Last fall, Lydia Davis’s agent, Denise Shannon, approached Andy Hunter, founder and CEO of the online bookseller Bookshop, with a question: Would any publisher be willing and able to exclude Amazon from its distribution channels? Davis opposes the mega-retailer and has not purchased anything on Amazon in many years. “It seemed completely unreasonable that I was still allowing them to sell my own books,” Davis wrote in a subsequent message to Hunter.
Every press Shannon had approached with the same question—including Davis’s longtime publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux—told her it was impossible to avoid Amazon because it is the industry’s largest retail channel, by some estimates commanding more than half of U.S. book sales. Hunter, an experienced publisher who oversaw the independent press Catapult until last year, took Shannon’s query as a challenge.
That challenge has led Bookshop—which Hunter launched in 2020 as a way of directing sales to independent bookstores—to become a publisher. Under the imprint Bookshop Editions, it will publish its inaugural title, Lydia Davis’s new story collection, Our Strangers, on October 3. The book, which will be released in print, audiobook, and e-book formats, will not be available through Amazon. Bookshop will also launch a separate e-book platform to help independent bookstores win a share of the lucrative e-reading market that is now controlled by Amazon’s Kindle.
“I absolutely worship Lydia Davis—she’s one of the most important writers working now,” says Hunter. “If she takes a stand against Amazon, that’s going to bring a lot of attention to this big problem I’ve been trying to help fix, which is Amazon’s massive dominance over the publishing industry. It’s not healthy for the future of books or the role books will play in our culture going forward.”
Although some value Amazon for the convenience and low cost that it offers to customers, the American Booksellers Association (ABA), the Association of American Publishers, and the Authors Guild have criticized Amazon for anticompetitive business practices, such as below-cost pricing of books and charging publishers exorbitant distribution and advertising fees, disadvantaging brick-and-mortar bookstores and small presses.
To distribute Davis’s print book, Hunter turned to Microcosm, a publisher with offices in Cleveland and Portland, Oregon. Microcosm, which in 2019 published How to Resist Amazon and Why by Danny Caine, set up its own distribution channels and stopped selling books through Amazon “partly as a matter of principle and partly because the terms were obscene,” says Microcosm founder and CEO Joe Biel. Amazon resellers can still list Microcosm titles, but the publisher no longer provides books to the site.
Since Microcosm took distribution in-house in the United States, the number of stores carrying its books has quadrupled to 12,000, and sales have quintupled, according to Biel. Publishers Weekly named Microcosm to its list of fastest-growing independent publishers of 2022, noting its strategy of selling not only at bookstores, but also at record stores, coffee shops, and other “nontraditional accounts.” Biel attributes some of the press’s success to cutting out Amazon. He says stores are more eager to carry books if they cannot be found more cheaply online.
Whether Bookshop Editions will publish additional titles after Davis’s story collection is an open question: Hunter says it probably will, but he is wary of distracting from Bookshop’s primary mission to support independent bookstores. Bookshop offers brick-and-mortar booksellers 30 percent of the cover price of any book ordered from their digital storefronts on the site; the company also fulfills the order through Ingram, a book wholesaler, promising to save stores money that they would have otherwise paid for storing inventory and other fulfillment costs. Additionally, the company distributes 10 percent of sales that come directly through Bookshop, as opposed to a specific digital storefront, among shops that are part of its profit-sharing pool. The strategy has, as of this writing, raised nearly $27 million for indie booksellers. Bookshop also offers media affiliates 10 percent of sales through their digital storefronts at Bookshop.org and links they share to the site. (Poets & Writers, the nonprofit organization that publishes this magazine, is a media affiliate.)
Although the challenge of keeping Davis’s print book off Amazon appears to be solved through its distribution by Microcosm and Bookshop itself, Hunter admits that Davis’s e-book presents new hurdles: Amazon controls 90 percent of the e-book market, according to Allison Hill, CEO of the ABA. But that’s where Bookshop’s new e-book platform comes in.
The platform—which will enable books to be read on home computers, tablets, and smartphones—is expected to launch in spring 2024, when e-books, including Our Strangers, go on sale on Bookshop.org. Davis’s book will be available via e-readers other than Kindle when it is published in October. An individual bookstore will receive full profit on the sale of e-books purchased from its Bookshop storefront or its own website; 10 percent of the sale of e-books purchased directly from Bookshop will be donated to the profit-sharing pool, and the rest will be put toward further developing the e-book platform. E-books bought on the site must be read on the company’s web platform or app—as opposed to other e-readers. But Hunter is “working toward a future where people can read their e-books how they please,” he says, adding that the company may one day produce separate e-reading devices as well.
The ABA, which owns 3.5 percent of Bookshop, invested $200,000 in the company’s e-book venture: “More options diminish Amazon’s power and help level the playing field,” says Hill, the ABA’s CEO.
Hunter plans for Bookshop’s e-book interface to be “smooth and well-designed and elegant,” with features such as a tally of how much readers’ purchases have raised for bookstores.
The audiobook of Our Strangers will be produced by the Talking Book, an independent studio in Asheville, North Carolina. As of this writing, Hunter is working out how to distribute it to audiobook sites like Libro.fm, Bookshop’s audiobook partner in the U.S., while excluding Audible, which is owned by Amazon.
In Lydia Davis’s note to Hunter, she expressed delight that Bookshop “will be able to avoid the grasp of the marketplace bully and sell my book in the time-honored way—through independent bookstores that value community and engage in a humane, respectful conversation with readers.”
Jonathan Vatner is the author of The Bridesmaids Union (St. Martin’s Press, 2022) and Carnegie Hill (Thomas Dunne Books, 2019). The managing editor of Hue, the magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology, he teaches at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers Center.