Indie US booksellers aren’t going down without a fight

Indie US booksellers aren’t going down without a fight

When Amazon accounts for at least 40% if not half of US book sales, independent bookstores in the US are looking to stay afloat using a combination of innovation, mobility, as well as a little taste of Amazon’s own medicine. 

So with the ease and swiftness of Amazon Prime delivering a book within days of its order—or sometimes even hours—how can an independent seller hope to disrupt this kind of retail wizardry?  

Learning to play with Goliath
Literary entrepreneur Andy Hunter has just launched Bookshop.org to better aggregate profit share of online book sales for independent bookstores. Bookshop is not attempting to be David felling Goliath, but rather to drive more of the online market back to independent bookstores and their communities, rather than simply to the publishers. 

Hunter recognises the “fragile ecosystem and margins around bookselling”, especially for independent stores. He says: “without bookstores, people would read less and books would become a smaller part of our culture—and that would be a great loss... They help us understand ourselves, the world, and our place in it in a way no other medium can reproduce.”

Amazon has long incentivized referrals to its site through its affiliate program. Similarly, stores, authors, or individuals can join Bookshop as affiliate partners by driving sales to Bookshop through links on social media, email newsletters, or websites. Bookshop affiliates earn 25% commission on any sales they generate, without having to do the back office work of maintaining inventory, shipping or handling (all orders are fulfilled by the Ingram Publishing Group.) These indie partners also receive a biannual payout from Bookshop’s overall earnings pool that is evenly divided and distributed to stores. 

Since launching earlier this year, Bookshop boasts 600 affiliate partners and reports having raised over $4,300 for local, independent bookstores through these channels. Hunter says Bookshop’s end-of-year goal for 2020 is $3-4 million in sales, with a long-term goal to reach $30 million in annual sales.

Hunter says Bookshop hopes to expand to Canada, and perhaps internationally given the captive interest it is receiving from European book affectionados. However, he says Bookshop will likely not begin to explore a European presence for another year. 

Hitting the road
Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble is struggling to maintain the large footprint its brick and mortar shops occupy. B&N sells only half as many print books a year as Amazon, but occupies far more locations than AmazonBooks’ retail stores. A Florida location of B&N recently sought to renegotiate its rent based on half the retail space, but this request will be at the pleasure of the landlord. 

Like Barnes & Noble, many booksellers still want to occupy some physical real estate, but leases can be prohibitive. Enter: the bookmobile. All the joys for browsing the shelves, none of the downsides of leasing store space. Like food trucks but without the food, bookmobiles carry tomes that can be ported on wheels, often parking at different locations around a metropolitan area every day of the week. 

Some existing bookshops, including Parnassus in Nashville, Tennessee, have created a mobile version of their store. Other bookmobiles have sprung up independently. The American Booksellers Association reported 111 new indie bookstore members that opened for business last year, a 12% increase over 2018. Two of the 111 included Bookmobiles, one in New Jersey and one in Maryland

Getting smart with tax
Rather than shapeshifting their stores, other bookstores are changing their tax filing status. The Grolier Poetry Shop in Harvard Square, an institution since 1927, is managed in part by a private foundation that is transitioning the shop to become a public charity. In this way, the shop hopes to be able to attract donations from large publishing houses and to broaden the distribution of the shop's collections. 

Before the transition takes place, though, the shop is undergoing another transition. The shop was purchased in 2006 by philosophy professor Ifeany Menkiti, to save the space that had been a haven for for the likes of T S Eliot and Elizabeth Bishop, E E Cummings and Robert Lowell. Menkiti passed away last year, however, and his widow, Carol Menkiti, is now at the helm.

Of her current plans, Menkiti says: “For the time being the shop will continue as a for-profit shop until all the financial business of my husband’s legacy can be straightened out.”
She reports the shop will continue its poetry readings that usually include a “very meaningful introduction and following discussion led by a person of the poet's choice,” a tradition Menkiti instituted. “Many poets, more than we can accommodate, ask to read in the small store because of its ambiance and truly sacred space for poetry,” she explains. 

The sacredness of space resonates with The Blue Manatee, a children's bookshop in Cincinnati, as well. It was originally named by long-time owners as a nod to fighting the endangerment of spaces where reading and the "analogue brain" are celebrated. Last year the shop became non-profit. The Blue Manatee Literacy Project (BMLP), still sells books but for each book sold, one is donated to a child who may struggle to access books.

Amanda Kranias, executive director of the BMLP, said forming a non profit organization has enabled BMLP to advance its values. The non-profit status allows BMLP to apply for funding through grants, which helps to support its literacy programs. This is significant given BMLP’s chief objective which is to improve literacy skills in the community. 

Both Menkiti and Kranias noted another important differentiator between Amazon and their shops: the people. Of BMLP staff, Kranias said: “Our booksellers are librarians, former teachers, and book industry experts that can recommend age and content appropriate books to customers. They can quickly recommend books for a specific topic, or direct a person to an author he or she may like based on past readings. It's a level of customer care that Amazon cannot offer.” 

While The Blue Manatee’s name is a reminder of bookshops on the endangered retail list, the innovation and collaboration happening in the US signal that the species is not going down without a proper fight. 

Kendra Stanton Lee is a humanities professor in Boston. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Slate.com, and others. For more, follow her on Twitter @Kendraspondence or visit www.kendrastantonlee.com