Bookshop.org taking on Amazon
In the opening of the very first “Star Wars” movie, a small spaceship flees from a behemoth Star Destroyer that’s so massive it expands beyond the frame. The small ship is filled with Rebels, and as they prepare to be boarded by a party from the star destroyer, you see a mix of fear and resolve in the defenders’ eyes.
They know this ain’t going to go so good, but what choice do they have?
Of course the Stormtroopers make short work of those Rebels, and here comes Darth Vader, announced by that imposing theme music we’ve all come to know so well. The Empire has arrived, and it is one bad mama jama. As a 7-year-old watching it for the first time, sitting in the aisle of the overcrowded (and long-ago-demolished) Edens Theater, I had an instant grasp of what it means to be under the thumb of overwhelming power.
When I read a recent Publishers Weekly story by Gila Lyons about an “indie alternative to Amazon,” I couldn’t help but picture those Rebel soldiers so bravely readying themselves to stand up to Darth Vader’s boarding party.
The project, Bookshop.org, is scheduled to open this month and is designed to offer an alternative outlet for independent bookstores, authors and publishers to sell their wares. Consider them the Rebel Alliance standing up to the Amazon Empire.
The Princess Leia behind the effort — the general in charge of organizing and inspiring — is Andy Hunter, who can boast some admirable successes as co-founder of literature-related entities such as Literary Hub and Catapult. The vision for Bookshop is bold, with an intention to provide “a unified e-commerce strategy that is as fast and user-friendly as Amazon.” Essentially, Bookshop aims to be an alternative for publications or reviewers or even celebrity endorsers such as Reese Witherspoon to link to when promoting books online.
The mechanism is an affiliate network, recreating a model Amazon uses itself, and providing a higher percentage of share per sale (10% versus 4%) than Amazon.
Regular readers are probably tired of me casting Amazon as a malevolent force and, to be fair, I don’t believe that Jeff Bezos is Darth Vader, with demonstrably evil intentions.
But an empire is an empire, and the nature of an empire is to eliminate those who stand in the way of empire business. There are those who benefit from the advance of the empire and those who do not, and independent entities of any kind within the books ecosystem are among the latter. There may be temporary appeasement of the empire (like what Lando Calrissian tried in “Empire Strikes Back”), but in any relationship with an empire, the empire will always have the upper hand.
And if it wants to seize your Cloud City or cut your margins, it will.
Anything organized under the heading of “alliance” is tricky to pull off. An alliance requires some measure of individual sacrifice for the greater good. Bookshop looks constructed to make those sacrifices as limited as possible, but for it to work, it will take broad buy-in.
We should be rooting for them, including with our purchasing power. I am not saying that Amazon must be outright defeated, but I would argue that all of us who love books and reading will be better served if Amazon is held in check by a competing force.
I am not necessarily optimistic about Bookshop’s chances, but I am hopeful. It took more than 40 years for the “Star Wars” Rebels to win on screen.
May the force be with Bookshop.
Marshall by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark
I get great joy whenever I see that someone has read “Oranges.” If someone wants to know what it means to be truly curious, I point them towards that book. “Prisoners of Geography” is another one that makes you grateful to learn something new. In that vein, let me recommend a book from a ways back:
by Trevor Corson.
Andy Hunter is the driving force behind Bookshop.org, a site that hopes to unite independent bookstores.