Mr. Hunter had the idea for Bookshop nearly a decade ago, when he was working as the editor in chief of Electric Literature, a nonprofit digital publisher. He had watched with alarm as independent bookstores struggled to adapt to the rise of online retail. But he found little support for the proposal. “The people I spoke to didn’t really think it had a chance, so I didn’t pursue it,” he said.
Then, in early 2018, Mr. Hunter, who is now the publisher of the independent press Catapult and the website Lit Hub, met with representatives of the American Booksellers Association. The trade group asked Mr. Hunter for suggestions on how to improve IndieBound, its e-commerce site for independent stores. Instead, he proposed building something from scratch — a site that would offer seamless online shopping for book buyers who want to support local bookstores. Shoppers can select a particular store to buy from, or they can buy straight from Bookshop.
Orders are fulfilled through Ingram, a large book distributor, and mailed directly to customers, so stores don’t have to have the books in stock or process inventory. Bookstores get 30 percent of the list price — less than they would typically make from a direct sale — but don’t have to pay for inventory or shipping.
Bookshop doesn’t profit from the sales that go through particular stores. Instead, it makes money through its direct sales and from affiliate sales, when media organizations, book clubs and social media sites feature links to Bookshop in book reviews or other coverage. The site now has more than 8,000 affiliates, including The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, BuzzFeed and New York magazine. IndieBound, which runs a similar affiliate sales program, is merging its operation with Bookshop’s. (For books that are sold directly by Bookshop, or through media affiliates, 10 percent of the list price goes into a profit pool that gets distributed to independent bookstores; so far, the site has funneled about a million dollars into the pool.)
The launch nearly coincided with the pandemic, which has devastated brick-and-mortar bookstores. In April, bookstore sales plummeted to $219 million, a decline of more than 65 percent from April 2019, according to figures released Tuesday by the Commerce Department. In the first four months of this year, bookstore sales fell by 23 percent compared to the same period in 2019.
Some stores are barely scraping by. Lisa Neuheisel, the owner of the Sequel Bookshop in Kearney, Neb., closed her store to customers on March 22 and didn’t have a way for them to shop online. She created a page for her store on Bookshop after she saw another bookseller’s Facebook post linking to the site. Bookshop accounted for roughly half her sales in April and May, while the rest were curbside pickup, she said. “The sales have been a lifeline for us,” she said.
Danielle Mullen, the owner of Semicolon, a year-old bookstore in Chicago, also joined Bookshop in mid-March. During April and May, Bookshop accounted for around 70 percent of the store’s roughly 1,800 orders. “It meant we could stay in business, and that’s all we’re trying to do,” she said.