos – who had no e-commerce presence before Bookshop – saves website maintenance, inventory, customer service and packaging and shipping. She intends to invest the savings in back-end systems, events and programming when the store opens again.

An even bigger draw is the organization's affiliate program. If you track a title to Bookshop through a media article, blog post, or other recommendation, the author, influencer, or publication that sent you an associated fee of 10 percent of the purchase price collects. (Amazon pays affiliates 4.5 percent). A matching 10 percent of the list price of any affiliate sale goes in a pool that is divided among independent bricks and mortars. To date, Bookshop has registered more than 8,000 affiliated companies.

Bookstore does not even require a website presence to get paid: Members of the American Booksellers Association can only lift their hands. About 120 participants do not have their own Bookshop page. "You don't even have to like us to be part of the surplus pool," says Hunter, who admits "a big soft spot in my heart for Luddites." Bookshop will pay out every six months, with the first pot of about $ 1 million planned for distribution in July.

Adlai and Jill Yeomans, owners of the White Whale Bookstore in Pittsburgh, joined Bookshop in mid-February. In the first three months, they sold around 50 books a day, earning between $ 5 and $ 10 on each sale. Now that White Whale has reopened, that number has dropped to about 25. But it's associated with a pool, says Adlai, it will be a game changer.

"It's free money. I don't see why anyone would be against it," says Yeomans. "Amazon makes an extraordinary amount of money on affiliate sales. So just being able to attack it is huge."

Bookshop also allows bookstores to publish curated book lists and employee selections, and to distribute sales of specific titles for charity. For several weeks, White Whale directed sales of anti-racist children's books to Black Lives Matter, generating around $ 2,000 in donations.

In their corner

For several years, Hunter worked on software projects for companies such as Disney and MGM, eventually ditching that career to apply his skills to his passion for books. Over the course of two decades, he launched or ran a series of online publishing and literary businesses, including Electric Literature, a nonprofit digital publisher; and Literary Hub, a collection of online book-related content.

Hunter thought consumers would prefer to support their local bookstores rather than Amazon – if these stores made it easy. But the convenience is expensive. Many small businesses cannot afford to build and maintain websites. And with limited inventory, they may need to order titles, so shipping can take several weeks.

Hunter envisioned an e-commerce platform that would act as a beehive for book sums while fulfilling orders at Amazonian speeds, with profits in favor of independent stores. He turned up the American Booksellers Association on the idea. But as a trade association, ABA could not get involved. However, it could invest.

Hunter spent the next nine months raising additional funds – totaling $ 750,000 – from a handful of generous bibliophiles, including William R. Hearst, chairman of the Hearst media company; Terry McDonnell, former editor of Sports Illustrated and Esquire ; and Morgan Entrekin, president of Grove Atlantic Publishing.

Bookshop was launched on January 28, six weeks before retailing of bricks and mortar began to shut down. Hunter participated in Bookshop threefold from 250 stores to 750. "Hundreds of stores have been able to operate because their customers support them by ordering from Bookshop," Hunter says.

But the organization is more than just a digital savior under Covid. "Bookshop has drawn considerable attention to the indie bookstore channel and the message that indies are important to books and communities," said Allison Hill, ABA CEO. "It has also brought new consumers, some of whom are looking for alternatives to online retailers." Bookshop also collaborates with other Amazon competitors– Libro.fm for audiobooks and Hummingbird for ebooks.

Still, some independents are wary of any major digital bookstore. To help ease their fears, Hunter included in his statutes a mortgage that Bookshop would never sell to Amazon or any other major retailer. Three eligible members of his seven-member board are independent bookstore owners.

"What happened when Borders gave Amazon online fulfillment capabilities is a well-known cautionary tale in the independent bookstore community," Hunter says. "We want to reassure everyone that we will never turn it over or clamp it down."


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