If Gutenberg were alive today, he would be a very busy angel investor.
With book sales booming during last year’s COVID-19 shutdowns, the humble written word suddenly grabbed the limelight of VCs and Founders. We’ve seen a whole cavalcade of new products and funding, including the algorithmic recommendation engine BingeBooks, book club startups like Literati and the aptly named BookClub, as well as the Litnerd streaming service. There have also been releases and potential releases for Glose, LitCharts, and Epic.
But the one company that has captured the imaginations of many readers is Bookshop.org, which has become the go-to platform for independent local bookstores to build an online storefront and compete with the behemoth of Amazon. The company, which debuted just as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading in January 2020, quickly made the headlines and profiles of its founder Andy Hunter, an industrious publisher with a deep love for the ecosystem. reading.
After a year and a half, how is it going? The good news for the business is that while customers are returning to retail, including bookstores, Bookshop has not seen a slowdown. Hunter said this year’s August sales were 10% higher than July and the company is on track to achieve about as many sales in 2021 as it did in 2020. He contextualized those numbers by pointing out that in May, bookstore sales grew by 130% per year. over the year. “This means our sales are additive,” he said.
Bookshop now hosts 1,100 stores on its platform and has over 30,000 affiliates who organize book recommendations. These lists have become a central part of Bookshop’s offering. “You get all of these recommendation lists not only from bookstores, but also from literary magazines, literary organizations, book enthusiasts and librarians,” Hunter said.
Bookshop, which is a public utility company, makes money like all e-commerce businesses, by moving inventory. But what sets it apart is that it’s fairly liberal in paying money to affiliates and bookstores that join its Platform Seller program. Affiliates get paid 10% for a sale, while the bookstores themselves take 30% of the cover price for sales they generate through the platform. In addition, 10% of affiliate and direct sales on Bookshop are placed in a profit sharing pool which is then shared with member bookstores. According to its website, Bookshop has paid bookstores $ 15.8 million since its launch.
The company has seen a lot of development in its first year and a half in business, but what happens next? For Hunter, the key is to create a product that continues to engage both customers and bookstores in the easiest way possible. “Keep Occam’s razor,” he says of his product philosophy. For each feature, “it’s going to add to the experience and not confuse a customer. “
It’s easier said than done, of course. “For me, the challenge now is to create an extremely compelling platform for customers, that does everything booksellers want us to do, and to create the best experience of buying and selling books online,” Hunter said. This often means in practice that the product remains “human” (like shopping in a bookstore) while helping booksellers maximize their benefits online.
For example, Hunter said the company is working hard with bookstores to optimize their recommendation lists for search engine discovery. SEO isn’t exactly a skill you learn in the traditional retail industry, but it’s essential online to stay competitive. “We now have stores that rank first in Google for book recommendations from their book lists,” he said. “Whereas two years ago, all of those links would have been Amazon links.” He noted that the company is also incorporating best practices in email marketing, customer communication, and conversion rate optimization on its platform.
For customers, a big priority for Bookshop going forward is to avoid the algorithmic recommendation model popular among top Silicon Valley companies instead of a much more human experience. With tens of thousands of affiliates, “it looks like a buzzing beehive of institutions and retailers that make up the diverse ecosystem around books,” Hunter said. “They all have their own personality [and we want to] let these personalities shine through.
There’s plenty to do, but that doesn’t mean dark clouds aren’t threatening on the horizon.
Amazon, of course, is the biggest challenge for the business. Hunter noted that the company’s Kindle devices are hugely popular, giving the ecommerce giant an even stronger lockdown that it can’t achieve with physical sales. “Because of DRM and publisher deals, it’s really hard to sell an ebook and allow someone to read it on Kindle,” he said, comparing the link to the Microsoft Internet Explorer bundle on Windows. “There is going to be a trial. It’s true that people love their Kindle, but even “if you love Amazon… then you have to admit it’s not healthy.”
I asked him if he was worried about the number of startups funded in the book business and if this funding could potentially crowd out Bookshop. “Book club startups – they’re going to be successful by putting books – and book conversations – in front of the mainstream,” says Hunter. “So that’s going to allow everyone to be successful. He is, however, concerned about the emphasis on ‘disruption’ and states that ‘I hope they will be successful in a way that partners with the independent bookstores and community members that exist. “
Ultimately, Hunter’s strategic concern isn’t directed at competitors or even whether the book is dead (it’s not), but a more specific challenge: that the ecosystem of today’s edition ensures that only the first handful of books succeed. Often referred to as “the middle list
problem, ”Hunter worries about the increasingly blockbuster nature of books these days. “A book will absorb most of the oxygen and most of the conversation or the top 20 books [while] great, innovative works by young authors or diverse voices are not getting the attention they deserve, ”he said. Bookshop hopes human curation through its listings can help maintain a more vibrant book ecosystem than recommendation algorithms, which consistently push readers toward the biggest winners.
As Bookshop enters its third year of operation, Hunter simply wants to focus on humans and bring the rich experience of browsing a store to the online world. Ultimately, it’s about intentionality. “I really want people to understand that we are creating the future that we live in with all these little decisions about where we buy and how we buy and we have to stay very aware of how we deliberate about it.” , did he declare. “I want the bookstore to be fun to buy and not just a place to do your civic duty.”