Two Book Startups Compete Where Amazon Won’t

Bookshop and Libro.fm hope to change your shopping habits. Will it last after the pandemic?

A photo of a bookshelf at an Amazon Books store where a Kindle is displayed next to the books.
A photo of a bookshelf at an Amazon Books store where a Kindle is displayed next to the books.
Books are displayed along side an Amazon Kindle device. Photo: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today to give you a better tomorrow.

If there’s one silver lining from the pandemic — at least where our online lives are concerned — it’s the emergence of viable small competitors to corporate giants that many of us have become accustomed to. Zoom triumphed over Facebook and Google; now that it, too, is a kind of monolith that’s driving some people to exhaustion, quirky startups are providing fun video chat alternatives. And Amazon, no longer able to fulfill two-day Prime shipping guarantees, is facing some meaningful competition of its own.

Though they may not unseat the retail giant (it’s hard to imagine what would), these companies give consumers interesting — and more ethically comfortable — alternatives at a pivotal time. Suddenly, people are discovering new portals to online commerce that may change their digital habits for good. Two startups in particular are edging in on Amazon’s original turf: books. The companies are Libro.fm, an independent audiobook company similar to Audible, and Bookshop.org, a B-corp that launched only a few months ago and appears well on its way to dominating the independent online bookselling game — without forgetting the crucial role independent bookstores and their brilliant booksellers serve as members of local communities.

“We went through growth that I expected to happen over the course of two and a half, three years — we went through it in about four weeks,” says Andy Hunter, founder and CEO of Bookshop. “It’s been insane.”

The company launched in January, and though it faces an uphill battle in its fight against the tech giant, it has a few tricks up its sleeve. Bookshop has a strong affiliate program and offers significant benefits to local bookstores that join forces with the website, lending those sellers publicity through Bookshop’s channels and giving them 30% of the cover price off any sales they instigate — all without forcing them to deal with the expense of logistics and distribution. (Bookshop fulfills orders itself through a wholesaler.)

Affiliate programs allow people to earn money by referring others to online vendors. When you make a purchase through a link in a story about a sale on noise-canceling headphones on Wired.com, for example, Wired earns a small percentage of that sale. The same goes for book sales: Buying The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd by clicking a link on Oprahmag.com means Oprah Magazine gets a little bit of that purchase in return for linking to the item.

Affiliate links frequently point to Amazon, and that’s partly why every year you see more stories with titles like “The Most Interesting Things You Can Find On Amazon Right Now.” Online media outlets, increasingly desperate for revenue, turn to the company for small amounts of money in the form of these affiliate links.

Right now, Amazon pays 4.5% of physical book sale prices to affiliate partners, though it recently decreased how much it pays out on other products, making it difficult for people who rely on Amazon’s affiliate links for revenue to earn what they had before.

Meanwhile, some items also have longer guaranteed delivery windows: Many books are now said to take up to a week to deliver, in contrast to the two-day guarantee Prime once offered. Amazon taking away one of its biggest advantages for book shoppers — fast, easy shipping — and decreasing the appeal of its affiliate program has at least some shoppers and affiliate partners looking elsewhere. Bookshop says its business has grown much faster than expected during the pandemic.

“In our business plan we sent to investors, it predicted it would be 2022 before we hit $1,000,000 a week in sales, and it happened in four weeks,” Hunter says.

Bookshop’s items typically arrive to customers from its distribution center, run by book wholesaler Ingram, within three days. That’s a bit delayed right now, says Hunter, because of necessary protections provided to Ingram’s warehouse workers, as well as a decreased workforce both within distribution and at shipping partners like the United States Postal Service.

But there’s also a massive moral issue that for years has hovered around Amazon like dust. It’s a company with a long record of labor abuses, of taking business away from the local shops, such as bookstores, that provide culture and community to our cities. Now that there’s a pandemic that threatens the survival of the local business infrastructures that help give our communities color and meaning — at the same time that Amazon pulls back the drip of convenience we’ve become addicted to over the years — people are finally waking up to the crucial role these “third places” play in our lives, of our own complicity in their demise, and, most importantly, what we need to do to turn the tide. And that means supporting local businesses, even when you can’t physically visit them anymore.

Silicon Valley’s ultimate goal, says Hunter, is to disrupt industry as we know it, though the businesses they’re disrupting — such as, but not limited to, local bookselling — employ a lot of people and create happiness and meaning in communities. “I think that people are kind of acknowledging that now in a way that’s really heartening, and I just want it to continue after this is all over,” he says. “I want it to be like a permanent shift in how people navigate the world and how they decide to spend their money and where they shop.”

So far, Bookshop’s plan is working. It has affiliate partnerships with the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Vox, and New York Magazine. “We expect most major publications will be working with us by June,” says Hunter. The company has over 3,000 affiliate partnerships (disclosure: I’ve used their links in personal blog posts about books, although I’ve never made a sale through one), of which 560 are bookstores.

And why wouldn’t they? The affiliate share Bookshop extends to its partners is 10% — more than double the 4.5% Amazon offers. Partners also have the advantage of the moral high ground by not linking to Amazon, and when Bookshop has access to nearly as many books as Amazon does, with paltry shipping fees and rapid shipping, there’s little reason for anyone to promote or buy physical books via Amazon anymore.

For readers, the benefits to shopping with Bookshop lie also in what is lost when local bookstores close their doors: recommendations and community. Hunter says he plans to launch an online community aspect to Bookshop (a product that I’ve been desperately begging for). But for now, the company works with a network of bookstores, authors, and book influencers to help create digital versions of the tables at physical bookstores with handwritten recommendations by booksellers and stacks curated by subject matter or imagined audience. Right now, for example, the website has a list of recommendations created by BuzzFeed culture editors; one featuring choice books by Native and Indigenous authors, curated by author Elissa Washuta; and a list of escapist reads, put together by Washington, D.C. bookstore Potter’s House Books. Compared to the abysmal discovery tools available on Amazon, Audible, and even Goodreads, Bookshop’s active, human-created discovery offerings are stumbling into a field of gold to a reader without a clear idea of what they want to pick up next.

Claire Handscombe, a bookseller at Washington, D.C.’s East City Books and host of the book podcast The Brit Lit Podcast, has worked with both Bookshop and Libro.fm, an independent audiobook company with which Bookshop will be partnering soon. “I spend a lot of time adding affiliate links to my various book-related posts, and I’m so glad I can now link to something that not only is not contributing to Amazon but is supporting independent bookshops,” she says. “Plus, the way that affiliates can make lists and possibly increase their earnings that way makes it doubly advantageous — especially as you earn a much bigger commission than with Amazon.”

Bookshop’s plan to partner with Libro.fm, which started in 2013 but has seen similar skyrocketing sales and membership signups since the pandemic began, could be crucial to its long-term success. While e-book sales are falling and print sales are flat at best, audiobooks are rapidly growing in popularity. And like Bookshop, Libro.fm is strongly committed to lifting up local bookstores and booksellers as much as it can, particularly during the pandemic.

Charlene Browne is a bookseller who recently got laid off when the pandemic hit. When Libro.fm announced a campaign to hire laid-off booksellers to do important curation and outreach work, Browne applied and was hired, and she’s loving the work she’s done with them so far.

“My experience so far has been amazing,” she says. “I prefer Libro.fm to Audible primarily because of the direct support offered to local and independent bookstores. Local bookstores do a lot to promote community and literary passion in their regions and this is a great way to keep them alive.”

The indie audiobook platform has seen explosive success since the pandemic began, despite its main competitor being Audible, which has seen increased site traffic since quarantine began. This indicates that the popular choice to move from Amazon to independent online shops expands far beyond the diminishing convenience offered by Amazon. “We saw a 300% increase in membership from February to March. It was almost overnight in terms of the rapid response,” says Mark Pearson, Libro.fm’s co-founder.

When the company saw how the pandemic was devastating local bookstores, it decided it wanted to help.

Similar to Bookshop, Libro.fm also shares revenue with independent bookstores, but as most bookstores around the country were forced to close their doors, Libro.fm decided to expand that support by 100% of revenue from new membership sign-ups to affiliated bookstores. “So that was a total of $89,000, that went directly to the stores. We didn’t take any of that,” he says. The company also hired eleven laid-off booksellers — Charlene Browne being one — to curate lists, reach out to influencers, and otherwise do the digital version of the job they were doing before Covid-19 hit.

“You realize the value of something when it’s no longer there, it’s in danger, and that’s what we’re seeing now,” says Pearson. “This has been a wake-up call to broaden the support of bookstores because we don’t want to lose what matters in our community. And I absolutely see this continuing, and that’s our role — to help grow this movement.”

It’s not a perfect solution, and the future of bookselling is not firmly set in stone, of course. Rebecca Wang, an assistant professor of marketing at Lehigh University, says she’s not certain that the average consumer, who currently supports Bookshop over Amazon, will continue to do so after Covid-19 ends.

At the moment, “customers might refrain from ordering nonessential items, such as books, from Amazon, not necessarily because they disagree with its labor practice, but because they want to help alleviate the burden from its employees,” she says. But “an independent seller will lose these advantages after Covid-19. Amazon is building a shipping network to replace even UPS and FedEx, so any shipping issues Amazon’s experiencing now are only temporary.”

Amazon’s public relations team will aid in the company’s eventual reputation recovery, too, she says: “I can imagine that customers who previously buy print books from Amazon will most likely go back to Amazon, especially since Amazon’s prices for print books are so competitive.”

Digital products, Wang says, are a different story. New audiobook listeners who are wading into the practice, or those who are disappointed with Audible for ethical or logistical reasons, are more likely to stick with Libro.fm in the long haul. And since Libro.fm only costs four cents more a month than Audible for essentially the same product, there’s little reason to switch back to Audible if you’ve gotten comfortable with Libro.fm.

Further, Bookshop relies on Ingram for distribution, which works to its advantage — Ingram has huge warehouses that allow Bookshop to sell and quickly ship nearly every book that Amazon has access to. But Ingram is owned by John Ingram, a billionaire and one of the wealthiest people in Tennessee. Its commitment to protecting its warehouse employees is unclear: When I emailed the company asking if it can confirm it provides its warehouse employees with at least six feet of space between them while they work, the spokesperson sent me a link to its health advisory page and failed to address my actual question.

But I’m still hopeful that Bookshop and Libro.fm can change the online book shopping industry for the better. Maybe it’s just desperate optimism on my part, but I genuinely believe that the recent success Bookshop and Libro.fm have seen are evidence that what was a slowly building awareness of how destructive Amazon can be to local communities is now becoming more mainstream. That we can support local business infrastructure, keep the communities that emerge in these third places alive, that we can buy books ethically, at places that don’t rip the rug from beneath employees. It’s a big first step, and it’s just that — a first step. We also need to get to a place where booksellers and other people in the publishing industry have fairer wages and better working conditions. But digging our nails into the monster that is Amazon? Well, it’s a damned good start.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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