Independent bookstores and patronage possibilities

#1

I just published a blog post expanding on some thoughts I tweeted about recently, re: ideas and possibilities for bookstores using a patronage-driven model to unbundle all the ways they deliver value to their communities from the direct business of bookselling.

TL;DR — indie bookselling is tough in large part because bookstores are undercut by massive sellers like Amazon when it comes to book pricing, even though these local stores offer us so much more beyond the books themselves.

I think there are a lot of powerful ways businesses can use memberships / subscriptions to build sustainable revenue models, and I’m particularly interested in how bookstores might experiment with this kind of thing. I know many bookstores are doing innovative things already, but I’d love to see even more, and perhaps try something related with Antilibraries at some point — maybe some kind of antilibrary pop-up book discovery space!

See here for the full post with more detail if you’re interested:

https://www.brendanschlagel.com/2019/04/27/independent-bookstores-and-patronage-possibilities/

Would love to hear your thoughts on this, cool business models / experiments you’ve seen bookstores trying, and any related ideas!

The Next Page: Creating the Future of Publishing - conference takeaways
#2

My publishing company/bookstore did kind of try this—using Patreon and Drip to ask people to support us in small increments, running them both as a kind of paid blog (with some levels getting free monthly ebooks or store credit). For us, it was a bust. It was slow to build, and it distracted energy from our core work. We ended up needing to produce regular, silo’d content (eg, patron posts) for just a couple dozen people. It felt like we were producing the most expensive possible sort of content (custom-written posts) and selling it for just a buck or two, far less than the cost of producing it. Contrast this with the reason books work for us as a business model: we can mass-produce content and sell at a markup over our cost.

What’s worked better for us are book subscription programs, where people can sign up to be our BFF (Book Friend Forever – actually just for 6 months) to get either everything we publish or a curated selection every month. This has worked well for years since it funnels both reader interest and funds into our core competency—producing and selling books.

I know that some bookstores do well with events, cafes, and providing community space. I think it depends on the needs of the community, but suspect that a lot of our kindred booksellers would do better financially by repurposing their community space for more face-out display of a curated selection of books. Case-in-point, Borderlands in SF recently announced that they’re closing their cafe and expanding their book area instead.

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#3

Hey Elly, thanks so much for your perspective on this! I totally neglected to mention in my post on this, I did support Microcosm on Drip for a bit, and really enjoyed the updates, but can see how it’d be hard to justify if it was both time-consuming and not scaling enough to support it.

I’m a fan of the great work you’re doing with sustainable independent publishing, and as far as I can tell a lot is going really well at Microcosm, so I appreciate you sharing some of the things that didn’t end up working out, too.

(NB — For anyone not familiar with Microcosm, they publish all kinds of cool books on things like activism, sustainability, health, feminism, DIY… They also share a lot about the business of publishing; I definitely recommend picking up a copy of People’s Guide to Publishing if you want to learn more on this topic.)

Very interesting but I guess not totally surprising given your extensive catalog and focus on publishing that the subscription program that worked better was the one with…drumroll… actual books!

A couple things come to mind for angles on membership patronage models that might work, a bit different or more focused than something like Patreon / Drip:

  • One would be pure community support, with no specific rewards / benefits besides maybe simple things that require minimal effort (e.g. your name on a “supporters” page, or some kind of small discount). I think I’d be inclined to do this for a handful of my favorite local stores, the ones I go to all the time and tangibly see how they benefit the neighborhood etc. I think local and community might be key here

  • The other thing I’m thinking of would be some kind of membership tied in with a specific strong niche. For example I just looked at the website for The Mysterious Bookshop in NYC and I see they have a variety of “Crime Clubs” — subscriptions to get signed first editions of particular genres of mystery books. What if on top of this they also tied in a community forum where mystery devotees could discuss these and other books? Could be either a value add for these existing subscriptions, or a separate thing any mystery-lover could subscribe to. Similarly, there’s a store, Idlewild, that specializes in travel and language books. They already offer language classes which is itself a really interesting bookstore-adjacent business. I wonder if some kind of membership might be workable, something around travel reading / writing / language learning, that could reach folks beyond those who are able to do the in person classes…

This is super interesting and I admit I don’t know much about the dynamics / economics of this and what may make community space (or something like a cafe or bar) more viable for some stores than others, or how and when improved book curation / display can make a big impact. Would love to learn more about this kind of thing, if anyone comes across great articles on this kind of thing please do share here!

#4

Thanks for supporting us on Drip while we were there! I’m glad we tried it – and I think you’re right, the “support your independent book community” angle is the best one. And thanks for the nice plug for Microcosm. :blush:

It is very cool to see the creative ways that bookstores are finding to connect with communities and stay in business. One thing we’ve been seeing more of is bookstores offering more mail order services, which lets them reach beyond their geographic area. Bonus, they can make these a whole lot more personalized than the big A.

Things are going really well for us and we’re also always looking for new ideas to try, so I’m following your bullet points closely!

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#5

Someone on Twitter pointed me to a great thread from Bluestockings, a volunteer-run radical/activist bookstore in New York. Short story, they’re launching a membership program! More info in the thread here:

And a very good pitch video which highlights their importance to marginalized communities in particular:

They’re using the platform Withfriends, which supports both events/ticketing and memberships. I like that they have a range of membership tiers — $5, $10, $20, and $50 per month — and accordingly a range of benefits at the various levels, starting with free entry to events + a digital newsletter, and discounts on books / cafe items. Even a monthly book, at the highest one — good example of the personalized mail order thing!