Robbing Peter

Bookshop.org, affiliate marketing, and shuffling the deck chairs.

Bookshop.org UK’s launch has been lauded as ‘what the publishing world has been waiting for’ - and has received a jubilant reception from an innovation-starved industry.

Part of the excitement comes from Bookshop.org’s classification as a ‘B-corporation’ (a privately certified, non-legal designation that requires certain standards of social impact; it does not mean not-for-profit), with the mission of helping independent booksellers. That’s obviously a laudable goal (although the inference that independent bookshops are type of charity is probably worth discussing later).

Functionally, Bookshop.org is actually rather simple. It is a retail front-end on a large distributor. In the US, that’s Ingram, the largest book distributor in the world. In the UK, Bookshop.org works through Gardners, the UK’s largest book distributor.

For those outside of publishing: a distributor is a wholesaler for books. They save publishers the hassle of storing and shipping books. Similarly, retailers don’t have to deal with buying books from every publisher individually - they can place their order through Gardners, who carry titles from all (well, most) of them.

Bookshop.org’s key message is that it exists to support independent bookshops. It does so in two ways:

  • Bookshops who sign up with the site and use it as their e-commerce platform, earn a 30% commission on sales. If this seems chintzy, remember, there’s no overhead. The bookshop itself never needs to touch the book, it is going straight from Gardners -> shopper.

  • 10% of all other sales on (or through) Bookshop.org go into a pool, which is then evenly divided amongst participating bookshops.

As I write this, the site has raised over £120k ‘for participating bookshops’ in its first two weeks. About a third of that was in the first day, but the numbers keep ticking up, which is, of course, no bad thing. (Although, as always: numbers in context.)

I am aware that I sound skeptical, and that’s because, in many ways, I am.

Just to be clear: I’m for this. I’m for anything that encourages book-buying (and book-reading, for that matter). The more paths to purchase, the better. If I had my way, you’d have books for sale everywhere from McDonald’s kiosks to NHS waiting rooms. So bring it on.

But… the site is not great.

I went noodling around and found:

  • The search is not very good.

  • There’s no backlist. If the book isn’t currently in print, it isn’t carried.

  • Even front-list stock is limited. Take a book I really love, like, I dunno: this one. It is out of stock. (But not at, say, Waterstones, Blackwell’s, or, of course, Amazon.)

  • The discount is token.

  • There are no reviews (user or otherwise) or ratings.

  • The information provided on each book is, frankly, scanty.

  • The service and shipping offer are non-competitive (and more expensive/slower than Prime).

  • It is print only.

As a customer experience, it ‘is what it is’: a big warehouse with a shop window on it.

There are many better, and less frustrating, ways of supporting indies.

But…

Bookshop.org also has really clear affiliate links on every page.

I mean, really clear. There’s actually more affiliate-related guff on a book’s page than there is information about the book itself.

I took the hint, and poked further:

  • It is incredibly quick to set up a ‘storefront’: I did this in 15 minutes.

  • The $$$ is competitive. Bookshop.org offers 10%. Amazon Associates, for example, gives 5% on books.

  • It is very easy to customise to a decent standard. No coding required.

  • The T&Cs are clear.

  • The dashboard gives data!

  • It lets you link back to your own site - so you’re not dead-ending your traffic.

  • It is so easy. As shown, there are are big, prominent ‘Make a link to this!’ and ‘Add this to your shop!’ buttons on every item.

  • It takes a manner of seconds to create an account and, blammo, get any link you need, whenever you want to shill for a book. (‘Out of stock.’)

As far as I can tell, despite the ancient origins of affiliate marketing, there’s still no other book-focused programme that’s even remotely as user friendly.

It isn’t perfect, of course. Ultimately I can only shill what’s available to sell. My trial affiliate listicles contain about half of what I wanted to put in them, for example. And, of those, about a third are ‘out of stock’ or something similarly annoying. And, again, virtually all of them are cheaper on Amazon (and available as ebooks or audio…) But, damn, it is so easy to drop a link. (Also ‘out of stock’. lol.)

So, yes, Bookshop.org is kind of lousy for consumers, but it clearly isn’t intended for them. Their goal is to “convince major media outlets to link to Bookshop instead”. I think we can extend that objective to all forms of influencer - from author to YouTuber to critic. As long as you’re linking somewhere, you might as well link here. The argument: Bookshop.org is a bit ethical, a bit profitable, and, most of all, easy.

But does that actually hurt Amazon?

Well, probably not. Bookshop.org is very realistic about this. Their goal is to snaffle 1% of Amazon’s share of the book market. Which this is less of an Amazon-slayer, and more of an irritating rounding error.

Bookshop.org caters to a narrow segment of book buyers. The purchases that take place through Bookshop.org will be made by folks who actively read, and follow, book recommendations, can afford to pay an extra 20-30% to not use Amazon, and want physical copies of the latest releases.

Where were these people shopping otherwise?

The high street. Waterstones, Blackwell’s, and their website equivalents.

These are the retailers that were already purveying the latest, recommended, front-list titles to shoppers happy to buy physical books at nearly-full price.

This creates a scenario that is, at best, neutral. I don’t see how shifting revenue from big high street retailers to a big distributor works well for the industry. It is shuffling the deck chairs, while Amazon floats above the fray.

(I suppose the worst-case scenario would be if Bookshop.org were to cannibalise the sales that were already directly going to independents, in which case indies are essentially getting a smaller cut of their own pie. This is a concern expressed by indies already. That said, I’m guessing this is unlikely. Folks already buying directly from an independent have no reason to change their behaviour. Nor do independents already successfully selling directly have any reason to replace their existing channels with Bookshop.org.)

What’s the benefit of Bookshop.org?

Let’s take a deep breath. I don’t see how this site will - or can - compete with Amazon, and, as noted, neither do they.

As a retail destination, the customer experience actually lags behind most existing Amazon alternatives. There’s no technological advantage. No enticing pricing, service, or shipping offer. No sense of value, urgency, or exclusivity. No range proposition. No reviews or content. Etc.

And, that’s ok (kinda), because Bookshop.org relies on other people to do the selling for it. A customer should arrive at the site, fully primed by an influencer’s recommendation and ready to purchase. That’s affiliate marketing in a nutshell: you’re out-sourcing the persuasion.

Although the much-vaunted ethical positioning is far from unique (Hive, for example), it remains distinctive enough. Even if it doesn’t mean a damn to shoppers, it gives influencers permission to sell books on Bookshop.org’s behalf - and, just as importantly, their own. That moral component is a key part of the influencer recruitment narrative.

I’ve worked on a fair number of e-commerce (and affiliate-based) clients over the past two decades - some of whom still even exist! - and the ease of Bookshop.org’s interface is second-to-none. Ultimately, that’s what Bookshop.org adds to the mix: the dead-simple affiliate programme that’s long been missing from the category.

(Of course, the great irony: even if Bookshop.org recruited a legion of bookselling influencers, it still wouldn’t be a dangerous competitor to Amazon. But it would be a tempting acquisition.)

What is the publishing world really waiting for?

I’ve spent a lot of time summarising what we all already knew. Bookshop.org is a platform for affiliate marketing, not a site for e-commerce. They’re very up-front about that.

As noted, it is a very good platform for affiliate marketing, and we’re better having one than not. This is however, not the answer for publishing as a whole.

I’m going to give the final word to Kieron Smith, Digital Director of Blackwell’s (and former MD of the Book Depository) who knows more about bookselling and e-commerce than I ever will. His excellent article on this topic makes the point:

I understand the attraction, especially at these turbulent times, but I do not think it is good for customers and it is not especially good for the industry. Its launch also comes at a time when the benefits of burgeoning direct communication with customers could flower into a real answer to that question.

Smith offers direct communication with customers as a stronger option, and I agree. Strengthening that relationship has the potential to grow the market, reach new audiences, and cut Amazon out of the loop. (A point I will be making, at even greater length, at FutureBook.)


More hot takes on publishing? I’m a keynote speaker (so fancy!) at FutureBook next week, and will be wittering on, with great glee, about lockdown, lipstick and Luton. Hope you enjoy it. (The CEO of Bookshop.org is speaking the same day I am. Ask him lots of questions!)

I was recently a guest on Oxford’s Narrative Futures podcast. It was a fascinating conversation about genres, mythology, advertising and more - you can tell from my many strange stammers that I was mentally sprinting (and failing) to keep up with the utterly brilliant Chelsea Haith. The series has had some brilliant guests, including my partner-in-crime [and other genres] Mahvesh Murad, Lauren Beukes, and many more.

The Outcast Hours is 99p (or 99 cents) everywhere right now. (Well, mostly everywhere.)


The quarantine palette.