Online Store Benefitting Independent Bookshops Reaches a New Milestone

Claire Handscombe

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Bookshop.org, the online store whose mission is “to financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community”, passed a major milestone this month: they've now raised $15 million for independent booshops.

Launched in Beta in January 2020, they had raised $70,000 by Thursday, March 19 – but saw exponential growth in the second half of March 2020 and through the early part of the pandemic.

For customers, Bookshop.org is a straightforward storefront: search for a book, add it to your cart, and it appears at your home a few days later, fulfilled by Ingram, the wholesaler which supplies most indies.

It’s also a place to discover new books – the home page features lists such as Current Indie Bestsellers, Women’s History Month Favorites, Surviving a Pandemic, or Popular Activity Books for Kids at Home. Lists also pop up elsewhere, for example at the bottom of each individual book page.

For bookstores, it’s a potential way to earn extra cash: every six months, the profit generated are split between participating bookstores. Shops can also become affiliates, which means they get 30% commission on all sales generated by links they post in their newsletters or on their social media, for example.

It’s possible that momentum would have grown even without the pandemic, as word of the new service spread through word of mouth and media coverage calling Bookshop.org David to Amazon’s Goliath. But it’s no coincidence that it snowballed in 2020 – and it's not just because people were stockpiling books for their time of social isolation.

With the increasingly tight regulations in many American cities and the grief for our former way of life, many readers have been keener than ever to support the local bookshops they love and make sure they are still there when all of this ends.

Amazon, by contrast, have done very well out of this pandemic, with people using them for both panic buying and basic necessities, as well as  grocery delivery. For a while, the online behemoth was deprioritzing books. Amazon has had the upper hand, for many reasons including its name recognition, the convenience of its website, the quick turnaround times, and, importantly, the low prices. But turnaround on Amazon orders slowed right when many readers were desperate for books – and in that context, price may matter less than convenience, especially as people were spending less on recreational activities that would usually involve leaving their home.

At the same time, it could be hard to keep track of exactly which bookshops in your town was doing what, as they struggled to adapt to changing circumstances and local laws, often working with skeleton staff, variable opening hours, and variations on curbside pickup, delivery, and shipping.  If you were already struggling to work remotely while homeschooling your kids and keeping everyone in your household fed and relatively content, it was a lot easier to head to one central website knowing you’re doing good for indies generally.

These days, life has returned to something close to normal for many of us, but the pandemic helped put make Bookshop.org part of people's lives, and it looks like it's here to stay. It's already expanded internationally to the UK and Spain, and who knows what's next?

“I think as long as we don’t reach a certain level of success we’re going to fly under [Amazon’s] radar,” founder Andy Hunter told Forbes back in the long-distant times of February 2020. But it looks like Bookshop.org’s days of being under the radar might be rapidly coming to an end.

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

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