If, like me, you’re trying to wean yourself off Amazon, then in this week’s post I’d like to tell you about a brand new website that many people (including me) are hoping will be a game-changer.
Bookshop.org, a socially conscious alternative to Amazon, launched in the US earlier this year, with the aim of supporting local independent booksellers. It provides customers with the ability to search for a book online and choose a local bookstore to benefit from the sale. Bookshop.org handles the fulfilment and delivery and pays the chosen bookstore 30% of the cover price.
The website opened in the US in February with 250 bookstores listed. It sold $50,000 worth of books that month. By June, it was selling $1m of books in a single day. It has now raised more than $7.5m for 900 independent bookstores listed on its platform. The UK version of the site opened earlier this month. Already 20,000 customers have signed up and bought £415,000 of books, earning £125,000 for bookshops that are otherwise closed due to COVID-19 lockdown.
So good for them, but some of you may want to wind back a bit and ask why would I want to wean myself off Amazon? It’s super-convenient; you have the world of shopping at your fingertips, with delivery and payment details ready at the click of a button. It’s often cheaper than other stores, they dispatch rapidly and have a customer-friendly returns policy with rapid refunds.
This is all true. There is no question that Amazon is great for customers. But Amazon and customers are just two ends of the chain. It’s fantastic that it works for them (and we’re all customers) but what about the people in between, who are just as essential to the operation?
Amazon is not so great for bookstores, and this has been particularly true during the pandemic. Back in March, when we all went into lockdown, bookstores were forced to close. Much of the publishing industry closed, and independent shops and publishers were in danger of going out of business (I wrote a post about this).
Meanwhile, with stores closed and travel restrictions in operation, people turned to the internet to shop like never before. Amazon’s sales rocketed, so much so that in July, Amazon’s owner Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, increased his personal fortune by $13bn in a single day. Those were sales that might have gone to local bookstores, but didn’t. Many bookstores never regained those customers. Now we are back in lockdown again. Bookstores are considered non-essential and have to close once more. Meanwhile, Amazon steamrollers on.
Amazon is also no longer so great for authors. I say ‘no longer’, for there was a time back in 2010/11, shortly after the release of the Kindle, that Amazon seemed really great for authors. We could publish our own e-books without having to go through publishers, and we earned 70% of the cover price. Print-on-demand (POD) was also in its infancy, which meant we could even publish our own paperbacks without having to get 1000s printed up-front. Amazon had their own version of POD called Createspace (now KDP) which allowed us to sell paperbacks on Amazon’s platform.
The platform itself was also author-friendly. It recommended books to readers based on what other people with similar tastes had read. It was a great marketing engine. Readers were happy because they were finding relevant books, and authors were super happy because Amazon was finding readers for us who were really interested in our stuff.
Those were heady days when I even dreamed of a future as a full-time writer. Alas, those days are long gone. Amazon is no longer so great for authors. In the last few years, the sales of most indies have tanked and I’m no exception.
So what happened? One nail in the coffin was Kindle Unlimited, a subscription service that allows readers to pay a monthly fee and read as many books as they want. Again, great for customers; not so great for authors who now receive a much smaller fee from a shared pot. Books in Kindle Unlimited receive an algorithm boost which means they are more likely to be recommended to readers, but Amazon demands exclusivity, which means we’re not allowed to sell our books on other platforms. This squeezes competitors out of the market and makes authors more dependent on Amazon.
Then there are the ads. In the old days, Amazon would recommend books to readers based on other books they have read. Now they show ads that publishers and authors have paid for. If I go to one of my book pages on Amazon now, I don’t even see my other books recommended to readers any more, only ads by other authors. To get the same visibility and sales that I did before, I now have to pay Amazon twice: once for displaying my ads on other authors’ pages, and again for the percentage they get from the sale.
Perhaps the most egregious way Amazon has been squeezing authors emerged only last month thanks to the investigations of a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). Amazon’s audiobook arm, Audible, has been running an ‘exchange scheme’ that encourages customers to treat Audible membership as an audiobook rental scheme. Audible members are able to return any book free of charge within a year with no questions asked and exchange it for another one. But who pays for this?
What Audible didn’t tell anyone was that these exchanges get debited back to the author’s account in the form of a deduction from their sales. In other words, when a book is exchanged, Audible (which, as we know, is owned by the world’s richest man), still receives its monthly membership fee, customers can borrow another book at no extra charge, but the author whose book has just been exchanged hands back their royalty to Audible and receives absolutely nothing.
We have no way of knowing the number of books that have been returned by customers who are perfectly satisfied with the book they’ve ‘borrowed’ (some might say ‘stolen’, but in some cases it may be quite innocent). Audible only gives authors the net figure of sales minus returns. But how many books are returned: 10%, 20%, 50% or even 90%? Only Audible knows. Authors only found out this was happening last month, when a ‘technical glitch’ accidentally revealed some of the returns in our dashboards.
It’s easy to see where all this is leading as Amazon goes from strength to strength. The little guy will continue to receive a thinner slice of the pie. And squeezing the little guy too much will eventually give the customer less choice. And that, dear readers, is why we all need to wean ourselves off Amazon.
I’ve been a prolific buyer of books off Amazon over the years. I don’t mind admitting that the ease of buying any book in the world at the click of a button has meant that I’ve not walked into a physical bookshop for years. Most bookshops only have a tiny shelf of mountaineering books anyway.
But that’s just me. Many other people still love browsing through physical bookstores, and Bookshop.org could help to keep them in business. It doesn’t compete with them. It offers them a bigger range of books, and the 30% of each sale is akin to what they’d receive if they sold the book in their own online stores. Bookshop.org provides all the delivery and fulfilment. Local bookstores can also create their own store fronts on the platform and choose which books to promote.
Bookshop.org could also benefit indie authors like me. I publish all my books via Ingram, the world’s biggest distribution network for books. This means that all of my books are available in most of the catalogues used by bookstores. You will almost certainly be able to go into your local bookstore and order one of my books. However, you won’t be able to walk in and see one of my books sitting on the shelves – indies just don’t have that sort of relationship with bookstores.
But why bother walking into your bookshop and ordering it? That’s a bit old-fashioned. Nowadays you can just do it online. It’s definitely beneficial to indie authors if more people buy online. If you buy via Bookshop.org, you’re benefiting both authors and your local bookstore.
Why not give it a try using the following steps:
- Go to my author store front on Bookshop.org UK or Bookshop.org US (sorry if you’re not in either of these places – hopefully Bookshop.org will launch in your country soon).
- Pop one or two of my books into your shopping basket.
- Click on the Find a Bookstore link at the top of the page.
- Type in your postcode or zipcode to bring up a list of stores near you (don’t just pick Aardvark Books unless of course you live nearby).
- Choose your bookstore and click on Visit Website.
- You will see their logo appear at the top of your screen, and when you go to the checkout, this is the store who will receive their 30%.
I’ve been using the excellent AbeBooks to buy second-hand and out-of-print books for years now, which provides online access to hundreds of second-hand and antiquarian bookshops worldwide. I’m now going to make a point of using Bookshop.org for buying new, in-print books.
It’s not going to wean me off Amazon completely, but as Lao Tzu said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.